By CHANDLER ROME
Special to Tiger Rag
The UPS package sitting at Ben McDonald’s front door represents the latest battle in a life full of them.
McDonald takes the box inside the kitchen of his sprawling Denham Springs home and pulls a navy blue polo shirt with ESPNU insignia on the right breast from it. It’s the uniform he now wears in place of stirrups and cleats.
McDonald is set to fly to Charlotte the next day to shoot College Baseball Live for the seventh straight Thursday. He’ll follow that appearance with a flight to College Station, Texas, to broadcast Game 2 of Texas A&M and Ole Miss’ critical series.
"I had no idea what all it took to do it,” McDonald said. "Gotta know where little Joey grew up, went to high school, how tall he is, all the behind scenes stuff. You have to do your homework.”
Ask the wiry 6-foot-7 former Golden Spikes Award winner, and he’ll tell you he’d rather be on his 900-acre plot in Mississippi with a bow in his hand, looking for the deer with a little gray on its face. McDonald knows those are the oldest and smartest in the woods and he relishes the challenge of tracking and hunting them.
Keep prodding and he’ll tell you he wishes he still played baseball. McDonald retired at 30 — after eight years of professional ball — right when he said he started to figure it out. By "it,” he means the intangible part of the game — a hitter’s mindset on a 2-1 count in mid-July or the proper arm treatment between starts.
Eight years wasn’t enough. McDonald is adamant he has no regrets, but baseball harbored that unmatched competitiveness, so he stays as close as he can in the booth.
It also rocked that aggressive spirit to the core, culminating in tears, bleakness and the thought of quitting the game that made him so renowned.
Before travel teams and 100-plus game schedules overtook youth baseball, there were rec leagues.
Boys and girls flocked to neighborhood parks playing anywhere from 12 to 15 games in a summer, no extravagant costs or cross-country trips in passenger vans necessary.
Parks and Recreation of Denham Springs was like the rest, and North Park played host to the games that McDonald dominated as a 14-year-old beanpole on the mound.
McDonald and his team played in Babe Ruth Leagues, where only first and second-place teams at each division advanced to state and regional tournaments.
It was win or go home.
"I was a bad loser,” McDonald said. "I wanted to beat you at jacks, beat you at hopscotch, beat you at pitching pennies. I was going to find a way to beat you.”
The attitude came with its faults. McDonald recalled occasions when one mentally slow player would step into the batter’s box at North Park.
Other pitchers around the league customarily lobbed the ball over the plate, letting the boy get a few hits.
"That never crossed my mind,” McDonald said 32 years later. "He was standing in my way of being successful for our team that day.
"You want me to pitch, I’m going to pitch. I’m going to get that guy out.”
McDonald fired his best stuff at the boy, who found no success. Players and parents were "hootin’ and hollerin,” chiding McDonald’s seemingly heartless actions.
He paid them no mind.
Ask former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, and he’ll tell you McDonald played the wrong sport. He finds it necessary to remind McDonald to this day.
"You were the most athletic kid to ever come through [LSU],” Brown tells McDonald. "You should have played in the NBA.”
More than 100 Division I colleges offered McDonald to play basketball. Only a handful wanted him to play both basketball and baseball, including LSU, Mississippi State and Texas.
A product of the Dr. J, Moses Malone and Larry Bird era, McDonald was elated.
"Basketball was my first love,” McDonald said. "It gave you the opportunity of constant action, up and down the floor and I loved that as a kid. I may have been ADD or ADHD or whatever all that stuff is that we didn’t know back then.
"If I had my rathers growing up, I wanted to play college basketball [and] wanted to play NBA basketball.”
A freshman on Brown’s 1986-87 Tiger team a year removed from a miracle Final Four run, McDonald realized his dream sooner than anticipated. Nikita Wilson’s grade issues and Ricky Blanton’s season-ending knee injury forced McDonald into a starting position on the block.
Although he played on the interior in high school, McDonald went to LSU on the assumption he’d get to showcase his smooth outside stroke on the wing. Instead, the bullish Southeastern Conference bodies on the inside had a field day with McDonald’s scrawny 190-pound frame.
"I still got scars on my lips from getting elbowed and my teeth coming through my lips,” McDonald said. "Inside wasn’t the place to be in the SEC.”
Trainers frequently clashed with McDonald, who refused to leave the floor during many practices even when he needed stitches.
Swallowing the blood, McDonald knew he would never match up physically with SEC forwards and centers. To protect the win-at-all-costs mentality that fueled his competitiveness, he began to think on the court.
Positioning, agility and the pure want to out-work opponents — something he hadn’t needed in high school as he mowed down inferior adversaries.
"Basketball offered me a bigger challenge, and I think that’s why I took to it and wanted to do it,” McDonald said. "I had to really start to use my mind ... It helped me on the baseball field to start thinking about things.”
Playing for Brown had its perks, too. McDonald called him the greatest motivator he’d ever associated with, especially as he led that team of overachieving no-name players within a few seconds of a second consecutive Final Four.
That’s why it made it all the more difficult for McDonald — who was training to make the 1988 U.S. Olympic baseball team — to tell Brown he was giving up basketball prior to his sophomore season.
Brown scoffed at McDonald’s announcement. Although he and LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman knew McDonald would eventually perfect one sport, Brown was adamant McDonald’s future was on the hardwood.
Still, Brown was generous enough to keep McDonald on basketball scholarship through his entire sophomore season. A sophomore season that saw McDonald make the Olympic Team, win a gold medal and develop a consistent mid-90s fastball.
"Once [Brown] was able to see where I was starting to excel,” McDonald recalled, "I think he was easier with it.
Adjacent to two full-length batting cages in Ben McDonald’s outdoor gym is a half-size basketball court.
McDonald can’t resist the urge to play, showing off that silky smooth stroke from the outside. Jase McDonald watches, preparing for baseball practice with the Chaos, Jase’s travel ball team Ben coaches.
A lanky, 13-year-old carbon copy of his father, Jase represents another of Ben’s battles. Jase is a product of his generation, a seventh-grader captivated by an iPhone in one hand, massive headphones on his head and an iPad resting on his stomach as he lounges on a couch after a day at school.
"Dude,” Ben tells him, "Your eyes are gonna pop out of your head.”
A closer examination discovers a father’s gift hanging around Jase’s neck, a gold number "19” — Ben’s number and the only number Jase will consider wearing.
Watching — and coaching — another lanky No. 19 as he bounces around on the mound brings a smile to Ben’s face, but he’s cognizant of the uphill battle Jase faces because of him.
"I hate it for him to have my last name around here,” Ben said. "There’s going to be a lot of expectations. It’s a blessing in some ways, but it’s a curse, too. I’m easier on him for that regard.”
"If you want to play college ball, that’s great, I’m all for it,” McDonald tells Jase. "But if not, it’s your life. I’m with you.”
Jase and Jorie, Ben and Nicole McDonald’s 18-year-old daughter who attends New York University in London, ushered Ben into a new realm of competition he tackled head on — coaching and parenting.
Jase is subdued, soft-spoken and non-competitive. He loves sports and wants to tie, but not break, all his dad’s records at LSU. Ben learned quickly he couldn’t push his buttons or be as tough on him as he was on Jorie.
Jorie’s much like her father. Competitive, stubborn and willing to out-work anyone who defies her — including her father. When Ben coached Jorie’s Denham Springs High softball team and travel softball team, he confessed he was far harder on her than any other player — simply because she could withstand it.
When Jorie first mentioned her interest in NYU, Ben found it humorous. He nonchalantly told her she’d need to be valedictorian of her graduating class and score at least a 28 on her ACT, thinking she could never meet the high standards.
Her father’s doubts motivated her. After Ben promised to fly her and Nicole to New York if she scored higher than a 25 on the ACT, Jorie went from an initial score of 21 to a 26.
The visit only heightened Jorie’s desire. She coasted her way to valedictorian honors at Denham Springs High School and finally notched the 28 on her last attempt and was accepted to NYU under one condition. She would need to move to London.
Ben firmly said no, suggesting she go to LSU for a year to acclimate to college then reconsider going to NYU. Predictably, Jorie moped and cried around the house in the interim before Nicole pulled her husband aside.
"Ben,” Nicole said. "What if your dad told you, at 17, you couldn’t play baseball anymore?”
That day, Ben reversed his course.
"Almost screwed that one up real bad,” Ben joked.
Paul Carey tried to beat Ben McDonald.
On paper he did. Carey obliterated McDonald’s 0-2 fastball on a late June afternoon in 1987, sending Stanford to the College World Series final with a mammoth walk-off grand slam.
In those days, the only televised college baseball was played in Omaha. Family, friends and classmates watched McDonald — then a freshman — fail on baseball’s grandest stage with an LSU baseball team littered with major leaguers.
The two weeks following the pitch — an elevated fastball that Bertman had called to be low and away — McDonald was inconsolable. For the first time in his life, McDonald doubted his future.
"The thought of quitting crossed my mind,” McDonald said. "It really did. As you sit there, you question ‘Is this really for me? Is this really what I want?’”
Suddenly the competitive fire was gone. McDonald begrudgingly shipped off to the Alaskan Summer League, not knowing Bertman spoke to his summer team’s manager before he got there.
The plan was to throw McDonald right back into action. He would start opening night to rekindle the fire and put the grand slam behind him.
After enduring a sleepless night, the weary McDonald arrived to the park to warm up, but was summoned to the dugout by the manager, who handed him a folded piece of paper and walked away with one parting message.
"Is this how you want to be remembered?”
McDonald opened the piece of paper and recognized it as the opposing lineup card. On it, the opposing manager had written "Paul Carey” in every lineup spot, one through nine.
Carey was not playing in the Alaskan Summer League. Infuriated, McDonald folded the lineup card back and stuck it in his locker before racing out to toss a complete game shutout on opening night.
"You need that little extra kick in the ass every now and then,” McDonald said. "That was my kick in the butt right there. That was the last thing I needed to get the competitive juices flowing again.”
When he got back to the clubhouse after his start, McDonald immediately sought a clubhouse manager. He handed him the lineup card and asked that he take it to the opposing manager.
"Tell him I said ‘thank you,’” McDonald instructed.
Nicole McDonald can’t fit her husband’s competitiveness into the usual scale.
Ben swears he’s mellowed out since his big league days when he was a self-proclaimed red ass. Nicole, who’s watched Ben’s checker games with Jorie end in broken boards, begs to differ.
"On a scale of one to 10, he’s a 50,” Nicole rated. "He’s still as competitive as ever.”
Ben scoffs, but he knows Nicole’s right. If it were up to him, Ben would hold round-the-clock practices for Jase’s travel team. The competitive fire drew him to coaching Jorie’s softball teams.
"We got our brains beat in [initially],” Ben joked. "But we kept working. Picked up some girls here and there … We ended up giving it back to some of those teams because we kept working.”
It was another battle for Ben. Uncharted and unseen territory that he conquered the only way he knew — putting his head down and not stopping until the job was done.
It’s an attitude he hopes to pass on to Jase and Jorie, no matter what they decide to do. And whatever that may be, Ben wants only for them what he has now.
"I poured my heart and soul into everything I did,” Ben said. "I don’t think there’s a better feeling in the world than knowing you gave everything you had.”