After arrest, Ponson aims to proceed with caution

O's pitcher won't avoid Aruba, but is `looking over my shoulder'

February 22, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Though he has no intention of shunning his homeland, Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson can't possibly view the island of Aruba in quite the same way. Not after being detained by police for 11 days, scrutinized by the locals since he was a child. Not when his instincts keep telling him to look over his shoulder.

Unable to address specifics of the Christmas Day fight that led to his arrest before his scheduled hearing on March 3, Ponson said after yesterday's workout that he plans on returning to Aruba for occasional visits. But he also called his arrest "a life-changing experience," one he wouldn't wish on anybody.

"I will never throw Aruba away or nothing," he said. "I was born there, still love that island. Everybody is there. I am the only one here. I have to go back."

Ponson avoided the subject when approached at his locker Saturday, but he remained patient yesterday as the questions kept coming.

"They say time heals everything, so I am looking forward to it," he said. "I will keep going there. My mother is still there. I'll be myself. Now I know that a couple of people on the island don't like me, but that's part of being in the Caribbean. A couple of people in Baltimore don't like me, either."

Ponson said he expects to miss only two exhibition games while returning to Aruba, with the possibility of boarding a return flight to Fort Lauderdale on March 4.

Alleged to have punched a local judge during the altercation, Ponson was advised by his lawyer to refrain from discussing the incident until after the court date.

"I'm focused on baseball right now," he said, "and I'm doing my thing."

That includes reporting to camp at 253 pounds, 13 lighter than last spring. And vowing to ride last year's second-half resurgence.

If only Ponson could stick to those issues, but the arrest casts an even larger shadow than himself.

"It's part of those things I have to deal with," he said. "When the season starts, we can talk about that. Right now, everybody is loose. I'm calm, relaxed. I'm happy to be here with my teammates.

"I want to get this behind me. I made a mistake and I keep saying it over and over again. And I won't do that again."

Because of his outgoing personality, a thirst for the nightlife that's not easily quenched and the wealth he's accumulated, Ponson is an easy mark when venturing out in public. He tends to draw a crowd, or pull one toward him.

Popular in some Aruban circles, Ponson is resented in others.

"I go to the supermarket and they know me, but I am going to keep going about my business," he said. "What happened, I can't do anything about it. It doesn't mean I am going to Aruba and sit in my house. I am who I am and I hope people will respect that.

"I am more cautious. I am always looking over my shoulder. You never know what could happen. Like if you sit in a restaurant, you are looking around. You pay more attention to little things than you already do.

"I don't cause any trouble. I just sit in the corner of the bar to have a beer, but when you play baseball, everybody wants to talk to you. At 11 or 12 o'clock at night, they want to ask why you threw a curveball in the second inning. You turn around and tell them they should be a pitching coach and they get [angry] at you. I believe if you can come and say something to me, you should take my response to you, too. But a lot of people won't do it. It's a part of life, and you have to deal with it."

Life also is about growing as a person, and the Orioles have been waiting for Ponson to mature since rushing him to the majors in 1998 as a Double-A pitcher. The arrest was a hard lesson.

"I think he was probably embarrassed about what happened," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "It's something you'd like to say is behind him right now. You don't want to say it was a blessing in disguise, but I think it was a little bit of an awakening. I can see a big difference in his attitude in camp."

Ponson slept on a hard floor in his cell, with only the intense heat and uninterrupted boredom.

"It was no fun," he said. "I'll just try to forget about it. That's one thing about me: I am not scared about nothing. You have to deal with it and the way you deal with it tells what kind of person you are."

"An experience like that," said Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, "would have an impact on almost anybody."

Once Ponson was released from custody, he returned to his home in Fort Lauderdale, where he could bask in relative anonymity.

"I can go anywhere and nobody knows who I am," he said. "One or two baseball fans might know and I will deal with it, just say hi. And I will go my way and let him go his way. You see things different."

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