Cal Ripken Jr., Ben McDonald and Chris Hoiles had a secret: They were the integral pieces to a pitch-calling system they created during the 1991 Baltimore Orioles season.
McDonald, the ex-LSU hurler, and Hoiles, a catcher from Michigan, both were starting their first full season in the major leagues. Their experience in calling pitches against big league hitters was nonexistent — and it showed.
Ripken, then a 10-year veteran and already an eight-time all-star, noticed.
“We were trying to figure things out. Cal Ripken came to me and (Hoiles) sitting around the clubhouse drinking beer. He goes, ‘You guys are having trouble aren’t you?’ ” McDonald recalled. “I said, ‘Hell yeah, I am. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.’ ”
That’s how their secret was born.
During McDonald’s starts, Ripken began calling pitches from his spot at shortstop. Aimed at Hoiles, Ripken used a discreet signal — “like the way he held his glove,” McDonald said. Hoiles relayed the pitch to McDonald using the typical catcher-to-pitcher finger signs.
“I could see Chris looking over my right shoulder at Junior,” McDonald said. “You didn’t want anybody to find out. My teammates didn’t even know. It was between me, Junior and Chris.”
This went on all season and at least part of the next season. Ripken didn’t call every pitch McDonald threw, but he called many of them in pressure-packed situations, helping the two youngsters along.
“My stuff didn’t get any better,” McDonald said, “but how to use my stuff got better.”
Aaron Nola, another former hard-throwing LSU pitcher, is in a similar situation.
He’s not catching signals from a shortstop, but he is entering his first full season in the major leagues, and he’s having to adjust mentally to the big league game.
It’s not easy. It’s about more than just the velocity of the fastball and the curve of the breaking ball. It’s when and how to use them.
“I feel like the game of baseball is how smart you are and how you approach guys,” Nola said. “You’re just trying to think the game harder, think ahead of the game.”
Nola is set to begin the season as the Philadelphia Phillies’ No. 2 starter. The Baton Rouge native was put in that role for a reason: He’s in line to start the Phillies’ home opener against the New York Mets on April 11.
That’s no coincidence. Phillies manager Pete Mackanin told reporters last month that Nola’s home-opening start was “the main thing” in creating their pitching plan.
Nola is set to accomplish a first for an LSU pitcher in at least the past 50 years, and possibly since the inception of the program: He’ll begin the season in a major league starting rotation this early in his pro career.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s a dream. It’s always been a dream of mine to start the year out with the big club.”
Accomplishing the feat in his third year as a pro and in his second major league season is somewhat eyebrow-raising. Some aren’t surprised. After all, the ex-Catholic High star finished with ERAs of 1.57 (2013) and 1.47 (2014) in his final two seasons at LSU.
“The key to making it to the big leagues: You’ve got to be able to throw strikes,” McDonald said. “We thought this about Aaron: He’s going to be a quick climber because he throws so many strikes.”
McDonald is the only ex-LSU pitcher who sniffs Nola’s rapid ascent. Like Nola, McDonald was scheduled to begin his third professional season in a major league starting rotation, for the Orioles. An injury during spring training forced him to miss the first two weeks of the season.
“I threw, like, 90 pitches on a cold day in spring,” he said, still sounding disappointed.
So it’s Nola who is the fastest-rising former Tigers player in history.
Nola spent the winter break working out six days a week with his brother, Austin, the former LSU shortstop who spent the second half of last season with the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Miami Marlins. The brothers bunked with their parents, practiced at Alex Box Stadium and worked out in the batting cages.
It was like old times.
“My wife was loving every minute of it,” said A.J. Nola, Austin’s and Aaron’s dad and husband to Stacey. “It was just like high school. My wife would cook for them every day and in the afternoon after working out. It was awesome ... I ain’t gonna lie.”
Aaron threw to Austin and former LSU catchers Kade Scivicque and Tyler Moore. He focused on improving his third pitch, the changeup.
He made 13 big league starts last season, joining the Phillies in July and finishing with a 6-2 record, a 3.59 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 77.2 innings — respectable for a veteran and impressive for a rookie.
Still, he left the club in September on a mission during: Improve the changeup.
“That was my main goal,” he said. “A changeup is a feel pitch. It’s been the toughest pitch for me to learn through my whole career, but I’ve definitely made some strides.”
Nola’s start in Philadelphia on April 11 will be his seventh at Citizens Bank Park. The Philly faithful are getting to know him, and he’s getting to know them. The Phillies last year created a Cajun food menu during one of Nola’s starts, his dad said, as a nod to his south Louisiana upbringing.
Nola, meanwhile, is crossing off the Philly to-do list. He ran up the 72 stone steps at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, nicknamed the “Rocky Steps” for their role in the famous movie series. He has eaten a cheesesteak from Jim’s. The restaurant — like several others — claims to have the original.
He even lives in South Philly, renting an apartment off Broad Street — one of the earliest planned streets in the United States, dating to 1681, according to the American Planning Association.
“It’s pretty historic,” Aaron said. “I like that part. It’s unique walking around town.”
Aaron has personal goals for his second full season in the big leagues — possibly an ERA mark or a strikeout count — but he declines to share them. Despite the starting spot, he still has plenty to prove.
The Phillies will draft a new crop of pitchers in June, and they’ll soon be competing to take his spot. He knows that.
The Phillies have several intriguing prospects in their farm system, and fellow young arms Vincent Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff already are in the back end of the rotation. They’re all competing to take his spot, and Nola knows that, too.
He thought about both during those eight-hour workout days with his brother this winter.
“I knew I only had 13 games up there, and we got a lot of young guys that got called up. The way I look at it, there were a lot of guys that have pitched in a lot more big league games than I have,” he said. “I went out and worked hard, wanted to prove some things.”
It wasn’t all work. Austin and Aaron took a trip to Alaska, just the two of them trying to catch the famous, gigantic Alaskan steelhead in icy waters.
“It didn’t work out,” Austin laughed. “It’s different than catching redfish.”
Aaron left Baton Rouge on Feb. 1 for spring training, arriving in Clearwater, Florida, more than two weeks before catchers and pitchers were scheduled to report. He wanted to give himself time to settle in before his first big league spring.
The extra time didn’t help, at least statisically. In his first three spring starts, Nola allowed four homers, eight total runs and 14 hits in just 8.2 innings. But March 21, he tossed a two-hitter through six innings.
“They were a little bumpy,” he said. “I made some mistakes, and those guys made me pay for them. Up here, you make mistakes, they make you pay for them.”
Aaron continues to work on the mental part of the game: the pitch calls, the approach, the stuff McDonald hurdled before completing a nine-year, 78-win pro career.
Midway through the 1992 season, McDonald’s second in the Orioles rotation, the pitcher and Hoiles progressed enough for Ripken, a future Hall of Famer, to end his pitch-calling system.
McDonald still looks back at it laughing.
“We were calling the wrong pitches in the wrong situations,” he said. “A lot of pitchers would have been like, ‘Hell no, I don’t what your help.’ I didn’t mind.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.