Like Sidney Ponson, Dennis Martinez got into trouble as an Oriole. But Martinez learned from his mistakes.

Getting it right after wrong turn

Baseball Week

September 04, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN STAFF

THEY BOTH WERE 21-year-olds living in a new culture when they made their major league debuts.

They both were can't-miss talents, future aces of the Orioles' staff.

Then, at age 28, baseball and life collapsed on them. Coming off their worst professional seasons, both were arrested on drunken-driving charges.

Sadly, that's where the similarities between Sidney Ponson and Dennis Martinez end. At least for now. Martinez was arrested in November 1983, weeks after being part of the Orioles' last world championship team. It was his first arrest. It was an epiphany. He hasn't had a drink since.

Ponson was arrested on Aug. 25, weeks after calf and thumb injuries ended this disastrous season. It was his third DUI charge since 1996 and second in seven months. It was his third arrest since allegedly punching a judge on Christmas Day.

No one knows whether his most recent legal trouble - and his subsequent release by the Orioles - will wake up the Aruban knight. Martinez, now 50 and living comfortably in Miami, won't predict what will happen. He can't, because he has been there. Every individual is different.

"Unfortunately for most people to do something about their problems they have to hit bottom," said Martinez, still a hero in his native Nicaragua. "You don't want them to, but sometimes they have to. They have to admit, `I am in trouble and I want to do something about it.' "

The bottom for Martinez came on a highway on-ramp in the middle of a rainy night. He had had 10 drinks over a period of about six hours and was heading onto the Beltway near the Security Mall when one of his car tires blew. The Good Samaritan that drove up behind him happened to be a state trooper in an unmarked vehicle.

"It was drizzling a little and I saw him put on his hat and I'm like, `Oh my God. I am in trouble,'" Martinez said. The trooper smelled alcohol, and not buying the story that he had had just three drinks, the officer arrested Martinez. It was all over the news the next day.

"In some ways, you feel like it is not you," he said. "Then I got a chance to talk to my kids, they were 9 and 8 then, and I just saw their eyes. And I felt like I had to do something."

Even then, Martinez didn't think he had a drinking problem. He never drank the night before he pitched. He never had alcohol in him when he took the mound. He was never a violent drunk. He thought he might be experiencing some warning signs, but he didn't have a full-blown disease.

Regardless, he checked into a clinic at Sheppard Pratt in Towson. That's when he discovered he was an alcoholic. That's when he turned his life around.

He pitched two more seasons for the Orioles before being traded to the Montreal Expos in June 1986 for Rene Gonzales. At the time, the team didn't think he still had the fire to be an effective starter. It wasn't until 1987 when Martinez regained his old form. From that year until 1995, he posted double-digit wins each season, only once had a sub-.500 record and never had an ERA higher than 3.85. In July 1991, he threw a perfect game.

"It's not an overnight thing," he said. "My career took me like two years to get it together again."

All these years later, Martinez still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He likes to tell his story, likes to listen to others.

"It's my job as an alcoholic," he says.

That's why he wants to talk to Ponson. As an Orioles special instructor this spring, Martinez chatted some with Ponson about the alleged assault on the judge. But there wasn't much of a connection so Martinez held back. He worked more with Orioles starters Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez. He asked for their phone numbers and has talked pitching with them periodically this season.

This week, Martinez received Ponson's cell phone number. He's called twice and left messages. As of Friday afternoon, the troubled Aruban hasn't returned the calls.

It doesn't bother Martinez. Ponson may not be ready to talk. He may never want to talk to Martinez. That would be a mistake, of course. They have had a similar rise and similar fall, and Martinez could show Ponson there is still hope. Martinez pitched a dozen more seasons after the Orioles gave up on him. He ranks 48th all-time with 245 victories. He's successful, clean and sober. So he hopes Ponson calls.

This is what Martinez will say: "Listen, you are not the only one, bro. Hey, I was like that, too. But I did this and I did this and 22 years later I am still here. And I can enjoy my life now and I don't have to drink anymore.

"I would try to make him comfortable, help him and tell him to call me anytime."

EXTRA BASES Say what?

"I'm now a follower of his mediocre career."

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