Unchanged, unfazed, Ponson gets 1st win

April 09, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

NEW YORK - Nothing comes easy for Sidney Ponson. Yankees right fielder Gary Sheffield helped make that point last night.

In the fifth inning, Sheffield took the Orioles right-hander deep for a two-run homer into the famous monuments behind the left-field fence, where Yankees greats are memorialized.

As Ponson watched Sheffield round the bases, the ball skittered around the marble statues like a pinball.

Welcome to 2005, Sir Sid.

Ponson got the win in the Orioles' 12-5 victory, but he wasn't real happy with what he did - 5 2/3 innings, eight hits, three earned runs.

"Five and two-thirds innings - that's not doing your job," he said. "I did a lot of stupid mistakes. I'm just glad I gave us a chance to win, thanks to the guys behind me."

It was an auspicious place to start his season, to earn that first win, no matter how blase Ponson wanted to sound about Yankee Stadium.

"It's just a game. I'll have 30 others by the end of the season," Ponson said earlier in the week in Baltimore, where he spent the first three games doing other things besides pitching.

His first turn came here, in this little baseball backwater where the home team usually finds no shortage of pitchers eager to relocate their Cy Young hardware.

Last night, the Yankees sent their third-best starter signed this winter, Jaret Wright, to the mound. With Wright, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano, the Yankees became the first team since 1903 to acquire three pitchers with 15 or more wins each the previous season.

It's always something, usually very good, for the pitching-rich Yankees.

And then there are the Orioles, whose allegedly best starting pitcher - or at least their highest paid and most experienced starter - is Ponson.

If Ponson was humbled by his arrest and 11-day jail stay this winter in Aruba, he reverted to his familiarly blustery form immediately after his January DUI arrest was reported two months later.

The mode he seemed poised to adopt - one of quiet contrition and dedication to preparing for the season - was overwhelmed by his lapses in judgment.

His arrest is one thing. Many people have done stupid things, but that Ponson wanted to blast the media for reporting what is already a matter of public record is a poor attempt at shifting blame.

"He's a sensitive kid. Sometimes that's a way of trying to hide that side of yourself," manager Lee Mazzilli said.

Ponson is sensitive, just as he is hardheaded and fun-loving, but he incorrectly argues his position by saying his DUI arrest was a private matter since nobody was hurt.

This weekend, the Orioles continue to work with Major League Baseball and Canadian officials on whether Ponson and Eric DuBose will be permitted to enter Canada when the team makes a trip to Toronto on April 22. Both players have court hearings pending their separate DUI arrests.

Needless to say, the Orioles are not amused. As a result, Ponson was demoted to No. 4 in the rotation.

"We'll see. Time will tell," Mazzilli said about the message he sent to Ponson, loud and clear, about what the organization will and won't accept.

Ponson, however, is not demoralized. He can't allow himself that mode. It is against his nature. He is a survivor. He says he's going to go it alone. He has been that way all his life.

The wild boy from Aruba who sold sodas on the beach and greeted party boats and yachts as they came into dock. He hustled to make a dollar, enough sun on his freckled back that he never cast a dark shadow.

Life is for living. Large. Loud. Happy. His way.

Ponson did not come to America with the mind-your-p's-and-q's pedigree that you get in some big league's power pitchers. Some of these front-line starters have been groomed for greatness since toddler-hood, coached and coddled.

Some of these guys are nervous. They strive to please. They want attention, reinforcement, to be told they're loved and appreciated.

Not Ponson. He is his own man. An outsider. Always was. Always will be, so he says.

"Why should I change now?" Ponson said.

The real question is, why not?

Every time he takes a step forward, eagerly rooted on by the organization and the fans who have come to accept him as part of the Orioles' tribe, Ponson takes a step or two back. He had a terrific first half in 2003, a year when his contract was up, and the effort got him a trade to San Francisco, where the Giants believed he could help them make it to the World Series.

Since he has come home, to the organization that signed him as a non-drafted free agent in 1993 at the raw age of 16, Ponson has shown a willingness to rely too heavily on his old habits.

"He's like the kid who puts his hand on the hot stove and you tell him, it's hot, don't do it, and he still does it," Mazzilli said.

In other words, everyone just wants him to be smart, be safe and, if that results in 15 or more wins every season, just like the Yankees' starters, fantastic - for Ponson and everyone.

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