Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Learning Curve
On August 18th, 1990, The African Queen treated me to a Major League baseball game between The Baltimore Orioles and The Defending World Series Champion Oakland Athletics at Old Memorial Stadium. This encounter was special--not only because that date was my 31st Birthday--but because The Greatest Young Pitcher Of His Generation was supposedly throwing that night for The O's. Trust me, the hype for Ben McDonald was just as great twenty years ago around baseball as it is today for Stephen Strasburg.
As the Number One Overall Pick in the 1989 Entry Draft, Big Ben was a can't miss prospect. Overpowering fastball, great curve and a falling right off the table slider that was his out pitch. Three times the 6'7" McDonald led his alma mater, Louisiana State University to The College Series. Although LSU didn't win a championship during that time frame, every single scout in this country was following The Tigers. Every single Big League team wanted Ben McDonald.
Only thing was--The Baltimore Orioles had the first pick--thanks to their worst season since their inaugural campaign in Baltimore (1954). The '88 O's only won 57 games--including losing their first 21 in row to begin that season-- a record yet to be broken. Except for Cal Ripken, Jr. in their lineup every single day, The Orioles lacked star power. And when Baltimore drafted McDonald--they signed him in August of 1989 and brought him to the Big Leagues by September of that same year--less than one month's time had passed.
The Orioles were desperate and--hoping to cling to their '89 'Why Not?' season in which their Manager Frank Robinson probably managed his finest season--they thought the Number 1 Overall Pick could help them. As it turned out, Baltimore came up two games short of The Toronto Blue Jays in The American League East, but their 21-year old flame thrower dazzled everyone. Used solely in relief, Big Ben was as good as advertised--even got his first win--and was the toast of Charm City.
What would Ben McDonald be like pitching every five days for The Orioles? The anticipation of Big Ben throwing an entire Big League Season for The O's in 1990 could not have been higher. Their Fans wanted it--badly. Instead, Baltimore's Baseball Management decided to send McDonald to the minor leagues for a little seasoning. As it turned out--all of 10 games worth. The Orioles were struggling again in the standings and needed a boost.
Up came the now 22-year old and in his very first Major League Start--Ben McDonald threw a complete game shutout against The Chicago White Sox at Memorial Stadium. I am telling you, baseball people were dancing in the streets around the greater Washington/Baltimore area.
The Savior Had Arrived.
Sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it? Does Stephen Strasburg come to mind?
Heading into that Birthday Night Game 20 years ago--Ben McDonald was sporting an undefeated record. He was 5-0 and carrying an excellent ERA of 1.55. Again, Big Ben was the talk of Major League Baseball. Everyone wanted to see him pitch. And on that August 18th evening at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Oakland would send some of best clutch hitters in the game to the plate to face him: Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Henderson, Carney Lansford and Rickey Henderson.
The African Queen and I had seats two rows from the field--behind The Orioles On-Deck Circle--then located on the 3rd Base Side at the old ballyard. 49,417 came to watch--probably a few million more on Home Team Sports (the predecessor to Comcast Sports Net) and The A's Bay Area TV Network. This was must see TV. The Next Greatest Thing Against The Champions. Up until this point in his young career, McDonald had dominated everyone. So overpowering--even local broadcasters and reporters thought he could do no wrong. Big Ben's confidence rising with every subsequent pitch.
As it turned out--he really wasn't ready.
With the crowd still settling in, The Greatest Leadoff Hitter in the history of the game stepped to the plate. Rickey Henderson was now facing McDonald for the very first time. Number 24 in Oakland Green & Gold--a professional hitter--and as dangerous as they come. It didn't take long for Rickey to teach Ben McDonald a lesson. Henderson swatted the third baseball he had ever seen from Big Ben right out of the ballpark for a solo home run.
As Rickey began his famous slightly hunched over trot around the bases--Ben McDonald stood slightly hunched over on the mound pondering the moment. From our seats right on the field, it was clear--The Big Righthander was stunned. The Orioles Number 1 Overall Pick had been beaten by a future Hall Of Famer. Until that very moment, McDonald had never lost in his Big League Career.
Little did Sohna, myself or anyone in attendance at that time realize, but Ben McDonald was never the same after that game--and after that precise moment. You can pinpoint his demise to this exact game.
McDonald began to lose ball games (five of his last eight starts that year). His fastball seemed to straighten out. His confidence started to erode. Eventually, arm problems developed. His once can't miss career never occurred. Nine seasons later--Ben McDonald retired with a career 78-70 record and an ERA of 4.06. Later, Big Ben stated he was trying too hard to impress. And The Orioles had pressured him to be The Guy.
He couldn't handle it.
Please take this as a lesson learned.
No matter how badly Our Washington Nationals need Stephen Strasburg on their roster in 2010--the safest and surest bet for a long and successful career for the young man is to let Strasburg grow through our system. There is a learning curve to Professional Baseball--understand that. Steps which need to be taken so once that final call to The Big Leagues does come--Strasburg, or any player for that matter, is ready to handle everything Major League Baseball can throw at him.
Baseball is most assuredly a business, but it's still thankfully a game that needs to be taught and experienced--at different levels--to do well, consistently.
Don't let Spring Training baseball success fool you. Stephen Strasburg needs that personal growth. The learned knowledge that Ben McDonald mostly passed over because The Baltimore Orioles were thinking more of attendance than their, and his, long term development.
Stephen Strasburg needs to stay down on the farm to begin the 2010 Season--and it has nothing to do with money. The Learning Curve must come naturally--not forced.
PS--The San Francisco Giants' two-time Cy Young Award Winner, Tim Lincecum, is the only pitcher of the past five years that has been extremely successful with limited minor league experience. Lincecum only threw 13 games in Single A Ball and Triple A Ball before his first call up. But he did start there. So, getting that 1st Big League Start early and being successful is not unprecedented. But you look at every single top pitcher in the game today--young and old--and you will find there are no exceptions of someone getting that first professional start in The Major Leagues, while passing the minors, in the past 10 years.
And Strasburg shouldn't be the first.