O's Ponson no beach bum Orioles: A rare find from Aruba, the rookie is 4-0 in the past month, showing he'll be more than a stop-by tourist in the majors.

August 07, 1998|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

By virtue of his Aruban roots, Sidney Ponson appears to be a baseball anomaly.

Then again, Ponson, 21, brings a standard resume to the starting rotation of the Orioles.

His mother was a top basketball and volleyball player, so the heredity is there. Growing up on the island north of Venezuela, he played Little League and idolized Roger Clemens, so he had the early training and the role model. He clinched the job with his high-90s fastball and the ability to throw it for strikes -- two attributes that have helped Ponson compile a 4-0 record since July.

"That's the way our prospects are supposed to look," Orioles manager Ray Miller said. "Compact delivery and he throws 97-mph fastballs and sinkers, and he has the startings of a good curve and a great changeup. To me, he's like the best set of encyclopedias you ever had with pages that need filling."

But this just doesn't happen. Aruba is a country of 68,000 that exists for the purpose of serving tourists. The well-to-do tourist, to be specific, finds a clean, slumless, white-beached oasis for fishing, windsurfing and scuba diving.

Baseball isn't on the itinerary. Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are the training grounds for most Caribbean talent making it to the majors. Visiting Aruba in search of baseball talent is like looking for a Picasso at Target.

But here is Ponson, who speaks four languages -- English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento, the local language in Aruba. And there are more where he came from. Orioles prospects pitcher Radhames Dykhoff and outfielder Eugene Kingsale are Arubans who have spent time in the major leagues (as has pitcher Calvin Maduro, a former Orioles farmhand now in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization). The Orioles expect Dykhoff and Kingsale to make it back, and say that others will follow.

"At this time, [Ponson] is the ripest fruit, but there's a lot more down there," said Jesus "Chu" Halabi, Orioles scout in Aruba, Curacao and Venezuela. "I'm sure Radhames Dykhoff and Eugene Kingsale will play [regularly] in the major leagues."

Until then, however, Ponson is the star of the Arubans, the third from the country to reach the majors (after Maduro and Kingsale), but the first to stay. Before the season started, Ponson said he was asked about pitching in relief if it meant coming to the big leagues and he quickly agreed to it.

"I said, you know, I feel comfortable [with it]," Ponson said. "I just want to play ball, and my goal is to get up here."

After time at a Duke University weight-reduction program, followed by a strong spring training, Ponson reached the majors on April 17 when Mike Mussina went on the 15-day disabled list. He began his work in middle relief. In that 47-day slice of his young career, he went 0-1 with a 5.73 ERA, including a one-time-only date as a closer wherein he preserved a 2-1 victory over Oakland on May 24.

This experience -- new to a pitcher groomed to start -- aided in the education of Ponson. Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan, smitten with Ponson since seeing him in the Arizona Fall League in 1996, was convinced that Ponson could help the team in some capacity this season.

"His resume at this point is much more detailed than it was six months ago," Flanagan said. "He's been an adaptable pitcher and he has the kind of arm that recovers quickly, so we thought he could handle the bullpen. But we've always felt his home would be as a starter."

The hard fastball and heavy sinker notwithstanding, Ponson struggled after his move to the rotation on June 4. Despite moments to be proud of, such as a win over the New York Yankees in which he gave up only two hits over 6 2/3 innings, he entered July with a 1-6 record and an 7.83 ERA.

"As long as [Ponson] is healthy, he's going to improve, but there are some things he has to learn," Orioles catcher Lenny Webster said. "Sidney gets hit when he's in the middle of the plate. If there's going to be a downfall, it's that he has a tendency to miss over the plate."

Another problem cited both by Flanagan and Webster is Ponson's knack for turning into pure mush when trouble visits, "floating in and out of some games," as Flanagan calls it.

"I have to try to stay focused more, not to get so upset at myself, like I used to when I first came up," said Ponson, who entered the starting rotation after injuries to Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki. "I lost my concentration in and out when I get upset, so I learned not to. What happened happened. The next guy is my job, and go after them. That [attitude] helped me out in the last couple of starts."

Duly chastened, Ponson has delivered the expected, chopping his ERA nearly in half, to 4.25, in the starts since. Yet the return of Kamieniecki and Key, and the acquisition of Juan Guzman raises the question of Ponson's role in Baltimore this season.

No one wants to make any promises, but Miller, with a face reserved for idiotic questions, said, "I'm pretty sure he'll be around."

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