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LSU Pitcher Likely Top Pick in Baseball Draft

June 3, 1989

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Before the month is over, Ben McDonald expects to be eating crab cakes and clam chowder, instead of the crawfish etouffee and squirrel-head gravy he grew up on.

McDonald, the 6-foot-7 ace of the Louisiana State University pitching staff, is expected to be the first player taken in Monday’s major league baseball draft, and the Baltimore Orioles have that pick.

″Crawfish is probably his favorite food. He’ll eat it fixed any way, but his mother will fix him an etouffee before every game. That’s his pregame meal,″ said McDonald’s father, Larry McDonald.

″Mustard sardines is his pregame snack,″ the elder McDonald said. ″But when he gets serious about eating, he goes for his etouffee.

″His mother will probably fix it for him and mail it to him, wherever he goes in the draft.″

Etouffee is a Cajun dish in which the crawfish are smothered in onions, bell pepper and celery, well spiced with cayenne pepper and cooked in a brown gravy.

And that’s a lot like the recipe for squirrel head gravy.

″Me and Ben fight over the heads,″ Larry McDonald said.

That revelation drew disbelieving gasps from sports writers assembled for the College World Series.

Three All-America teams were announced here, and McDonald was on all three. He was also recognized by Baseball America as the outstanding player in the college game this year.

Larry McDonald was taken aback at the reaction of the reporters.

″Is it that unusual a dish?″ the elder McDonald asked. ″It doesn’t have a wild taste, like most other game.

″His mother and sister won’t eat it, but we eat the brains, the tongue, the jowels.

″A lot of people eat rabbit heads that way, but I’ve never done that, because they look so ugly cooked in the pot. They look like mule heads. Squirrel heads look pretty.″

The spicy diet may have had something to do with McDonald’s athletic prowess.

His fastball is consistently above 95 miles an hour. His curve ball snaps off his big hands and makes a vicious bend at the plate, and he’s added a changeup and a fork ball to his repertoire under the tutelage of LSU coach Skip Bertman.

Pro scouts compare him to Roger Clemens when the Red Sox star was a college pitcher.

McDonald traces his emergence as a dominant college pitcher to two traumatic experiences - a grand slam home run given up in 1987 in his first world series appearance and his decision to give up basketball.

The home run that could have shattered him made him stronger, instead. It’s a tool, now, that he uses to ward off complacency and conceit.

McDonald was a freshman when Bertman sent him in to finish off Stanford in the 1987 College World Series.

LSU led 5-2 in the bottom of the 10th. McDonald hit the first batter to load the bases, then gave up the homer to cleanup hitter Paul Carey.

Over his bed and in his locker at LSU’s dressing room, McDonald keeps a photograph of himself, sitting in the dugout, long after the game was over, slumped in dejection.

He has more than atoned for that one pitch.

After winning two games in the United States’ gold medal march in the Olympics, he’s 14-2 for LSU this year.

He had a scoreless string of 44 and two-thirds innings to start the season, a Southeastern Conference record.

He doesn’t need the photograph to keep him moving anymore.

″I left that back at school. It’s a different tournament now, and Paul and Stanford aren’t here,″ he said.

He had never had such a setback in athletics before.

″Never. I was a three-sport all-state for two years in high school. We won the state championship and everything,″ he said.

He enrolled at LSU on a basketball scholarship, started the first six games of his freshman season and averaged about 12 minutes a game for a team that made it to the Final Eight.

Six games into his sophomore season, he told Coach Dale Brown he was quitting to concentrate on baseball.

″I miss it. I can’t say I miss playing so much, but I do miss Coach Brown and the guys I used to have fun with and playing for a first-class basketball program. I miss that,″ he said.

″But it was obvious that I’d never accomplish my goals in either sport unless I concentrated on one.″

Naturally, Brown wanted the big youngster to concentrate on basketball. ″He told me I was a better basketball player than I was a baseball player, but I don’t think he’d argue now,″ McDonald said.

Larry McDonald, said it was a rough decision for everyone.

″It was a bad experience. We cried and cried,″ he said. ″It was a family decision, and he cried, and I cried, and Dale Brown cried

″That was always his favorite sport, and it was our favorite sport.

″It was a traumatic experience, but if he was going to compete with all of these other guys, he had to play as many games as these other guys played. He missed 26 games his freshman year, and you can’t miss 26 games and still compete.″

He tried basketball only because he liked it so much. He had been offered $67,000 to sign with the Atlanta Braves after they made him their 20th pick out of high school in Denham Springs, La.

Bertman, agreed that it was a lot of money to offer a youngster who had lasted until a team’s 20th pick.

″But over that summer he kept getting bigger and bigger and better and better, and they saw that,″ Bertman said.

″They started at $10,000, but they kept going up. We were here in Omaha, and I got a call from his daddy, and he said, ‘Skip 3/8 Skip 3/8 They’re up to $67,000.’

″I told him, ‘He’s worth three times that.’ Fortunately, he wanted to go to college, and his family wanted him to go to college.″

Larry McDonald said there were early signs that his son would be a good athlete. ″When he was 4 or 5 years old, you could tell he had some athletic ability. I’d throw the ball up, and he’d judge it and catch it,″ he said.

″We knew he was getting some size when we couldn’t buy pants to fit him. We still have that problem. He has a 39-inch inseam, and his waist is about 36. He got a little bigger in the waist, but he still has a way to go to catch up with me.″

Both McDonalds agree that the size and ability might never have translated into such success if it hadn’t been for Carey’s grand slam homer.

″After the game, my dad told me it might be the best thing that ever happened to me,″ McDonald said. ″I didn’t believe it at first, but he was right. I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, if it weren’t for that.

″He told me to use it in a positive way, to learn from it and work harder.″

Still, said Larry McDonald, he never expected anything like what his son has accomplished.

″I believe every father has dreams for his son, and you keep adjusting your goals as you go along,″ he said. ″It seems like just yesterday that his mother and I were saying, ‘If he could only make all-district.’

″Then he made all-district and all-state, and he signed at LSU, and we set new goals and had new dreams.

″But never in my wildest dreams did I expect anything like this.″

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