This jail might be lesson Ponson needs

December 14, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

When Sidney Ponson hit a judge and went to jail last winter, I was dispatched to Aruba to check things out. Someone had to do it.

The trail led me to a jail in a touristy neighborhood called Noord where Ponson spent most of his 11 days behind bars. It wasn't exactly a hard-time hellhole. The one-story building was small, quiet, clean. A beach was a half-mile away. Palm trees fluttered nearby. A watch commander at the front desk smiled and said "all the guys in the back" liked Ponson, as if they were frat brothers.

The Orioles wouldn't admit so publicly, but they were almost happy to see Ponson where he was, thinking the experience might persuade him to forgo his bar-hopping ways and approach his job more professionally entering his second season after signing a three-year, $22.5 million contract in January 2004.

Of course, he didn't get the message; he got out of jail in Aruba but went on to get arrested and charged with driving under the influence in Florida and Baltimore, eventually convincing the Orioles that they should dump him.

Now he's back in jail, sentenced to spend five days in Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center - a long way from Noord, both geographically and figuratively. Central Booking is a big, tough state-run institution known for being crowded and sometimes violent. Forget palm trees. Last summer, three former correctional officers were indicted on second-degree murder charges after an inmate was beaten to death in a cell there.

Going to jail in Aruba didn't teach him a lesson, but five days in Central Booking might. Spokeswoman Barbara Cooper said Ponson, who was processed around 5 p.m. yesterday, wouldn't be treated differently from any other inmate.

Ponson, 29, didn't comment when sentenced in Baltimore District Court on Monday, but it was revealed he had been through a 30-day rehab program, a step he obviously needed to take if he wants to keep pitching.

His agent, Barry Praver, said several teams are interested, no surprise given the lack of available arms. He is nothing if not an intriguing alternative, for the Ponson who reports to spring training in 2006 is liable to be the one Orioles fans always wanted to see: sobered up, serious-minded, more mature.

Put it this way: If he hasn't gotten the message after spending 30 days in rehab and five nights in Central Booking, his career is almost over.

Since the Orioles are looking for pitching (it's the first item on Miguel Tejada's wish list, which is suddenly very important), it's hard not to wonder how a cleaned-up Ponson would look in their rotation. But let's just not go there, OK?

Only slightly exaggerating, there are between a hundred and a thousand reasons why Ponson needs to pitch elsewhere.

For starters, the Orioles have exceeded their deductible on getting burned by counting on him. Do it once or twice and you're excused. Do it any more and you're just dumb. The Orioles have done it too often to count. And besides, they already have enough problems. They don't need to rekindle any old ones.

There's also more risk involved than the Orioles can afford; everyone who knows Ponson is hoping he will finally be turned around after all this, but no one is putting money on it.

Ponson also clearly needs to go elsewhere - for his sake. If he is going to succeed, he's going to succeed somewhere other than here, where the fans and media are tired of him and everything he does would be held up against his past. He can start over in St. Louis or wherever, and also conceivably pitch for a better team.

What kind of contribution could a cleaned-up Ponson make? Whew, talk about a hypothetical question. There's never been a cleaned-up Ponson, so who knows? He has a power arm and a warrior's mentality and has won 76 major league games, but he also has had just one winning season since breaking into the majors in 1998.

The scary scenario for the Orioles is the example of Dennis Martinez, another homegrown pitcher whose drinking got so out of hand that the club dumped him in 1986. Martinez cleaned up and pitched another 12-plus years, winning 137 games.

But the chances of Ponson burning the Orioles to that degree are almost nil. Martinez was spectacularly gifted; he threw a perfect game and retired with a 3.70 career ERA. Ponson's career ERA is more than a point higher.

The Orioles can safely move on. And there's nothing left for Ponson here except these five final nights, which will amount to a highly undignified reminder of what could have been.

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