- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Sir Sidney Ponson is the first experiment for Baltimore Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. The Baltimore skipper adheres to the power of positive thinking, and he is using that strategy to handle his No.1 starting pitcher.

If it works, Mazzilli might be able to retire and go into the weight-loss business, maybe fill the void left by the death of Dr. Robert (“Have another slice of bacon on me”)Atkins. Because if there is one positive about Sir Sidney this spring, it’s that he is positively huge.

He looked exhausted — his face flushed and his back sore — after working out in the Florida sun. Of course, his day wasn’t done; he still had to get Mazzilli a cup of coffee.

Why?

Mazzilli had a deal with the pitchers: The first one to make an error fielding ground balls must make him coffee. Ponson was the clear favorite to be Mr. Coffee, because, as everyone knows, you have to bend over to field grounders. That presented a problem for Sir Sidney, who, after being named an Aruban knight a few years ago, had the notion he could eat everything on the round table.

Reportedly, Sir Sidney came to training camp at 264 pounds, which is at least 15 pounds more than what he weighed going into the final year of his contract last season. That comes out to about $85,000 a pound for the three-year, $22.5million contract he signed in the offseason.

The right-hander is bucking the spring training trend of showing up to camp in shape. The weight loss of several sluggers sparked the speculation of abandoned steroid use. If they tested Sir Sidney, he would come up positive for barbecue sauce.

In the interest of full disclosure, Sir Sidney looks like Michael Jackson next to me. All that means, though, is that he would be in decent shape for a sportswriter.

Sure there have been successful portly pitchers — Mickey Lolich, Gaylord Perry and recently Bartolo Colon — but this is not the kind of example the Orioles hoped for when they signed Sir Sidney to help lead a young staff. It’s an Orioles tradition to have the No.1 pitcher be a role model. The team should expect more from Sir Sidney after making him its highest-paid pitcher.

Jim Palmer, who mentored Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan and learned from Robin Roberts, stopped by the complex the other day, took a look at Sir Sidney and said loudly, “Sidney, now I know why you got that big contract. There’s two of you.”

Flanagan, an Orioles vice president, is not concerned with Sir Sidney’s weight.

“Maybe in your mind’s eye you would like them all to look like Jim Palmer, but by the same token there are all different kinds of body types,” he said. “I tend to go by your ideal weight is the weight that you have the most success at, not the one that looks the best in the lobby,” Flanagan said. “It is not a concern of mine, and I’m sure in the Florida sun, if he needs to lose a couple, that is fine. I’m sure he can handle it easily.”

Sir Sidney had no problem reporting 15 pounds lighter last year — his contract year. He can do it when he is properly motivated. And last year when he was lighter, he had his breakout season, going 14-6 before being traded to San Francisco. By that time, according to Flanagan, he weighed about 264 pounds. Sir Sidney didn’t finish strong for the Giants. When the postseason came around he gave up four runs on seven hits in five innings in a division series loss to the Florida Marlins — when San Francisco needed him the most. After the season, the Giants — who gave up a quality young pitcher in Kurt Ainsworth to get Sir Sidney — wanted nothing to do with him.

His lack of conditioning raises the chances for injury, and think about that one — an Orioles rotation without Sir Sidney? Omar Daal, Rodrigo Lopez and a handful of young pitchers who haven’t combined for 200 major league innings in their careers.

How could anyone show up here overweight after the death of Steve Bechler last year? Bechler, also about 15 pounds overweight, looked to lose it quickly by taking an over-the-counter diet pill containing ephedrine. He paid the price with his life.

The day before he died, Bechler was yelled at by manager Mike Hargrove for being in poor condition. Mazzilli took a different tack with Sir Sidney. The first day of camp, the manager told him he was his No.1 guy and would start the opener against Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox at Camden Yards on April4.

“Sidney responded with a smile. He is a guy we signed for a reason. … We all need [a pat on the back],” Mazzilli said. “Sometimes it is a little confidence builder. Some guys don’t need that. Some guys are very confident in their ability and what they are and what they stand for.”

If Sir Sidney needs a pat on the back, it might be because he’s choking on a chicken bone.

The pitcher said he appreciated the pat. “It is an honor to be the Opening Day starter,” he said. “I am happy to have it. But I have to get myself ready, get myself mentally prepared. … I am just trying to get myself in good shape again.”

If Mazzilli can somehow get all of him in good shape — the mind, the body and the talent of Sir Sidney — that would be positively huge.

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