Q & A with Da Boot Sports!
By: Terrill J. Weil
Da Boot Sports!
Today's Q & A Session is with former LSU pitcher, Ben McDonald. McDonald was a solid basketball player at LSU for Dale Brown, but it was on the baseball diamond that Big Ben is most known and remembered for.
He had a great three year career wearing a LSU baseball uniform, helping the Skip Bertman lead Tigers reach the College World Series in Omaha twice.
McDonald would become a two-time All-American, win the Golden Spikes Award, and win a gold metal in the 1988 Olympics.
The Baltimore Orioles would draft him number one overall in the 1989 MLB Draft. He became the only number one draft pick to win his first five starts in Major League baseball history.
After nine seasons in the Majors, he would retire in 1997 due to arm and shoulder problems. He finished with a 78-70 record, a 3.91 career ERA, an impressive total of 24 shutouts and 894 strikeouts in 198 starts.
“Ben might be the best overall athlete who ever came through LSU athletic program,” Skip Bertman would once say, adding,. “After two years in basketball he came to baseball full time. In high school, he was naturally in three sports, and for someone to play two sports at such a high level tells a lot about his athletic ability. Ben was a good player for Dale Brown, but baseball was his best sport."
McDonald is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
He currently helps cover Baltimore Orioles baseball and works for the SEC Network as a baseball analyst.
He lives in Denham Springs with his wife Nicole, daughter Jorie and son Jase.
Q - What is your favorite color?
Ben - Green
Q - What is your favorite food?
Ben - Seafood
Q - Who was your favorite Pro Athlete growing up and currently?
Ben - Growing up I was a big fan of Pete Rose & Nolan Ryan. More recent years, Cal Ripken Jr. who I got to play with for seven years and Michael Jordan was so cool to watch.
Q - Who is your favorite music artist?
Ben - George Straight
Q - Favorite movie?
Ben - Tombstone
Q - Favorite Actor?
Ben - Kevin Costner
Q - Favorite Sports Team?
Ben - Baltimore Orioles
Q - Where did you grow up?
Ben - I grew up in Denham Springs and still live there now. Its always been my home. I now live across the street from my mom and dad. They have lived in the same place since I've been like five years old I guess, you know. Nearly fifty years in the same spot. That's pretty cool.
Q - At Denham Springs High School, you played multiple sports?
Ben - Yes, I made all-state in three different sports during my last two years. My junior year as an all-state kicker, senior year an all-state punter in football, and then all-state in basketball and baseball for those years as well. I even played a little bit on the golf team, but it kinda interfered to much with baseball being a spring sport.
Q - What was your favorite sport to play when you were growing up?
Ben - You always try to encourage kids these days to play multiple sports, I think that's where it's at.
I was one of those kids that would say when they would ask, "What's your favorite sport?", I would always say, "Whatever is in season." Whatever I could do at the time was my favorite sport.
I played Major League baseball, so you would think that baseball was my favorite sport, but not so much.
I actually enjoyed basketball more when I was growing up and everyone forgets that I went to LSU on a basketball scholarship.
I love basketball. I loved playing for Dale Brown, it was one of the highlights of my career.
I just liked a little bit of everything. I always considered myself to be pretty athletic, so I just loved staying busy. There was never a day that I went home from school with nothing to do. I was always playing something. I enjoyed all of it.
Q - Being so successful in multiple sports must have made your recruiting process pretty wild and crazy? You must of had multiple schools recruiting you for multiple sports?
Ben - Oh yea. I was more highly recruited out of high school to play basketball then baseball.
I remember there was over 100 division one school who offered me a basketball scholarship, including almost everyone in the SEC.
With baseball there was almost as many too. But I always wanted to play basketball, it was always my favorite sport.
It actually came down to LSU, Mississippi State, and the University of Texas. They all were going to let me play both sports.
Of course it was hard, when you're a local kid, It's hard to get away from the state of Louisiana. I never wanted to play anywhere else. I grew up like a lot of kids, going to LSU baseball games, going to LSU basketball games, going to LSU football games. Purple and gold was always in my blood and that's where I wanted to go to school. So I'm very thankful I got the opportunity to do so.
Q - Well with purple and gold being in your blood, that must have helped make it easy for Dale Brown to help you make your final decision?
Ben - Yea, it was. It was a tough decision, because I really liked Mississippi State too.
Ron Polk was the head coach at Mississippi State and at the time, he had the number one program in the SEC. Polk had Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen, Jeff Brantley and Will Clark all at Mississippi State and they were going to all these College World Series, so that's why they were kinda on my radar.
Skip Bertman had just gotten to LSU. But then my senior year in high school, Skip took LSU to the College World Series for the first time and that kinda sealed the deal. I said this is going to be a solid program and I wanted to go be a part of that. So as they say, the rest is history.
Q - Want to tell us what it was like playing for Dale Brown and Skip Bertman?
Ben - I tell people all the time, Dale Brown, you know, when you're a 18, 19 year old kid you always don't understand some of the things that coaches tell you.
This goes for Bertmen too. You think they are being hard on you. But as you get older you realize that they were there and they really cared about you, and they wanted what was best for you, both on and off the court.
The biggest complement I got from Dale Brown is, and I told him this the other day, that it really took me some time and that I really understand now, and I appreciate the way that he treated us all. He really, truly cared about us as much off the court as he did on the court. And as a father now, sending my kids off to college, you got to trust the coach. The coach is really going to really impacted their lives in a lot ways in the course of two, three, or four years. However long they're there. You got to be able to trust.
Dale Brown was a father figure to me, and Skip Bertman was too. They helped me grow up and taught lessons both on and off the court that I have taught to my kids and to the teams that I have coached over the years. My boy's teams and daughter's teams over the years.
They just impacted my life in so many ways. But they have impacted so many others student athletes lives as well. So I was very fortunate to play for both of them and learn so much. As the years go by you really realize how much you learned and how much they impacted your life in so many different ways.
Who gets to play for both Dale Brown and Skip Bertman during their college career? So that was a lot of fun for me.
Q - So, how was it being a two sport athlete during your LSU Career?
Ben - I played both basketball and baseball my freshman year. We went to the Elite Eight in basketball and the College World Series in baseball all in the same year. So that was a good freshman year.
Because we went so far into the NCAA playoffs in basketball, I missed half the baseball season. I wanted to make the Olympic team the following year in 1988. So I knew the only way to do that was to be in baseball the whole next year to show everyone potentially what I could do on the baseball level so I could be on the Olympic team, which doesn't come along very often.
After my freshman year I went off to the Alaskan Summer League and played a summer out there and really got in shape. Needing it really good because of missing half the baseball season. It helped my fastball pick up. I hit 97 on the radar gun, and I kinda knew at that point that baseball may be my future to make it to the professional level.
So I went back to school and told Dale Brown that I was giving up basketball. It really was kind of a funny story. Of course he was totally against it. But then he swears to this day that he told me, and he did tell me this again the other day, "That I could have played in the NBA." but he said "That you made the right decision. I don't think you would have been the impact player at the NBA level that you were in MLB, being the first pick overall and stuff."
So I told him that I wanted to make the Olympic team. I appreciate everything you have done for me and I hate to do this because I love the game of basketball. But I got to give baseball a full shot.
He said, "Okay"... and I'll tell you what kind of guy he is. He said "Ben, just in case you want to come back, I'm going to leave you on basketball scholarship."
Well, right before school started in October the entire basketball team got sick. They couldn't even practice. They only had maybe seven players that they could put on the court at one time. So he called me and asked me if I could please come back and be a part of this for awhile.
So, I went back out to play basketball and help coach out. I'm on basketball scholarship and he needs me right now so I'm going to go help him out.
I used that to help get my legs in great shape from running up and down the court for two or three months.
So I told him, "Coach, I'm going to come play basketball and do whatever you need me to do, but as soon as January 1st comes rolling around, I'm going out to baseball full time." He said, "Done! Perfect!" ....
So my basketball career was really only a full year and a couple of months, is basically what it was.
Q - What was it like to play in the College World Series?
Ben - Getting to play in the College World Series and the Elite Eight as a 18-19 year old kid, it was just an unbelievable experience.
You don't realize what you were a part of until years down the road. But to compete on that high level of college sports and go that deep into the playoffs, of course being able to do that with both of those squads in the same year.
It was cool for me that Coach Bertman, again, another genius out there and to kind of get into it out there at the ground level of LSU baseball.
We were kind of the building blocks to what would come of five national titles in nine years.
They went to the College World Series once before I got there, then we went twice ('87 & '89) out of the three years I was there. We finished third I think in both years that I went. While we were so close, we just couldn't get it done for whatever reason. But we also were the building blocks for the recruiting.
Coach Bertman use to always say, "You got to be there a few times before you really think you could win." My group of players actually went. Then the ones that came after us said, "You know what? LSU has been to the College World Series three or four times now. Why can't we go and win now?"
So, that's why I say we were the building blocks of what would come later on with those five national titles. The first time they won it was in 1991. My last season was in 1989. So boy, when they started to win them, they piled them up quickly.
It was cool for me to be on the ground floor of that, and Coach Bertman came in started to put LSU baseball on the map several years before I got there. Then we really took it to another level during my years there.
I'm proud to have been a part of that. Helping to build one of the elite programs, not only in the SEC, but one of the most elite baseball programs in the Country.
Q - How did you find out that you were the #1 overall pick by the Baltimore Orioles?
Ben - Believe it or not, but the draft back then use to be at the College World Series. So we were actually at the College World Series, ready to play that night and the draft was that day.
So, that's when I found out I was picked #1 overall. So I had to go to a press conference and talk about that for an hour, then three hours later, try to go play a baseball game.
It was a very difficult time. Everyone would ask "What was that like?" .. For me it was just relief more than anything. It's exciting. It's a dream come true, but there is also so much relief because there is so much anticipation that goes with the draft.
With me being one of these guys that came back from the Olympic team with success, I was kinda touted to be, if I stayed healthy, the #1 pick in the Country.
So I had to live up to that the entire season and talk about it all the time. It would kind of wear on me a little bit. Having to talk about it so much with the media.
So I really didn't get to enjoy my junior year like I wanted too, but it was still a heck of an experience.
Q - How long did it take for you to make it to the Orioles from the Minor League level?
Ben - I spent ten days in the Minor Leagues. I signed on August the 19th of '89, then I was in the Big Leagues September the 1st. I had two Minor League starts. One in "A" ball and one in "AA", then was called up.
Q - How many years did you play in the Major Leagues?
Ben - I played seven year with the Orioles. Then I went over to the Milwaukee Brewers and played two years there before my arm just gave out on me.
To make a long story short, it was three surgeries trying to come back from rotator cuff and injury problems in my shoulder.
None of the surgeries really worked. I spend the better part of three years trying to rehabbing and having surgeries.
I was out of the game at 30-31 years old. Just when you start to kinda really figure it out and start to get into the prime of your career, my career was over.
Those are the breaks of it. Not many players get to go out on their own terms, you know? I certainly didn't, but I'm very thankful for the nine years of Major League baseball that I got to play.
Q - How was your experience with the Olympics in 1988?
Ben - I was always a big fan of the Olympics while I was growing up. I loved to watch the Summer Olympics. Watch all the track and field events, the swimming events.
It was all very exciting me to see the other Countries compete against one another when I was a kid.
To finally get to experience that. Man, I'm going to tell you, when you put the red, white, and blue on, you're representing your college, your home town, the state you're from, your family. You're representing your Country. When it says "USA" across your chest, it doesn't get any better than that.
We had a long summer where we played a bunch of games. We took two different trips to Japan. We were over in Italy for the World Championships. Then we also had a US tour around the United States. We finally ended up in Seoul, South Korea for the Olympics.
What an experience that was. I had two starts and threw two complete games. I only gave up one run in each game. I also still hold the record in Italy for pitching two complete game shutouts. So I pitched some of my best baseball that summer.
It was cool for me, I pitched against North Korea and I think Puerto Rico. It was such a really cool deal.
I always wondered what it would feel like to stand up on that gold metal platform and have them drape a gold metal across your neck like that. To be able to experience that was at the very top of my career.
Q - Who was the head coach of that USA Baseball Team?
Ben - Mark Marquess out of Stanford was the head coach. Our coach Skip Bertman was the pitching coach. Ron Polk from Mississippi State was one of the coaches as well. So we had a great Hall of Fame type coaching staff. A bunch of really good ball players.
To be able to do that was really fun. It's an experience that you will never forget. You make life long friends and the places you get to go. I had barely been out of the state of Louisiana hardly until then. Then you end up in Japan, Italy, South Korea. It was a heck of an experience.
Q - What did you do after retiring from Major League baseball?
Ben - I coached my daughter's teams for a long time.
Then the way the broadcasting thing started was with CST, when they use to show all the LSU baseball games. I did that for four or five years with Lyn Rollins.
Then I would do the ESPNU Thursday Night Baseball Show on college baseball. Then the Orioles heard about that and had me go back to Baltimore to do some radio games. Actually the first package was some radio and TV post game show. So I started doing about 15 Orioles games a year.
Then the SEC Network kicked off and that's when it went from a hobby to a job. I started doing about 60 college events a year. Then started doing some digital SEC Plus stuff.
The Orioles stuff started to get more and more, so I got more involved with them. To make a long story short on that, the last couple of years have been pretty busy.
This year I had 129 games scheduled between college baseball and Orioles baseball. I love it, but the traveling is tough.
I was scheduled to do 84 Orioles games and about 45 college games this year before all of this stuff started to happen. With college ball being cancelled after only a few games, and I'm hopeful that Major League baseball to get going eventually. I'm hoping for July, if possible.
Q - How did you feel about LSU replacing the old Alex Box Stadium?
Ben - I was totally against it at first. You know how we are? It's kinda like this Coronavirus, anytime there is something new in our lives that we're used too, then something new pops up.
There is always some uncertainty. There was so much tradition at the old Box. That's where I had blood, sweat, and tears, along with a lot of other ball players, you hate to see it go.
But the new Box, God, is it beautiful.The more I kept doing baseball games there, the more I kept going back and the fans got behind it.
The 2009 team won a national championship pretty quickly. So it kinda became okay. Now it's not even a thought other then when you ride by where the Box use to be.
Now it seems like there is a store or strip mall there and a parking lot. That kind of hurts your feeling a little bit. But that's part of it. You can't stop it.
There has been so many new ball parks around the SEC. LSU was one of the first ones. You go around and Ole Miss has added on, Mississippi State has added on. Alabama has a new one. Vanderbilt does too. It goes on and on. It's just expansion and moving forward.
I love the new Box now. It's a really cool place with a great atmosphere, but I sure do miss the old Box in some ways too. It needed to happen for the fans. LSU has lead the nation in attendance for 24 consecutive years now. So it was a great way to get people in the stands.
Q - What was it like to have LSU retire your number?
Ben - That was cool. You know as an athlete you hope to be remembered in some way, you know.. You hope to have an impact on the young kids that are coming up in some ways.
Like I did when I was a kid, I would watch certain players play. Whether it was basketball, baseball, or football. But you hope to have an impact in some way.
Coach Bertman had felt like that I had done enough and that I helped impact the program like we talked about earlier. That I was one of the stepping stones of LSU baseball. Helping put LSU baseball on the map. He told me this the other day, Skip said. "You know there has been several number one picks in basketball, baseball, and football. and now that Joe Burrow has won the Heisman, we have two Heisman Trophy winners. We've had several award winners in basketball, like Pete Maravich, Chris Jackson, and Shaq. But we only have one Golden Spikes Award winner in the history of LSU baseball." He said that the other day.
I never really thought of it like that. But when you think about it, it means something, you know... I'm thankful for the career that I had at LSU. The impact that I've had.
I'm also a LSU kid growing up. I grew up 20 minutes away from the University. Even though I may have considered going to another place coming out of high school, my heart and soul was going to end up at LSU one way or the other. It was cool to get to play in your hometown team.
Q - One thing I remember as a fan is when they talked about the size of your hands, and that you were able to hold seven baseballs in a hand at one time.
Ben - Yea. We got to doing that with the Olympic team. Andy Benes who was the number one pick in the MLB draft the year before me was on the team. He was a big ole guy, my height too. So we got to messing around. Well, everyone remembers Johnny Bench and how many balls Johnny Bench held years ago. Bench held seven also. So we wanted to see if we could do it. Both of us were able to do it. But there aren't many guys that have hands that big where you can hold them and turn your hand over and not have any of the balls fall out. That's just something that I was always able to do.
Q - Is there anything you want to tell the LSU fans?
Ben - I know it's a tough time right now. We are going to get through this. I was on a radio show the other day and someone asked me a similar question.
The folks down here, we have proven ourselves between the hurricanes and the floods and everything else to be very resilient people down here. I know it's a horrible time right now. It's tough. But we're going to get through this and hopefully be stronger and better and more united when it's all said and done.
As far as my career goes, I'm thankful every day for the LSU fans and the way that they have treated me. Not only when I was playing, but even since my playing days were over. The commentating that I do, they are always seem to be in my corner and appreciate the work that I do. That makes me feel good.
One of the things Dale Brown taught me years ago is, "How you do anything, is how you do everything".
I've always remembered that and have always tried to be the best. If I'm announcing, I want to be the best announcer out there. If I was playing ball, I'd want to be the best ball player out there. So he always encouraged us to always try to be the best at everything that we did. That always meant a lot to me.