Questions surround Orioles' Ponson

Team hopes new manager plus pitcher's commitment to fitness equal success

February 20, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Beyond universal acknowledgment of the precocious right-hander's gifts, the Orioles' take on Sidney Ponson remains somewhat mixed.

Cocky party boy or talented, outgoing kid simply enjoying single life?

Resistant to instruction or merely a bad fit with exiled pitching coach Bruce Kison?

Were his September struggles a byproduct of never having pitched more than 107 innings in a season before 1998 or the predictable fallout of poor conditioning?

As they unwrap spring training, the Orioles and Ponson have attempted to remove any obstacles standing before a prodigy who gained 20 major-league victories before his 23rd birthday. (Storm Davis and Jim Palmer were the previous Orioles pitchers to do so.) The team's off-season realignment of the manager's office and coaching staff, plus Ponson's commitment to fitness, represent a good start.

Ponson, who doesn't turn 24 until November, earned just one of his 12 wins after Aug. 10 and lost five of his last nine starts. Along the way, his ERA jumped from 3.95 -- good enough to tie for seventh league-wide at season's end -- to an unfulfilling 4.71, its highest since May 16.

Of Ponson's 35 home runs, he surrendered 11 of them in those final nine starts, never pitching more than seven innings.

"In the first half I was missing off the plate. In the second half I was missing over the plate," he says.

"My whole body was tired," adds Ponson, still a year removed from salary arbitration and five from free agency. "It wasn't as much my arm as it was my legs. If you don't have your lower body, you don't have control. It was a long season. That's why I did all the running this winter."

Initially, Ponson planned to spend last winter in his native Aruba, where he intended to hire a personal trainer. He eventually reconsidered and spent almost the entire winter in Baltimore, a move vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, among others, interprets as a show of maturity. Ponson ended last season at a lumpy 234 pounds. He reported last week only four pounds lighter but noticeably trimmer because of an intense conditioning program he shared with outfielder B.J. Surhoff and shortstop Mike Bordick.

"I went through it to get mentally stronger and physically stronger," he says. "I have a better idea of what to expect for an entire season."

Mike Hargrove's arrival as manager and Sammy Ellis' hiring as the club's seventh pitching coach in seven years also afford Ponson a fresh start. Hargrove has intentionally entered camp without any preconceived notions; Ponson says he looks forward to a heavier innings load this exhibition season. His stated goals remain simple, especially for a pitcher who completed six games while winning 12 games last season: Go seven innings every start and leave the team in a position to win.

Ponson isn't concerned about having the league's fifth-lowest strikeout/walk ratio among starting pitchers.

"I'm not looking to strike out people," he says. "I'll take an out with one pitch over an out with three pitches anytime. That way you stay fresh longer."

It would be impossible for Hargrove not to have heard the organizational concerns about Ponson's previous commitment. Just as it would be impossible to remain ignorant of Ponson's new outlook.

While staying away from reciting impressions of others, Hargrove allows, "Everybody has a different area in which they need to sacrifice. It takes a pretty big person,a pretty big man to recognize that and do what's necessary to make himself better."

Most would be thrilled by winning 12 games at age 23. Ponson, however, remembers last season with mixed emotions. He emerged from last spring training saying he was unprepared for the season due to a lack of innings. He lasted only 20 innings in his first four starts while the rotation and the Orioles' season collapsed in April. A new regime promises it won't happen again.

Says Hargrove, whose Indians left Ponson with three of his 12 losses last season along with five home runs and a 13.17 ERA in 13 2/3 innings: "Sometimes what happens is you try to be fair to everybody. You try to be fair to guys who have no chance at all of making the ballclub. And in your desire to be fair, you end up giving innings to a kid that you take from one of the guys who's important to your team. The priority is to get your major league club ready. I'm not going to take innings away from Mike Mussina to give to some kid starting in Double-A."

Hargrove prefers to open the season with a four-man rotation within an 11-man staff, a configuration that would likely send Pat Rapp to the bullpen while giving Mussina, Scott Erickson, Ponson and Jason Johnson regular innings in April. It might also satisfy what last year proved a surly rotation.

Ponson eventually rebelled against Kison. He wasn't alone. Close friend Erickson also had little use for the matter-of-fact Kison, who followed the popular, more laid-back Mike Flanagan.

By the end of last season, Ponson and Erickson would turn away from Kison. Mussina exhibited similar impatience, often glaring at the coach during mound visits.

Ponson's distaste for Kison and manager Ray Miller grew so intense that Miller suspected a coup when Ponson asked out of his final start because of soreness behind his right shoulder. Erickson also missed his final turn with forearm stiffness, and some insist attempts to deal the innings monster to the New York Mets this winter were at least partly motivated by his influence on Ponson.

"I tried to throw and it was sore," Ponson recalls. "If we would have had to win a game to get into the playoffs, I would have thrown. Ray was upset. He thought I was just trying to get out of pitching. I was upset he would think that. He knew I had gone out there every five days. Now we've got a new manager and I'm looking forward again."

The Orioles are listening. They blush at the possibilities.

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