FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The talk came on the first day of spring training, pitching coach to young left-hander, teacher to pupil. Though he mangles the English language on occasion, Ray Miller doesn't mince words. If he has a message to deliver, he makes sure it won't fall upon deaf ears.
Pulling aside Matt Riley, 25, the one-time phenom who has been striking out batters and breaking hearts for years, Miller reminded him he's out of minor league options. Play time was over.
"I told him, `You can't be a kid anymore. I don't want you doing anything that stands you out from anybody else. I want you to be a leader, be here on time, don't make mistakes, don't be talking while other people are talking.' So, far he's done everything right," Miller said.
"He seems a little more mature, a little bit more focused."
If Riley took up residence in manager Lee Mazzilli's doghouse last season, all must be forgiven. He's getting the ball to start today's exhibition opener against the Florida Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., an honor that comes while Sidney Ponson attends a hearing in Aruba related to his Christmas Day arrest.
"I'm just excited to get started," Riley said. "It's not really a big deal to me what day I pitch. You've still got to go out there and pitch well. I'm just happy they gave me the opportunity."
He's running out of chances.
Riley began and ended last season in the rotation, but he also was demoted twice to Triple-A Ottawa, the second time on July 2 after arriving late to Philadelphia and allowing five runs in less than two full innings. He was 3-4 with a 5.63 ERA in 14 appearances, one of them in relief.
"This last year was another very humbling experience for me," Riley said. "Ray's really helped me realize that we're together as a team, it's not an individual thing and everything we do is `we,' not `I.' "
Just like another left-hander, Erik Bedard, Riley's name came up often in trade talks during the general managers and winter meetings. And because he's out of options, he'd have to pass through waivers before the Orioles could send him down. Some officials and scouts still question his makeup, but they agree he has magic in his surgically repaired left arm.
Given the choice, Riley wants to remain with the Orioles, the team that drafted him in 1997, nursed him through ligament-reconstruction surgery, trained its eyes to look past the tattoos, piercings and bleached hair and waited for him to grow up.
"This is the eighth year, and it's been a long relationship," he said. "We've had our ups and our downs. They're going to have to make a decision, either keep me here or I get traded to another team. I want nothing more than to stay here. This is my team. I love all the guys. They're my closest friends. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else.
"It's tough not to listen to the [trade rumors]. I heard a couple things. I know a lot of it, the Orioles are trying to get a feel where we [Riley and Bedard] stood with other teams, and I think they realized that we stood so high, maybe they value us just as high. Guys like Erik and I have a lot of potential. We have a chance to really do something."
While Bedard faltered late in the season and was shut down in September, Riley returned from Ottawa when rosters expanded and went 2-1 with a 2.43 ERA in five starts. Miller sweated out each appearance, and the idle time before them, knowing how easily Riley could be distracted or influenced.
"Last year, he pitched two or three really good games for me, but I was exhausted," Miller said. "I've got to start the game before and keep everybody away from him and just keep him focused on one basic thing and hope somebody doesn't talk to him, even to the point where I'd be worried about the security guard in the corner of the dugout. He might turn around and say, `Hey, you've got a great curveball,' and Matt might go out and start throwing all curveballs.
"Matt's a great kid. He's almost too nice."
Today's opener gives Riley another chance to show how much he's changed, to begin proving all the doubters wrong. Three innings or 50 pitches, whichever comes first.
"I try not to look ahead," he said. "I try to look at what I can do now and not get ahead of myself. I've done that in the past and wound up getting myself in trouble. I'd rather just bite my tongue, be humble, go out there and do my talking through my pitching."
Ponson made it clear yesterday that he'd rather be pitching, but his first start isn't scheduled until Monday. He arrived in Aruba Tuesday night with his agent, Barry Praver, and Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. Ponson faces three assault charges for allegedly punching a local judge, and he's expected to receive a fine and/or community service.
"What happened, happened. I can't change that," Ponson told the Associated Press. "I'd much rather pitch in front of 50,000 people than have to stand in court in front of a judge."
Ponson revealed he has been taking anger management courses.
"In the past, I would get angry with little things," he said. "Now I noticed that I don't get mad that easy anymore."