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Voices of the Game, day 11: Steve Stone to Ben McDonald

A college baseball legend, a well-known national figure and a Chicago broadcasting legend today.

Steve Stone with Harry Caray and an unidentified third person
Photo by Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Onto my third week of counting down the playing careers of MLB’s local broadcasters. You’d think I’d take a hint by now, but nope.

If you want to catch up on earlier entries, you can check out the StoryStream. And if you want the rules of the road, check out the first entry.

27. Steve Stone. Chicago White Sox. WAR: 18.5

It’s not an understatement to say that many of you are reading this today because of Harry Caray and Steve Stone. From 1983 to 1997, the “Harry and Steve Show” turned a generation of kids into Cubs fans throughout the world. With Superstation WGN broadcasting every Cubs game not just in Chicago, but through America and the rest of the world, the Cubs were known as much for Harry and Steve as they were for Ryno, Hawk, Sut and Zonk.

As a player, the narrative on Stone was that he was a mediocre pitcher on both sides of the second city for a six years until he went to Baltimore. The Orioles told him to throw little besides his curve ball and it turned him into a Cy Young Award winner. But all those curves ruined his arm and his career ended in an injury.

I’m here to say while that narrative isn’t wrong, it’s misleading and incomplete.

Stone was taken in the fourth round of the 1969 draft out of Kent State by the Giants. He made his major league debut in 1971 and made 19 starts and five relief appearances. The Giants won the NL West that year, but Hall-of-Famers Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal made three of the four starts for the Giants in the NL Championship Series and Stone didn’t pitch.

In 1973 he was dealt to the White Sox and after one year there, he went to the other side of town, going to the Cubs in a deal for Ron Santo.

Stone pitched the next three years for some pretty mediocre Cubs teams. He had a good 1975 season, but the Cubs refused to give him the contract he wanted for 1976, so he played out his option to become a free agent after the 1976 season. Unfortunately for Stone, he missed much of that year with a shoulder injury.

Stone signed back with the White Sox for the 1977 season and after two reasonably successful seasons there, he signed a four-year deal with the Orioles for the 1979 season. The Orioles told him to throw his curveball a lot more (as much as two-thirds of the time) and Stone had a solid 1979 season, going 11-7 with a 3.77 ERA. Baltimore made the World Series that year, but the Orioles starting rotation was loaded (Jim Palmer, Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor on top of Stone) and Stone only made one relief appearance in the Orioles seven-game loss to the Pirates.

But in 1980, Stone had the season of his career. By this time he was used to throwing his curve about two-thirds of the time, and it resulted in a record of 25-7 with a 3.23 ERA. Stone was named to his only All-Star Game that year and he was the AL Cy Young Award winner.

He also posed naked for Playgirl when he was in Baltimore, with his you-know-what strategically hidden.

Stone followed his Cy Young season with a poor 1981. He was in such pain that he retired at the end of the season. By 1983 he joined the Cubs broadcast team and the rest was history.

Modern statistics tell a different story than the established narrative with Stone. Fielding-independent pitching, which was unknown back then, indicate that Stone wasn’t really that much better in Baltimore than he was in Chicago. Instead, he went from two teams with crappy defenses to a team in Baltimore that had a terrific defense. Wrigley Field in the mid-1970s was also a particularly good hitter’s park and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore was a pitcher’s park. Stone was much better than people though when he pitched in Chicago and not quite as good as people though in Baltimore. Was he better in Baltimore? Probably, but not by as much as we thought at the time.

Stone had a career line of 107-93 with a 3.97 ERA over 11 seasons.

Stone stayed with the Cubs after Caray’s death in 1998 until his own health issues forced him to step aside after the 2000 season. He returned in 2003 but left after the 2004 season after running afoul of the Cubs’ front office. He joined the White Sox in 2009 and has been there since.

26. Ron Darling. New York Mets. WAR: 18.8

If you watch MLB Network, TBS or the many other national TV appearances that Darling does, you’re likely familiar with his work. I think Darling is a better broadcaster than he was a pitcher, which is very high praise because he was a very good pitcher over the course of his 13-year career.

Darling was the ninth pick of the 1981 draft by the Texas Rangers out of Yale. When he was at Yale, he was involved in what has been called one of the greatest college baseball games of all time when he and Yale faced off against Frank Viola and St. John’s. Darling took a no-hitter into the 12th inning of that game before giving up a hit and losing 1-0 in 12 innings.

In one of the most famous Mets trades of all time, the very bad Mets traded their best and most popular player, outfielder Lee Mazzilli, to the Rangers for pitchers Darling and Walt Terrell on the eve of the 1982 season. Mazzilli was from Brooklyn and trading away a local legend was very unpopular at the time. But Darling became a fixture in the Mets rotation and Terrell was dealt to Detroit for third baseman Howard Johnson. Both Darling and Johnson were key players for the Mets 1986 World Series Champions.

Darling made his major league debut in 1983. Darling quickly became the No. 2 starter in the Mets rotation of the 1980s behind Dwight Gooden. Darling mad three starts in the ’86 World Series, going 1-1 with a 1.53 ERA. Darling allowed just one unearned run in taking the loss in Game 1. He allowed one earned run in getting the win in Game 4. He gave up three runs in only 3⅔ innings in Game 7, but the Mets came back and won anyway.

Darling stayed with the Mets until the summer of 1991. The great Mets teams of the ‘80s were over by that year and with free agency approaching, the Mets dealt him to the Expos. Two weeks later, he was dealt to the defending American League champion Athletics.

He re-signed with the A’s as a free agent for 1992. Oakland won their fourth AL West title in five seasons that year and Darling started and lost Game 3 to Toronto, although he gave up just three runs (two earned) over six innings.

Darling was pretty much done after the 1992 season. He finished out the final three years of his contract with the A’s, but he wasn’t any good. He retired after the 1995 season with a record of 136-115 with a 3.87 ERA over 13 seasons with the Mets and A’s (and three starts with Montreal).

Darling started broadcasting with Oakland in 2000 but left after one year for national opportunities. In 2005 he was the color broadcaster for the Nationals inaugural season. He left for the Mets in 2006 where he has been ever since, albeit with many national TV appearances.

25. Ben McDonald. Baltimore Orioles. 20.8

I’m shocked McDonald finishes this high, but he had a nine-year career where he was terrific in three seasons and solid in five of them. Then McDonald had a career-ending injury at age 29, so he didn’t pile up a bunch of negative WAR seasons at the end of his career.

A 6’7” right-hander, McDonald was one of the first celebrity amateur baseball players. McDonald was the ace of Team USA that won the 1988 Olympic gold medal. He played both basketball and baseball for LSU. He took LSU to two College World Series and made the Elite Eight in the 1987 NCAA basketball tournament. (He was on a full basketball scholarship.) The Orioles made him the first pick of the 1989 draft.

After some contentious negotiations, McDonald signed with the Orioles on a three-year, $1.1 million deal.

The Orioles rushed McDonald to the majors in 1989 after just nine minor league innings. Baltimore was unexpectedly in a pennant race, and the Orioles thought McDonald could help them in their bullpen. He couldn’t, and the Orioles finished second to the Blue Jays in the AL East.

McDonald joined the Orioles rotation for good in 1990 and was a mainstay of their rotation into 1995. He joined the Brewers as a free agent in 1996 and had the best year of his career, going 12-10 with a 3.90 ERA. That may not sound that great, but it’s a 133 ERA+ in that offensively-charged era.

The next year, McDonald suffered a torn rotator cuff injury that cost him the second-half of the 1997 season. In fact, it ended his career. The Brewers traded McDonald to the Indians for 1998, but his shoulder was never healthy enough to pitch for Cleveland.

McDonald readily admits that the large number of innings that he threw in college and in his early days in Baltimore likely led to the injuries that ended his career at the age of 29.

McDonald had a career line of 78-70 with a 3.91 EAR over nine seasons.

McDonald might never make Cooperstown, but he was elected to the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

McDonald is one of the leading voices of college baseball, calling games for both ESPN and the SEC Network. When the college baseball season ends, McDonald joins the Orioles for the rest of the season, serving as a color analyst for both radio and television