DENHAM SPRINGS – Not long into the infancy stages of his broadcasting career, Denham Springs native Ben McDonald remembers an unlikely compliment in the unlikeliest of places serving him well some two decades later.
McDonald, several years removed from the end of an injury-shortened professional baseball career, was running an errand at Wal-Mart, where he was approached an older lady who happened to be a fan of his.
Not the guy who once regularly delivered 95+ miles-per-hour fastballs, won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team, was named college baseball’s top player and selected the No. 1 player in the 1989 Major League draft by Baltimore.
No, she wanted to heap praise on McDonald the promising broadcaster, whose early work included serving as an analyst for Cox Sports Television’s regional college games involving LSU.
“She said she liked the way I called a ball game,” said McDonald, whose curiosity was raised by the compliment. “I asked her to tell me what she liked about what I did. I was still learning and trying to figure this out.
“She said I kept the game simple,” McDonald said. “She said she didn’t watch that much baseball, but when I talked about it, I made sense to her. I’ve always tried to keep the game simple and draw the attention of people by doing it that way; explain things in a way anyone can understand and not make the game complicated.”
That’s not to suggest there hasn’t been plenty of substance to McDonald’s staying power in broadcasting, but more than anything, his style has been conducive to connecting to both listeners and viewers.
He’s been straight-forward, knowledgeable, passionate about his life-long love of the game, combined with a folksy demeanor and penchant for unconventional one-liners, have endeared McDonald to an audience comprised of college and professional baseball people.
“There are a lot of outstanding players and people with the knowledge that he has that do not convert well to the broadcast booth, do not convert well to the audience,” said Lyn Rollins, a veteran play-by-play announcer for Cox Sports Television and long-time partner of McDonald’s. “The reason he does is because he doesn’t try to be who he’s not. We both share the philosophy that baseball’s a sport for which you can be folksy, for which you can work several storylines simultaneously depending on the nature of the game. He does keep it simple, but he’s also able to relate. He has the instinct to draw upon things that are important in people’s lives, not necessarily on the baseball field. With my desire to do that as well, it works well for us.”
McDonald’s in the midst of a lengthy swing with the Baltimore Orioles, where he’s teamed with legendary TV broadcaster Gary Thorne on the organization’s MASN network for six games. He’ll then move into the radio booth during the road portion of the trip in San Diego and Anaheim.
McDonald’s busier than ever, where his schedule with LSU’s Sports Properties begins in February and will carry him into October with Baltimore and will accumulate 135 games behind a microphone this season – a result of a ‘second’ career that’s simply flourished.
“It’s perfect for me,” he said. “I tell people I have two seasons: baseball and hunting. I never wanted to be this busy. I never planned on doing 135 games and it’s too much. It sounded good in January when they offered it to me.”
At that heart of his broadcast schedule is college baseball, which McDonald is most identifiable in the Southeastern Conference after starring at LSU, enjoying an All-American career that included the Golden Spikes Award in 1989, College Hall of Fame induction (2008) and his No. 19 being retired by the school.
McDonald combines his talents on several platforms over a five-month span, ranging from LSU’s digital properties, CST, ESPN and SEC Network.
He said the advent of the SEC Network in 2014 was responsible for sending his career into broadcast orbit as his responsibilities were expanded into the SEC Network’s studios in Charlotte.
“That’s when it really got busy,” he said. “It went from a hobby and turned into a job.”
McDonald’s cognizant of the explosion of college baseball and in some small part, the part he’s played in the allure of the game to attract the likes of ESPN/ESPN2 wanting to broadcast additional games once the postseason arrives.
The commitment to college baseball from ESPN has reached an apex with the number of postseason games – regardless of the platform – that are now available.
That represents one of the most grueling stretches.
McDonald finishes up the SEC’s regular season, heads to Hoover, Ala., for the SEC’s postseason tournament, followed by NCAA regional and NCAA super regional play and ultimately a two-week stay for the duration of the College World Series in Omaha.
It’s a schedule that would leave anyone somewhat bleary-eyed and McDonald in search of the nearest deer stand afterward.
McDonald said the third game of the CWS between Vanderbilt and Michigan drew two million viewers, which was the most viewed broadcast on the station – surpassing Major League games.
He enjoyed some downtime after the CWS with a trip home, getting 10 days off, before embarking on his current trip with Baltimore that included eight home games followed by trips to Phoenix, Anaheim, Calif., and San Diego.
“My (three-year) contract with ESPN ended after the College World Series,” McDonald said. “I’ll be talking again with them. The Orioles are putting pressure to go along with them full time. I’m going to let all of that play out and see where we are at the end of the year. In the perfect world, I’d like to cut back some college (games) and still like to do big league games.”
McDonald acknowledges the travel can be taxing, primarily the collegiate portion of his schedule that can include five games a week, but that his desire to reduce his broadcast schedule starting next year is rooted in family, not a disdain for baseball.
That past four years, as his broadcast career took off, came at a price that McDonald would rather not pay again.
With his son Jase’s baseball career continuing at LSU Eunice in the fall, McDonald wants to be around for as many of his games as possible instead of having to relive a similar scenario where his promising broadcasting career necessitated him being away for a portion of Jase’s high school career at Denham Springs.
“I’m going to try and cut back next year,” he said. “I missed a lot of Jase’s high school stuff that I’ll never get back. I want to be around a little more and watch him play which is nice.”
McDonald envisions being able to follow Jase through his initial fall season, which dovetails neatly into the start of his beloved hunting season. He can then move into the spring, where his schedule would include a scaled-back number of college broadcast assignments, creating time between February-May to be in attendance when Jase takes the mound for the Bengals.
“I think they’ll be understanding,” he said of ESPN.
The thought of tapping the brakes somewhat on a broadcast career that’s been full throttle for several years is a testament to McDonald’s growth and devotion in a field that wasn’t exactly a bucket list item growing up in Denham Springs.
McDonald said he was 2 ½ years into a Broadcast Journalism major at LSU, but things such as taking off a semester to help the U.S. achieve gold in the Seoul Olympics, coupled with bypassing his senior year to enter the MLB draft, derailed plans of a defined post-baseball career.
Unfortunately, three unsuccessful rotator cuff surgeries – the first coming in 1998 – hastened McDonald’s exit from the Major Leagues after a 78-70 record in nine seasons with Baltimore and the Milwaukee Brewers.
It was an abrupt end for the former LSU All-American and No. 1 overall draft choice in ’89, a time in McDonald’s life that was filled with angst and uncertainty following his retirement four months shy of his 30th birthday.
“I went through that dark period where I was mad,” he said. “I was mad at the game of baseball. I didn’t watch baseball and didn’t want to have anything to do with baseball. As they say, time heals a lot of things.
“I got into coaching and enjoyed coaching my daughter’s (Jorie) softball team and knew Jace was coming along and I would eventually get with him to,” he said. “After I got over that ‘anger’ period. I realized it wasn’t anybody’s fault, it was just one of those things that happen.”
Several months went by when McDonald received a call from ESPN about working a NCAA super regional in Baton Rouge as part of the network’s developing commitment to the sport, which has evolved into a postseason staple.
“They called out of the blue and I thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “I was lost to say the least except when the play-by-play guy would ask me a question about the game. I had no clue what I was doing, but it was a good way to stay in touch with baseball.”
It was exactly what McDonald needed, not only rekindling his passion for the game, but creating an avenue to stay around the game in a role he would have never envisioned.
His former coach at LSU, legendary Skip Bertman, also played a part in McDonald’s broadcasting career when he gauged the interest of his former ace right-hander about becoming a color commentator for CST and its regional broadcasts.
McDonald agreed, joining Rollins, a veteran play-by-play announcer, that led to the televising of 15 LSU games per season. That, along with his work on LSU’s digital properties, paved the way toward landing more prominent roles with ESPN and the SEC Network.
“Skip thought I should look into doing some broadcasting, thought I would be good at it,” McDonald said. “There wasn’t that many college games on at the time. Skip made a call to CST and that’s how I got my foot in the door.
“Then ESPN saw my work I was doing and I eventually got on with them,” McDonald said. “If it wasn’t for Skip, I don’t know if I would have gotten my foot in the door doing it.”
Rollins realized early on during their broadcast partnership that McDonald was a natural behind the microphone.
“The ingredients were there, and the skills were there,” said Rollins. “Everybody has a ramp-up area in which you learn the terminology. You have to learn to listen to the producer or director in one ear, listen to your broadcast partner in your other area and also listen to yourself. You have to juggle all of that mentally, but he was very quick study.”
McDonald had his 6-foot-7 frame and wealth of baseball knowledge to stand on entering the booth but was keenly aware the thing that would separate him from other analysts would be his preparation.
It was the same approach he took to pitching where each game McDonald felt supremely prepared and confident to go after the other team’s hitters.
The same philosophy held true in his newest endeavor, where McDonald does plenty of homework on the players he’ll talk about for three-plus hours each game.
“I read more now than I did in 2 ½ years at LSU,” he quipped.
That’s because McDonald’s committed to being able to drop in an appropriate storyline at the right time of a telecast, the result of his immense preparation which includes scouting reports and an array of hand-written notes at his disposal on each team.
“I’ve worked with some guys at ESPN that when the cameras come on have looked at me and told me to do most of the talking,” said McDonald, who also keeps his own scorebook and takes additional notes during a game. “They were (former) players too and some of them don’t prepare. I’ve never wanted to be that guy. I don’t want to ever fail. If I’m going to do something, I want to be good at it, which is something my mom and dad taught me when I was young.”
A decade with CST and Rollins turned into a proving ground where McDonald, who still encounters pre-game nerves much like he did as a player, grew increasingly comfortable in his role albeit on radio of TV.
A big part of that included McDonald’s ability to mesh with different play-by-play announcers from network to network, including the adjustment of working in a two-man booth with CST to a three-man booth for the SEC tournament and College World Series.
“Everybody has a transition but the duration of his was very small compared to the industry standard,” Rollins said. “That was because of his knowledge, but also his willingness to be coached. Ben’s a natural storyteller. That coupled, with the knowledge of the game and his willingness to be coached, was a really good combination.”
McDonald’s workload steadily increased once the college season concluded with the CWS - which he worked for the first time in 2017 - when he became a member of Baltimore’s radio/TV broadcast team for 12 games, a number that’s increased to approximately 60 with 25 of those being on TV.
McDonald joined the Orioles nine years ago and has returned every year since, gaining valuable experience alongside Thorne on TV, along with radio play-by-play announcer Joe Angel, who retired after 40 years last season. He’s also further benefitted from being around former O’s pitching stars/turned broadcasters Jim Palmer and Rick Sutcliffe, both personally and professionally.
“I enjoy doing it,” McDonald said. “I don’t enjoy the travel a whole lot. But once they say, ‘play ball’ and the game starts, I really like that part of it.”