Ponson, old Orioles jersey still a good fit

`I feel comfortable here,' says pitcher on return

January 21, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

If bridges between Sidney Ponson and the Orioles were burned last summer, as the pitcher insisted at the non-waiver trade deadline, they seemed pretty sturdy yesterday.

That was Ponson wearing his old jersey and cap, smiling behind a podium at the B&O warehouse during a news conference that reintroduced him to the local media. And that was Jim Beattie, the club's executive vice president, who checked out Ponson's attire and gleefully proclaimed, "It looks the same."

Only the hard feelings from Ponson have changed.

After giving a harsh assessment of his relationship with Beattie six months ago, Ponson wore a huge grin yesterday as he rejoined the organization that brought him to the majors in 1998.

"I feel comfortable here," said Ponson, 27, who signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract after passing his physical. "The fans are great. It's a great ballpark. I still have my apartment here. I'm just happy to be back, and I'll do everything in my power to help the young guys."

As the Orioles' rotation is configured, Ponson projects as their No. 1 starter after breaking camp last spring at No. 4. The remaining staff, barring any more additions, probably will be chosen from among Kurt Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and Omar Daal.

"We're very happy to have Sidney as the foundation of our starting rotation," Beattie said.

Ponson was a combined 17-12 with a 3.75 ERA in 31 starts between the Orioles and San Francisco Giants, and received his first playoff exposure in Game 2 of the National League Division Series. He left with a 5-4 lead but didn't get the decision in the Giants' 9-5 loss.

"I think with the experience that he went through this year, it's going to make him a better pitcher," Beattie said. "He had a very solid year, and I think the growth we saw in Sidney, the experience he had, is going to make him a better pitcher for the Orioles for years to come.

"We're very happy that we could bring him back to the Orioles' fold."

Jesus "Chu" Halabi, the scout who signed Ponson, worked behind the scenes to reunite him with the Orioles, contacting majority owner Peter Angelos shortly after the trade.

"I called Peter and said, `The most important thing to me is he's a homegrown kid,'" Halabi said. "There was not one day where this kid was mad through free agency. He wasn't complaining about things. He loves this city. I said, `You might still go back there.'"

That was fine with Beattie, who said he had no animosity toward Ponson and always felt the Aruban right-hander could return to the club at the right price after he turned down $21 million over three years last summer.

"It was never a problem on my behalf," Beattie said.

Club executive Mike Flanagan, who handled most of the negotiations, joked yesterday about the perceived tension between Ponson and Beattie. "We were just talking about how we missed a great opportunity to load them up with Band-Aids, blackened eyes and the rest," he said.

As the Orioles upgraded their roster in December by adding shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher Javy Lopez, Ponson took notice and pushed for his agent, Barry Praver, to get a deal done. So much for any hard feelings.

"I told Barry, `Keep talking to these guys because I want to go back,'" Ponson said.

Said Praver: "Once it became clear the direction the Orioles were heading, Sidney gave me the word that he'd like to return. And the Orioles were mutually receptive."

Ponson returns with a little more responsibility. No longer will he have Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson or Lopez to shoulder the burden of being the No. 1 starter. That role could fall upon him, and he has never seemed more equipped to handle it.

Looking toward manager Lee Mazzilli, Ponson said: "He's the one who has to pick the Opening Day starter. After Opening Day, you just have to go out every five days and win games. It doesn't matter if you're No. 1 or No. 4. You just have to go out and get W's. That's what gets you to the postseason."

Don't expect Ponson, who set career bests last year for wins and ERA, to become too serious in his second tour with the club. More mature on and off the field, he still expects to squeeze as much fun out of the season as possible.

"I'm the same person. I'm the same happy guy who will come to the ballpark and do my job," he said. "You guys are going to see me in the clubhouse. I haven't changed at all."

He can't say the same about the team after he left.

"The people of Baltimore have to be happy where this club is and where it's going," Mazzilli said. "We're headed in the right direction. We've signed the right people and we're not done. This is a good time to be an Oriole."

Judging by Ponson's expression yesterday, he couldn't have agreed more.

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