Twenty Years Later, McDonald-Orioles Negotiations Still Resonate

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In June 1989, the Baltimore Orioles, coming off a 107-loss season, had the first overall pick in the amateur draft -- a position that brought, equally, an opportunity and a burden. The Orioles had no choice but to use that pick on Ben McDonald, a college junior from Louisiana State whose ability trumped that of anybody in their big league rotation. One scouting service gave McDonald its highest-ever grade; he was better than Dwight Gooden, better than Roger Clemens. One scout called him "damn near a complete pitcher right now."

Those in the Orioles' front office agreed. They had sent at least one team official to watch every one of his collegiate starts. Among all eligible draftees, only one, McDonald, had talent to transform the fortunes of a big league franchise. As it turned out, only one, McDonald, had the talent -- and the audacious young agent -- to leverage a contract that paid him accordingly.

The negotiations that consumed Baltimore during the summer of 1989 left behind plenty of lessons, and even some contentiousness. By the time McDonald finally signed, some 10 weeks after his selection, the sport had established the precedent for how an elite college pitcher should be paid, and all the while erected some warning signs about the process.

"It seemed like it took forever to do, but when you look back and realize the history of it -- doing something that's never been done before -- you understand why," McDonald said in a phone interview.

Exactly 20 years later, the Washington Nationals find themselves in a comparable position, having drafted a franchise-changing pitcher (Stephen Strasburg) and now confronting a summer of excruciating negotiations. Though the path Washington will follow in the next months remains largely uncharted, the McDonald dealings from 1989 provide the best available map.

"Certainly you can see how the pre-draft hype and hyperbole are quite similar," said Larry Lucchino, Baltimore's team president in 1989, who now holds a similar position with the Red Sox. "And if anything that hype has probably increased in intensity. The team is similarly situated, with external pressure. And then [Scott] Boras as the player's agent." Lucchino sighed, then added, "I'm sure it will be a long and protracted negotiation at the detriment of the player's development."

The 1989 negotiations, in retrospect, turned into some of the most memorable in the history of baseball's amateur draft. There was acrimony, bluffing and compromise -- the bargaining table ABCs. There was an Ivy League-educated team president, Lucchino (Yale, 1972) and a 37-year-old "adviser," Boras, operating almost entirely behind the scenes. There was early hope, right after the draft, that the sides could reach an uncomplicated, standard deal -- maybe $275,000, similar to previous No. 1 picks. And then, there was painstaking drama that followed, where McDonald demanded a multiyear, seven-figure deal and eventually threatened to sign for $2 million in a yet-unformed pro league being financed by Donald Trump.

By early July 1989, the newspaper reporters following the Orioles were devoting weekly attention to the push-and-pull. On July 3, the media reported Baltimore's $255,000 take-it-or-leave-it offer -- the first of several. On July 8, Larry McDonald, Ben's father, floated the idea that the right-hander would return to school for his senior year. In the final days of July, Lucchino and General Manager Roland Hemond, after weeks of stagnant talks, traveled to the McDonald home in Denham Springs, La., to finalize a deal. Boras was there, too, asking for something comparable to the $1.06 million received by Bo Jackson in 1986. Lucchino and Hemond, offering $600,000, left town without a deal.

Then, on Aug. 6, The Washington Post featured a headline saying, "Orioles About to Lose McDonald to New League/About $2 Million Guaranteed Dwarfs Baltimore's Bid." And the first sentence began, "As Ben McDonald contemplated his future in weekend meetings with his family in Louisiana, the Baltimore Orioles tonight had all but given up hope of signing their No. 1 draft pick."

"It was like playing extra innings," Hemond recalled recently.

Back then, baseball more heavily regulated "adviser" involvement; thus, Larry McDonald was the public face, negotiating on behalf of his son, meeting Boras every few weeks for dinner at a Baton Rouge seafood restaurant. Boras's name almost never appeared in news accounts.

"What was most difficult? Negotiating myself with these business people," Larry McDonald said. "I worked at Exxon for 30 years, a supervisor at a chemical plant. But I never did any negotiations. I felt out of my comfort zone, is what I felt. I know nothing about the process. I was told most of the time [by Boras], 'Look, what you tell them is this; what they'll say back is this.' And about 98 percent of the time, he was correct. I did not have an original thought of my own."

Still, behind the scenes, there was no pretense. In mid-August, trying to save a deal, Lucchino and Boras met face-to-face -- two days, some 13 hours of talks.

Boras believed then, as he believes now, that such talents should be paid in scale with the market for international players, not typical college or high school players.

By the end of those 13 hours, the men had a deal. The total package was for three years, $950,000. If McDonald reached all incentives, he could net $1.1 million. The previous year's No. 1 pick, pitcher Andy Benes, had received $240,000.

Though McDonald during his career, showed flashes of dominance, he never fulfilled the best-ever hopes. By 1995, after six full years with the Orioles, McDonald had a troublesome right shoulder, a 58-53 record and a 3.89 ERA. His career would last just two more seasons.

"The agent will sell the highest projection and the highest degree of certainty, but I think that's illogical," said Lucchino, speaking this week. "The notion he'll reach his apogee and you must pay him as if he will -- I think there should be some consideration of the mitigating risks before making that payment. This is not Stan Kasten's first rodeo, and he will know how to deal with all the wretchedness and excess."

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