Starter starting over

Sidney Ponson won 17 games in 2003 before off-field issues and arm problems sidetracked him. Now he says he's sober and aiming to rehabilitate his career.

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Sidney Ponson can speak four languages fluently, yet somehow, he's spent a life feeling misunderstood.

Growing up in Aruba, he took his first job in the tourism industry at age 11, working as a gopher and occasional bartender for an outfit called the Rock-n-Roll Booze Cruise.

Ponson learned to talk fast in all those languages -- English, Dutch, Spanish and the island's native tongue of Papiamento -- and never backed down from a fight.

After years of hard living, Ponson said he never thought he'd live to see age 30. But he reached that milestone birthday in November and signed with the Twins.

Now, he hopes this season will be a new starting point, not an end.

"I'm still hungry to play baseball, believe me," Ponson said. "Basically, I want to show myself that I can do it, and show everybody that I'm not the pitcher they talked about the last four or five years."

Since 2003, when Ponson won 17 games in a season split between Baltimore and San Francisco, he's been released by three teams. He's been through alcohol rehab and anger management. He's had his transgressions, such as punching a judge on an Aruban beach, played out all over the media.

This week, with the words still coming out fast, Ponson said he's a changed man.

"I have a couple glasses of wine here and there, but I used to go out and drink 20 beers and stay up until 5, 6 o'clock in the morning," he said. "I'm in bed, at the latest, by midnight. One o'clock is way past my bedtime."

Ponson's personality could best be described as friendly and unabashed.

He is part-David Wells, part-Charles Barkley. Back in Aruba, people still tell him they wish he were a better role model.

"Why?" he said. "That's what I try to tell them -- why? Don't follow me. If you want me as a role model for your kids, you guys are in the wrrrrong place."

Ponson gave a hearty laugh.

"I don't like to be a role model because the first bad thing you do, everybody's going to look at you," he said. "Their role model should be their dad and mom at home."

• • •

Ponson's own childhood was difficult. His parents divorced when he was 2, and his father distanced himself from the family.

"He was never there," Ponson said flatly. "If he dropped dead tomorrow, I ain't going to the funeral. I let him know that, too.

"When I was in the big leagues, he wanted to get to know me. I said no, it doesn't work like that."

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