- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

BALTIMORE — Sidney Ponson achieved knighthood in Aruba in April, yet he continues to curse in two languages and play the role of a wealthy bachelor. He loves going to rock concerts, bars and just about anywhere that serves greasy food.

On the mound, however, the pudgy right-hander has finally grown up.

Not too long ago, Ponson figured the best way to get out of a jam was to grip the ball tightly, rear back and throw as hard as he could. Problem was, the pitch frequently sailed down the middle of the plate and often ended up traveling at a similar rate of speed over the outfield wall.

That’s one reason why Ponson never has enjoyed a winning season since breaking into the big leagues with the Baltimore Orioles in 1998.

That should change this year. After five seasons in which he compiled a 41-53 record, Ponson has finally developed into the kind of pitcher the Orioles envisioned when they signed him as a 16-year-old in 1993.

Ponson is 12-5 with a 3.64 ERA. He has won 11 of his last 14 starts, allowed only nine home runs in 126 innings and owns all four of Baltimore’s complete games.

“Sidney has a better idea of how to get people out,” says Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. “I’ve never seen him pitch this well for an extended period of time.”

Ponson gave up 131 homers in his first five seasons — an average of 26 a year. He’s on pace to surrender fewer than 20 this season.

“As he’s matured, the Sidney of today has lost a little of his fastball — which has made him a remarkably better pitcher,” Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine says. “The old Sidney was able to throw 98 mph, and so he’d try to blow it by everybody. Now he’s throwing 93 and keeping it on the black part of the plate. He’s pitching instead of throwing.”

In finally grasping the complexities of pitching, Ponson first needed to master Step One: control your temper.

“When someone made an error on a routine ground ball, I used to have a tendency to get ticked off,” Ponson says. “Then things would go down the drain and they’d score two or three on me.

“This year, when we make an error, I just look at the guy and we say we’ll get the next batter out. It has been working. I’m more relaxed, and when I’m more relaxed I’m able to make my quality pitches.”

The Orioles have been waiting a long time for the figurative light bulb to click on above Ponson’s head. Before this year, the only thing hovering over his shaved scalp was a dark thundercloud.

“He does get frustrated, and he does get angry easily,” Hargrove says. “What he’s been able to do this year is to channel that energy in the right direction and use it to help him.”

Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley have displayed much patience with Ponson over the past four years. Long ago, they told him about taking control of his fastball and his temper. It just took a while for their preaching to sink in.

“Any pitcher, especially if he’s got good stuff, figures that if they throw hard they will do better. But that isn’t necessarily the case,” Wiley says. “You have to stay under control with even tempo, even rhythm throughout a game. That’s what the really good guys have learned.”

Now when Ponson takes the mound, he does so with a purpose.

“He seems like he’s got a game plan no matter what,” says catcher Brook Fordyce. “Before, he’d go out there and whatever he had that day, he had that day. Now he has a plan. His four days off he starts thinking about his next start. He’s matured.”

The maturation of Sidney Ponson intensified when he was decorated by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands as a Knight in the Order of the Dutch Royal House.

Sir Sidney was honored, but he’s still a wild bachelor who once left the team in New York to attend a rock concert in Baltimore. He received headlines after pitching poorly at Yankee Stadium during that series and still bristles when reminded of the story.

“I went to a concert and I pitched two days after. If I had stayed in New York, then I probably would have stayed out later,” he says. “If you’re doing good, they say good things about you. When you do bad, they blow it out of proportion. If I go to a concert today and I beat the Yankees tomorrow, I bet you they won’t say nothing. If you win they don’t say nothing.”

Nothing bad, that is. But there’s plenty to say about Ponson these days.

“Sidney has certainly developed into the No.1 guy on this staff,” says Hargrove.

And, in the process, he’s caught the eye of the rest of the league.

“That kid has been throwing the ball real good for them,” says Toronto manager Carlos Tosca.

The big question now is: How long will Ponson be a part of the Orioles’ rotation? His contract expires after this season, and there’s a chance he could be dealt before the July31 non-waiver trade deadline or sign with another team during the offseason.

The Orioles have already initiated talks with Ponson’s agent about a long-term contract.

“We certainly like what he’s been doing on the field and we hope he continues it the rest of the way,” says Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. “Then we’ll see where we’re at.”

Ponson has expressed a desire to return, but he’s fully prepared to take his fastball elsewhere.

“Right now I am an Oriole, and I’ll pitch for them and do my best,” he says. “If they call me in the office and say, ‘We traded you,’ then I’ll just pack my bags and see you guys later.”

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