Ponson's future is now for Orioles

In 5th big-league season, pitcher knows he must turn potential into results


May 28, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

He showed up for Little League as an 8-year-old, when the youngest players were 9. The coach loved his arm but sent the kid home, telling him to wait a year. Sidney Ponson was still too young.

He's 25 now, and it's an old 25. This is his fifth major-league season, and in some ways, the decision-makers are still waiting for age to take its hold.

Pitchers who throw 97 mph with a good slider and decent changeup normally fare pretty well in this game. Ponson has those tools, but dating to last season, he has just three wins in his past 20 starts.

"I think Sidney has got a chance to be a very good pitcher for a long, long time," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "But at some point in time, Sidney has to believe - I mean really believe - that he has the talent to be as good as other people think he can be."

Recently, Ponson has given the Orioles reason for renewed optimism. Over his past six starts he is 3-1 with a 3.35 ERA, and with the trade deadline little more than two months away, club officials are pledging their patience.

This is a critical juncture in Ponson's career because he sits 17 months from free agency and is already making $2.65 million this season. Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift has offered no assurances of keeping Ponson, or any other player for that matter, but he did indicate it would still take a lot to pry Ponson from his hands.

"This young man has tremendous upside, and he's going to get there," Thrift said. "When you have a pitcher with Sidney Ponson's potential and ability, all of our expectations are so high. When a person doesn't measure up to those things right away, we're disappointed. We lose our objectivity.

"He's a much better pitcher than he was a year ago. He's in much better condition. And I think he's matured."

Ponson figures he's come a long way since his days growing up on the beaches of Aruba. With the tourism industry fueling about 80 percent of that country's economy, Ponson had his first job at age 11.

He worked for an outfit called the Rock-n-Roll Booze Cruise, which would take revelers off the island for an evening on the sea.

"I'd put the sail up, and if they needed someone, I'd be a bartender," Ponson said, with a devilish grin. "I only made a couple different drinks, but I was making some money, going to school."

Minor-leaguer at 17

His rocket arm earned him a professional baseball contract at age 16, but his mother made him finish high school before he signed. He joined the Orioles' minor-league system at age 17, and four years later, he became the third Aruban native to play in the major leagues.

Since then, his progress has been gradual. He went 8-9 as a rookie then dipped all the way to 5-10 last year while battling tendinitis in his right forearm.

"Last year, I lost a couple close games," Ponson said. "I threw a complete game against Toronto [Aug. 4], and we lost 2-1. It seems like if you do 10 things good in life and one thing bad, they'll remember you for what you did bad.

"But I know that comes with the territory. I know this is a business."

Even during Ponson's recent stretch of success, he blew 3-0 leads against lowly Tampa Bay in back-to-back starts, and the Orioles went on to lose both of those games. For the season, they are 6-4 in his starts.

"There are times when you can say he's turned the corner, and there are times when he's regressed some," said one veteran major-league scout. "So he's close to where he was a year and a half ago."

But asked if Ponson's trade value is diminishing as he climbs the salary scale, the scout said, "You can't walk away from the fact he has a good arm. You can't walk away from his upside and potential. I think one day he'll be a pretty good pitcher."

Hargrove says Ponson has been more consistent this season than at any time in his previous two seasons as Orioles manager. Pitching coach Mark Wiley said Ponson's focus and tempo on the mound have improved over last season.

Ponson went nearly 10 months between victories, a span of 14 starts dating to June 28, before defeating Kansas City on April 27.

Every which way

Sometimes during that drought he'd pitch well, and the bullpen would falter or the offense would get stuck in the mud. Sometimes Ponson would struggle, like he did when posting a 7.87 ERA in his first three starts this season.

After his games, no one seems harder on Ponson than himself. Even in victory, he will explain his frustration with pitches gone astray. And in defeat, he heaps criticism all over himself.

"Those things are frustrating because you work so hard," Ponson said. "Sometimes a half-inch can cost you the game. I'm not afraid to say I messed up. I'm just being honest with myself."

Hargrove has handed Ponson his share of stern lectures over the past three years but still thinks the young pitcher's heart is in the right place. Hargrove called Ponson "a tremendous competitor."

"He's a fighter," Hargrove said. "And guys like that who keep working at it, and when they finally reach that point where they say, `I am pretty good,' when that light comes on, with that level of talent, they can be world beaters.

"But you can't turn the light on for them. They've got to do it. That's one thing I've told Sidney time and time again. I've said `Sidney, it's up to you. If it's going to happen, you're going to do it.' "

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Oakland Athletics

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Athletics' Erik Hiljus (3-3, 5.91) vs. Orioles' Calvin Maduro (2-4, 5.18)

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