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."

Ponson remains extremely close to his mother. It was her pain, he said, that finally made him step back and seek help.

He was arrested three times over a nine-month span, including twice for drunken driving. He said his epiphany came while sitting in a Baltimore jail cell on Aug. 25, 2005.

"To put my mom and family through the hurt that I caused them, with the one [arrest] in Aruba, and the one in Baltimore again ... enough's enough. "I said, that's over with and checked myself into rehab."

Ponson spent 30 days under an assumed name in a Malibu, Calif., treatment center. He said it opened his eyes, seeing stories of countless people who died in alcohol-related crashes.

Now, he said, he gets a ride any time he's out and has a drink.

"I mean, thank God I never hit somebody or hurt somebody," he said. "I would have been killed soon. I was going downhill. I started drinking more and more and more. My way of thinking about things was just getting hammered."

The Orioles voided the final year of Ponson's three-year, $22.5 million contract, citing his alcohol issues and legal problems.

• • •

The most infamous moment came Christmas Day, 2004, when Ponson got into an altercation on an Aruban beach. Ponson had been riding a wave runner with friends, and when complaints led to a fight, he hit a man, who happened to be a judge.

Ponson spent 11 days in jail. The saga was front-page news in Aruba.

Just one year earlier, Ponson had been knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Aruba is part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, and Sir Sidney is one of only three Arubans to reach the major leagues.

Ponson's popularity back home took a hit.

"There are always going to be people who are mad at him, but 95 percent of the people there love him," said Chu Halabi, a baseball scout who mentored Ponson and signed him with the Orioles in 1993. "Every game he pitches is on TV. For everything he's done wrong, he's done 1,000 things right, or good for people."

Halabi said Ponson routinely sends checks back to Aruba to pay youth baseball expenses, never seeking publicity.

Ponson remembers having his own big-league dreams. At age 11, he told Halabi he was going to be the next Roger Clemens.

"I'll show you; you'll come back and sign me," Halabi remembers Ponson telling him.

Sure enough, by the time Ponson was 15, he could throw his fastball 86 miles per hour. Halabi helped refine his mechanics, and six years later Ponson reached the majors with a fastball that could reach 98 mph.

• • •

Baltimore fans were tantalized with the righthander's promise, but he didn't deliver a dominant season until 2003. Then, when he returned from San Francisco, he began experiencing right elbow pain, which grew increasingly worse.

Last season, he had outings for the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees in which his fastball barely hit 91 mph. He no longer could throw his curveball or changeup, so he was reduced to throwing sinkers and sliders -- a four-pitch pitcher reduced to two.

"It was my arm," Ponson said. "I'm not going to lie about it. I'm hard-headed and stuff like that. I didn't want to do surgery ... and finally, I surrendered."

Ponson had surgery to remove bone chips in October. Already this spring, he's felt the difference.

"I feel great now," he said. "I feel like I'm 19 again. ... I won't be throwing 98 [mph] again, but if I can bring it back to 93-94, I'll be happy."

Ponson will make $1 million from the Twins if he makes the major league roster, and he can earn up to $2 million more in incentives.

"At 30 years old, it's not out of the question we can resurrect this guy," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "We used to really like him. We had good reports on him for years."

So far, Ponson said he loves his new environment around the Twins. Halabi said he thinks he'll have a good year.

"He's the same person -- the same happy guy," Halabi said. "Now, he's a little more mature. He's got a fiancee who loves him, and I think that's going to make a lot of difference.

"The most important thing is Sidney's happy. Sidney's healthy. I guess he's found peace."

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