Long walk for Orioles' Ponson on its last legs

March 03, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sidney Ponson spent some of the offseason chillin' in his new house in his home port of Noord, Aruba. Nothing fancy, Ponson said. The house isn't on any golf course. It's not tucked into some gated community, as some other millionaire ballplayers prefer.

"Some of those guys live near Tiger [Woods] down here [in Orlando's exclusive Idlewild]. What's the point? It's not like you're ever going to see him," Ponson said, chuckling.

Ponson even designed the modest house himself. "I just took a small piece of paper, got a pen and drew out what I wanted. A bedroom here, here and here. Boom. Done. The kitchen is the only thing that cost a lot of money. It came from Germany. It's for my mom and my aunts. They come cook for me."

This is the charming side of Ponson, although longtime Orioles observers tell us to use the term lightly.

This baseball outsider from an obscure tropical island relishes the fact he pays his membership fees at the Corpus Sanus gym in Noord because he knows the problems of accepting "free" things. It's not easy being the biggest thing this side of cruise ships in Aruba.

"Believe me. Nothing's free. If you take something, then people expect something, and when you say no, there are problems," he said.

Ponson is also the 26-year-old multi-millionaire who shipped his old-model Jeep Cherokee from the States to Aruba instead of buying a new one there.

"You could wake up one day and not have it anymore. It's just me. I don't see the point to going and buying a $100,000 car. If I was out of baseball tomorrow, I'll be happy to walk on the beach. I don't expect to have money all my life. I didn't have any growing up."

Getting inside the head of Sidney Ponson is something a few people have tried over the years, with varying degrees of success. Ask the Orioles - and don't be surprised by the lack of camouflage that accompanies their assessment of their puzzling right-handed pitcher.

He has the live arm that makes him a potential No. 1 starter. He is also a baseball outsider who does not conform to the standards of a major-league top gun - with legitimate reasons.

It's tough to get steeped in baseball culture when you grow up in Noord - hardly an outpost for developing baseball greatness. Ponson is the third Aruba native to make it to the big leagues.

Just as significant, it's tough to properly groom a kid to handle the mental rigors of being a No. 1 starter when the big-league club that signed him calls him up from Bowie too early because he's the only pitcher on the farm who can deliver the ball over the plate - fast.

Five seasons later, the Orioles and Ponson are locked in a dance whose steps don't seem to be changing. Ponson is clearly dispirited by having played on a losing team (Ponson received the fourth-lowest run support among American League starters last season).

"You can't say anything about his record. Look at the team he's had to play for," Scott Erickson said, adding: "If you put Derek Jeter on this team, he's not going to have all those World Series rings. Baseball is an individual game. It is about stats, but it's also a team game. Why wouldn't he want to play for a good team?"

Meanwhile, the Orioles have long grown weary of waiting for Ponson to show he is ace quality. Hence, yet another one-year deal offered to Ponson this winter.

"He's got a good heart for all his bluster and gruffness," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I mean, Sidney can be crusty. He's come a long way in the three years I've been here - his knowledge, his demeanor. But you do fight your own impatience."

Waiting for Ponson is a game that may be near an end. Even with the news that Ponson's buddy, Erickson, will miss the season with a torn shoulder, the Orioles are making no secret that they're willing to shed Ponson from the rotation for the right deal, especially if it brings back a front-line minor-league prospect or two.

Vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan knows this is a little risky. Ponson likely could flourish one day in a new setting, becoming baseball's next David Wells.

"I always said there are guys who are late bloomers. With Sidney, he could turn out to be a late Boomer," Flanagan said.

But the Orioles are desperate to stock their minor-league system with players who will produce in two or three seasons. Ponson should bring that kind of compensation.

This spring, Ponson probably will find himself getting dropped down in the rotation, perhaps as far as the No. 4 starter. The Orioles hope veteran lefty Omar Daal and former rookie sensation Rodrigo Lopez will be pegged No. 1 and No. 2 and that Pat Hentgen or free-agent Rick Helling have good enough camps to seal the No. 3 spot.

For Ponson, who likes to mention his lack of a winning record is due in part because "I was the one who faces the No. 1's like [Roger] Clemens, Pedro [Martinez] or [Mike] Mussina," the Orioles are looking to eliminate that excuse.

Of course, that's assuming it ever gets that far. Ponson knows the Orioles are losing patience waiting.

"I want to see [if I can be an ace], too. I think I can be. It just hasn't fallen into place yet. A lot of guys don't come into their prime until they're 28 to 32. I'm 26 and still learning on the job," Ponson said.

To which the Orioles say Ponson has had plenty of time.

"Usually, when a guy gets 100 starts, has about 500 or 600 innings under his belt is about the time you see the light bulb go off that lets you know he gets it," Flanagan said.

Ponson, one year from free agency, has 135 starts, 881 innings but a demeanor that says it might be best to move on.

"What am I going to do? I'm not going to sit and cry about it. I'll just pack my bags and go," he said.

When this happens, both sides will get the fresh start they need.

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