Ben McDonald has done an awful lot with his 49 years.
In 1989 he became the first (and, to date, last) LSU baseball player to both win the Golden Spikes Award and be drafted No. 1 overall. He played under two of LSU’s most iconic coaches — in two different sports. He enjoyed a nine-year big-league career and has since carved out a nice career as a broadcaster.
It isn’t often a man with that type of resumé gets to enjoy a sporting first: McDonald will call his first College World Series game for ESPN this weekend.
This also marks McDonald’s first time taking the event in at its new home, TD Ameritrade Park, which has been in use for the CWS since 2011.
But he’ll only be in Omaha for the first week — McDonald will return to Louisiana to coach his son Jase’s travel baseball team for the second week.
McDonald sat down with The Advocate to discuss the current state of the game, the nerves he feels before a broadcast and the heat he's still got in his right arm.
The Advocate: Is this your first year calling games at the College World Series?
Ben McDonald: Yes. First time. I’ve actually never been to the new ballpark at all. I went back one time years ago to the old ballpark for something, maybe it was a draft kind of thing. I went back one time to old Rosenblatt. But I’ve never been to the new ball park, and of course, I’ve never called a game in Omaha either. That’s going to be fun. I didn’t know it was about to happen until about a month ago, so it wasn’t something that was planned before the season started. It’s pretty cool.
I like being with my son’s team (McDonald coaches his son’s travel team during the summer), and I always pick that time of year to be with them, so I was kind of sitting on the fence, but I felt like this was an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.
I’m not going to say it’s always been a goal or a dream of mine to go do that, but it’s really cool that they’re asking me to go do it. I’m not going to be there the whole time; I’m going to be there for the first week of it. It’s one of those deals where I told them, ‘I appreciate it, but I can’t be there and miss two weekends because I’m committed to my team.’
The Advocate: Do you get nerves before a broadcast of a big game? Is it anything at all like it was when you were pitching?
McDonald: Yeah, it’s not that bad, but I do get nervous. You want to do a good job and you hope you have a game like (Game 1 of the Baton Rouge super regional, which LSU won 4-3 in dramatic comeback fashion). Those are the most fun. Well, the most fun is two good pitchers to match up, because that’s my specialty. I really like to sit up there and talk about pitching. That’s always the most fun for me. But it was hard to beat.
I’ve been to a lot of these games, and I don’t ever remember the atmosphere being like it was in the eighth inning. I stuck my head out of the booth at one time just to hear it because it was a roar, a buzz going on. That gave me goosebumps. I’m not even playing anymore, but I don’t know if it gets any better than the environment we had here (for Game 1).
The Advocate: Speaking of good pitching, you’ve been really complimentary of Alex Lange and the type of career he’s had here at LSU. What makes him stand out so much?
McDonald: Well, there’s a lot of things when you look at Alex. One, he’s a great kid. I don’t know if there’s been a better kid to come through this program, and there’s been a lot of good ones. That’s one thing (LSU coach Paul Mainieri) does well; there’s a lot of good kids over there, good human beings, and Alex is at the top of the list when it comes to that.
Alex always likes to talk baseball; he likes to talk pitching. So I’ve always shared some stuff with him over the years. He’s a very mature guy. When he stepped on campus, it was like he’d been here for a few years already. And as a competitor, I don’t know if there’s a better competitor than him. No matter what the outcome, he finds a way to get through and settle back down.
It’s been fun. He’s accomplished a lot. I said it on the air, he’ll go down here as one of the greatest to wear an LSU uniform. There’s no doubt about that.
The Advocate: You were on the call when he passed you on LSU’s all-time strikeouts list. What was that like for you?
McDonald: Very deserving for him. You knew it was coming, because Alex has always had that curveball and has always struck out a lot of guys. He was a guy that stepped in the rotation his freshman year, got a lot of starts, a lot of innings and he struck out a lot of guys. He’s just been dominant since he’s been here, going back to his freshman year when he went 12-0.
Like everybody throughout their career, you learn. Sometimes, you take a step back and you go again. Alex had his struggles sometimes a little bit last year, which you kind of expect. This game is about adjustments, and Alex had to adjust to what people were doing to him. The first year, the breaking ball was so good nobody every saw it, and he got a lot of swings and misses on it. Last year, guys started laying off the breaking ball, and he got hit a few times, which we all do. But it was good to see him understand why and make those adjustments. Gosh, he’s been — I mean, Aaron Nola was fun to watch here, and Alex Lange is right there with him.
The Advocate: Going back to your time on campus, you’re probably the only person on the planet to have played under Dale Brown and Skip Bertman. How would you compare and contrast those two?
McDonald: It was obviously a blessing for me for a lot of different reasons. Dale was one of the first coaches that taught me to love your teammates, love each other. Dale got a hard time for maybe not being the best Xs and Os guy — and I always thought he was pretty good — but as far as wanting to play for a guy and loving to be around a guy, Dale Brown, to me, is still one of my favorite people of all time. I learned so much from him, not just about sports, but about life. Like everybody associated with Dale, I still get numerous emails every week on motivation, and it’s a lot of stuff I use with my kids today.
Then you come over with Skip. I was lucky enough to go to the Elite 8 in basketball my freshman year and play in the College World Series my freshman year. That doesn’t happen every day. I got to see the top level in both of those sports all in one year as an 18-year old. That was special to me.
Then you come over here to Skip, and it was different. He had different ways to push your buttons and motivate you. He was a guy who would tear us down at times to build us up. You don’t understand it when you’re 19 or 20 years old. You don’t understand all the stuff you’re going through. But as you get older, you realize, ‘That’s why he did that, and that’s why he did that.’ You start to figure it out a little bit.
Gosh, I was lucky enough to play for two of the best in their respective sports. It was a thrill for me. I learned so much from both of those guys on and off the field that I still carry with me today and teach my kids now. It’s paid off for me to have been around those guys.
The Advocate: How fast do you think you could throw a fastball now?
McDonald: Ha! I still throw (batting practice). I could probably get up, if I pushed it, probably low to mid 80s. ... Maybe.
The Advocate: College baseball has changed so much in the past decade with scholarship limits, new bats, slot bonuses changing in the Major League draft. With that in mind, do you have to do anything different now to win a College World Series championship that teams in your era or the 1990s or even the 2009 team didn’t have to do?
McDonald: I think it’s harder to win one now. The bats really changed everything. It brought everybody into play. LSU used to win back in the Geauxrilla Ball days because they hit more homers than everybody else (leading the NCAA in home runs from 1996-98, and winning two national titles). But now, with the bats being what they are? Then you have the roster limits where you can only carry so many kids on the roster. That put parity into college baseball. The bat did, too. It changed it.
Frankly, when I was playing, there were really five or six teams that had a real shot to win the College World Series every year. But now, we’re seeing it’s the team that gets hot. You could look at Coastal Carolina last year, look at Arizona last year. Teams just get hot, and they can roll through it. It used to be LSU could play almost its ‘B’ game and still win a College World Series. Well, it’s not like that anymore. When you show up now, you better be clicking on all cylinders.
To me, I think LSU had one of the best teams I ever saw (in 2015). It was a team that was destined to win it all, but for whatever reason, right at the end the bats went cold a little bit, they made a few errors here and there, they weren’t playing as good as they could and they don’t win it. I think that was one of the most talented teams they’ve ever had here. Now, you’re starting to see that you better be ready to go play, because anybody can beat you. Hell, look at Davidson knocking off (No. 2 national seed North Carolina in a regional).
I do think that college baseball is in the fairest place. With the ball change three years ago, with the bats being what they are, I think it’s in the fairest place that I’ve ever seen it. I think it’s fair both ways, and that’s made the game fun. The home runs are back a little bit, too. What we didn’t think would happen was the pitchers would start striking out more guys, but I think the college game has always mirrored the pro game a little bit, and you’ll see the strikeouts in the pro game elevated every year, and it’s trickling down here. There’s not as much bunting going on, guys aren’t choking up with two strikes like they used to when I played. Like Greg Deichmann: You don’t ever see him take a two-strike approach. He’s up there for one reason: to bang the ball around the park.
The Advocate: What does it mean for you to still get to be a part of the game, even if you’re up in the booth?
McDonald: I’m a baseball guy. I started at LSU when it was all beginning. The enthusiasm and the winning started back then. To see this program and college baseball grow has been a big thrill for me. The game now is more popular than it’s ever been, and a lot of that has to do with the TV. You can watch every game on your phone or your iPad or whatever. But it’s a thrill for me to be up there calling some of the games and staying close to college baseball and this program.
It’s not really something I set out to do. Coach Bertman came to me many years ago and said, ‘You’d probably be good talking about baseball.’ I was like, ‘Coach, I’ve never talked about baseball before.’ He said, ‘No, you’d be great.’ So I got my foot in the door with CST 15 or 20 years ago, and that’s kind of how I got my start. And I really enjoyed it, I really enjoy going to do ball games. It was fun for me. It’s just fun to be around the game and watch. I always tell people I was lucky enough to play it at every level you can play baseball, but to me, the most fun I ever had was playing college baseball. Nobody has any money; everybody is just kind of living day-to-day, going to school and doing your thing. You’re more close to your teammates here in college than you ever are in pro ball. In pro ball, guys get traded and move around all the time. I’m not going to say it’s a bunch of prima donnas, but it’s just different.
The biggest challenge I’ve had in the booth is remembering how hard the game is. It’s easy to sit up there and watch the game and be critical. If it’s a good play, I’ll say it’s a good play. If it’s a bad play or a play a kid should’ve made, I’ll say it’s a play that should’ve been made. But you forget how hard the game is. That’s why I’ve always got to check myself every now and then, because I remember how hard the game is sometimes. Even for a guy who had a lot of success in college, it is still a very hard game. We’re critical of the guys, I think the fans are, too, but at the end of the day, this game is a game that is built on failure. You fail a lot in this game. It’s the guys who can pick it up and move on that are the ones that end up being successful.
It’s a tough game, especially in this environment. It’s a pressure-packed environment. And I think these LSU kids don’t get enough credit for what they go through every year. Playing for LSU is like playing for the New York Yankees. The expectations are just a step above here. The truth of the matter is if you don’t make it to Omaha every year, it’s really considered a disappointing season around here. I don’t know if that’s fair or not.