#19 Ben McDonald Season 2024
Athlete. All American. Golden Spikes Award winner. Gold-medal Olympian. Teammate. Husband and father. Sportsman.
If you ask the folks closest to Ben McDonald during most of the last 25 years, it’s more than numbers that’s brought him into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. He will be enshrined Saturday, June 26 in Natchitoches along with seven other state greats.
Ask coaches and teammates and they talk about the teammate-husband-father attributes that elevate the former Denham Springs High All-State, two-time LSU All-American and the Major League’s No. 1 draft choice to a level above superstar status.
“He’s always been a great young man,” LSU’s venerated baseball coach Skip Bertman said. “He’s always been, and still is, community minded and absorbed with his family.”
Bertman quickly points to McDonald’s life after baseball, the years since he ended his nine-year Major League pitching career with the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers.
“Ben has turned out to be an incredibly talented analyst on TV, and has many offers to go national TV. He chooses not to because he coaches his daughter and son in softball and baseball and soccer and he’s been doing that since they were very young,” Bertman said. “That’s why he’s such a terrific person. He’s been a man who has always made terrific life choices.”
There was one choice McDonald made 22 years ago that launched him to the pinnacle of college baseball.
A multisports athlete at Denham Springs High — All-State in basketball and baseball — McDonald opted to sign a basketball grant-in-aid and joined Dale Brown’s LSU Tigers. At 6-foot-7, McDonald dominated high school hardwoods. He also was an All-District punter and kicker — yes a 6-7 kicker — for Denham’s football team.
Two years in Brown’s program, mixed with spring runs with Bertman’s Tigers at Alex Box Stadium left McDonald with a tough decision.
“Ben might be the best overall athlete who ever came through LSU athletic program,” Bertman said. “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, but baseball was his best sport.
McDonald’s decision to forego his basketball scholarship meant that Bertman had time to accelerate his young pitcher’s development in fall workouts. Already named to one All America team after his sophomore season, Bertman watched McDonald’s potential develop into Major League talent.
“Arguably, he’s the best pitcher, and among the best players to play at LSU. He stands there with Alvin Dark, Mike Miley, Joe Bill Adcock and Connie Ryan,” Bertman said. “I’ve never had anyone pitch like Ben in the 30 years as a coach and athletics director, nobody ever.”
Numbers backed up Bertman’s statement.
McDonald’s junior season started with back-to-back wins over TCU and Mercer, but the real test would come in the Busch Challenge in the Louisiana Superdome. There, college powerhouse Oklahoma State awaited.
McDonald’s dominating 6-0 win awakened the world to his talent.
“After that, the Baltimore Orioles had scouts at ever game,” Bertman said. “For two months, scouts monitored Ben’s every move. He stood up well under that kind of pressure, that game-to-game scrutiny.”
Teammate and team captain Pete Bush said the Tigers were in awe.
“Ben was hitting 96 (mph) and 97 on the gun,” Bush recalled. “He struck out 14. He went to three balls on one guy from Okie State and then struck him out on three pieces of cheese. When we were running off the field, he yelled at the guy, ‘What’d you think I was going to walk you,’ and we got pumped up even more. Ben was ultra-competitive, all the time, no matter what we did. That showed us he was ready to be a star.”>
That start to the 1989 season started a string of 44.2 consecutive scoreless innings, a Southeastern Conference record that stood for more than 15 seasons. Following a 144-strikeouts sophomore season, McDonald chalked up a SEC record 202 strikeouts in his 152.1 innings in 1989, nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings.
Bertman and his LSU teammates readily admit McDonald’s finest hours come in College Station, Texas, when LSU was assigned to the NCAA Central Regional as one of five teams to take on No. 1-ranked Texas A&M.
McDonald won the regional opener against Nevada-Las Vegas, and, after the Tigers fought their way through the losers’ bracket, was named the starter for regional final against the homestanding Aggies, unbeaten in their first three regional games. The Aggies needed just one win a 100-degree Sunday in College Station to advance to the College World Series.
McDonald worked the first seven innings in the 13-5 win to hold off the Aggies. Instead of putting McDonald on the bench, Bertman made the double switch to put McDonald in left field just in case he needed him for a late-inning out.
McDonald was in the on-deck circle when LSU made its final out.
First baseman Bush laughed at that memory.
The regional championship game set, and with the Aggies the home team and LSU pushing a run across the top of the 11th inning for a 5-4 lead, McDonald was summoned to get the game’s final out with a runner on first base. He got a ground ball to third.
Two wins and a save earned the Most Outstanding Player honor, and LSU was back in the College World Series for the third time in four seasons.
In Omaha for the CWS, his 14-2 season was toasted with college baseball’s highest individual award — the 1989 Golden Spikes Trophy — and, days later, the No. 1 pick in the Major League draft by the Orioles.
Those days in June in Omaha were the culmination of a rewarding 15 months than included pitching on the USA’s gold-medal winning Olympic team, numerous All-America teams and player-of-the-year accolades from Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball.
His collegiate career ended with a blister on his throwing hand in the ’89 CWS and a loss to Texas.
“Probably shouldn’t have pitched him against Texas,’ Bertman said. “I should have let him rest another day.”
His nine-year Major League career ended in 1997 after two years of battling arm and shoulder injuries. He finished with a 78-70 record, a 3.91 career ERA, an impressive total of 24 shutouts and 894 strikeouts in 198 starts.
“Beyond all that, you have to add fun-loving in there somewhere,” Bush said. “We know about the time in spring training when he put an alligator in the bathtub of a teammate.
“Ben was the best kind of teammate. He was a fierce competitor and usually won at everything, even wrestling on the bus on the way to Mississippi State, or seeing who could hit golf balls the farthest with a fungo bat.
“Ben had to pitch in a lot of tight games, during a time when we (LSU) was playing a lot of ‘small’ ball when pitching and defense were our string points,” Bush said. “I do not know anyone who doesn’t like Ben. He was one of the rare players who made everyone around him better, and with Ben, that meant being a better player and a better person.”
McDonald, along with Bertman, were in the first class inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. Now McDonald will join his coach in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
McDonald lives in Denham Springs with his wife Nicole, daughter Jorie and son Jase.