Ponson: Too Much, Too Soon, Not Too Late?

Sidney Ponson won't be alone. Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley are among those recovering alcoholics who preceded him and excelled under Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa.

While alcohol abuse has received increasing awareness and supporting actions across our society in recent years, it remains a major problem. Baseball, just like any collection of a cross-section of human beings, can reflect life at its best and worst, including this serious area of concern.


Perhaps the likelihood of problems are even greater for those in Major League Baseball than in the general population. Clubs are owned by breweries and alcohol is available in many clubhouses and team flights, not to mention the months players spend away from home and with the inevitable off-hours temptations. These young men are awash with money, with adoring people around them and plenty of excess time on their hands.


Some can handle it. Others cannot.


Sidney Ponson

Sidney Ponson signed with the Baltimore Orioles at the age of 16 from his native Aruba. With a fastball topping out at 94 miles per hour and a nasty slider to go with it, Ponson ascended it to the major leagues by the age of 21, when he made 20 starts in 31 appearances for the 1998 Orioles.


The sky seemed the limit for the pitcher who quickly became the Orioles' ace. Ponson was even knighted in his home country. Yet, there were ongoing concerns about his weight and conditioning amid whispers that he lacked the drive and mental toughness to become great. Still, after trading him to San Francisco in 2003, the Orioles welcomed Ponson back to Baltimore with a $22.5 million contract.


Soon more serious problems related to alcohol and violence followed. Professionally, Ponson's career hit rock bottom in September when the Orioles attempted to void out his contract, for which he was owed over $11 million and released him.


While Ponson's off-field difficulties have been more public than most, he is not alone. Here are two other stories worthy of consideration.


Bob Welch

The name Bob Welch became instantly known around the game of baseball on October 11, 1978. The then-21-year-old rookie fired a steady diet of fastballs to strike out Reggie Jackson in the ninth inning of a 4-3 win by the Los Angeles Dodgers over the New York Yankees in Game Two of the 1978 World Series.


But, all was not right for Welch. He was both a star pitcher and an alcoholic. Now an activist on alcohol awareness, Welch described his experiences in Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Ballplayer's Battle With Alcoholism, published relatively early in his career - in 1982.


"There's beer just for snapping your fingers in the clubhouse," Welch wrote. "There are all kinds of parties, and you're on the road a hundred nights a year. You walk through a hotel lobby and people are standing in line to buy you a drink. It's easy to say yes, if you're inclined to say yes in the first place."


Yet, looking back, Welch doesn't place the blame on anyone except himself for his alcoholism and the ramifications that arose from it. "I never had anybody pour anything down my throat," Welch said. "I was well on my way before baseball. I can't point fingers at baseball."


With the help of many, Welch confronted his demons and raised his game to new heights afterward. He continued to pitch for the Dodgers through 1987.


Welch then moved on to the Oakland Athletics via trade where he joined manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan and reached his full potential as a player. Duncan was credited for helping Welch perfect his patented forkball.


In 1990, Welch went on to become the first 25-game winner in Major League Baseball in ten years. That season, we went 27-6, was selected to the All-Star squad and won the American League Cy Young Award. Welch remained with the A's until his retirement in 1994.


Welch accomplished all those lofty Oakland results as a recovering alcoholic. He later joined the coaching ranks, including a stint as Duncan's peer with the Arizona Diamondbacks.


Dennis Eckersley
"I had some personal problems in the middle of my career that I overcame," Dennis Eckersley said in 2004. "It was a hell of a ride." What an understatement that was!


Eckersley had made his major league debut at 20 years of age with the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He had achieved stardom quickly, having been the toast of Cleveland and later Boston, before being sent to Chicago. By 1986, Eckersley had accumulated 151 wins as a starting pitcher, but was coming off his lowest win season ever, with just six.


After seeing a tape of himself drunk in front of his daughter at Christmastime in 1986, Eckersley finally had to admit he needed help. As a result, he entered an alcohol rehabilitation clinic in January, 1987.


With his rehab complete, Eckersley returned to his Cubs squad for spring training in 1987. However, he was promptly shipped to the Oakland Athletics for three minor leaguers.


At 32, Eckersley was considered by many in the game to be washed up when he joined Tony La Russa's and Dave Duncan's A's in April, 1987. The coaching duo seemed to reinforce the point when they made the proud former 20-game winner a middle reliever – a role at the very bottom on the pitching hierarchy – but also one of lowest pressure.

However, La Russa and
Duncan's plans for Eckersley changed when their closer, Jay Howell, was injured midway through the season. Eckersley became their new ninth-inning stopper and finished with 16 saves. In 115-2/3 innings that year, he struck out 113 and walked just 17.


"If Jay Howell had stayed healthy, Eck may never have ended up in short relief," said Duncan.

From there, there was no looking back. Eckersley became the top closer in the American League in 1988, when he saved a league-best 45 games and helped the Athletics reach the World Series. The next season, he was a key part of La Russa's only World Championship squad.


Eckersley publicly confronted his alcohol abuse after that 1988 season. His brother Wally had been charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and attempted murder. His lawyers asked Dennis to testify about his own use of alcohol at the trial. Up to that point, Eckersley had kept his problems to himself, but he wanted to help his brother, so Dennis told his story.


His brother was ultimately convicted, anyway, but with the help of those around him, Eck stayed the course. "You think you can do it by yourself until the next time it happens," Eckersley said. "The first thing you have to learn is that it's not about will power."


Evenutally, Eckersley became a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2004, as only the third reliever ever enshrined, following Rollie Fingers and Hoyt Wilhelm. A six-time All-Star, he finished his 24-year career with a 197-171 record, 390 saves and a 3.50 ERA. Eckersley is the only pitcher in history with at least 100 saves and 100 complete games.

"Sometimes you have a lot of well-researched, carefully considered moves and sometimes you catch a break," La Russa said. "Dave Duncan and I didn't have any idea he had had an awakening where he was going to start dedicating his life to exercise and getting his life in order."


Fair enough. But, just as in Welch's case, La Russa and Duncan were there to provide Eckersley both the challenge on the mound and contribute to the support behind the scenes to help him stay focused while taking his game to a higher level than ever before.


At the time of their alcohol problems coming to light, who would have believed that Eckersley would go on to save 390 games and Welch would win 27 games and a Cy Young Award in a single season?


In closing

Whether Sidney Ponson is able to follow the pattern of Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley in confronting his problems head on and beat them or continues his slide toward ruin is yet to be seen.


But, to the extent his baseball support structure can contribute to his personal and professional recovery, Ponson looks to have signed on with the right team. Because like it or not, whether starter or middle reliever, Sidney Ponson is now a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.


With full knowledge of his past troubles and hope for his future, I'll be rooting for Ponson the pitcher, as well as the man. I bet Eck and Welch are too.


Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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