Good Knight, Sir Sidney

Our Baltimore-based correspondent says his goodbyes after Sidney Ponson signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.

It had to happen sooner or later.

 

But when I heard the news on Tuesday night that the St. Louis Cardinals had signed Sidney Ponson to a one-year, incentive-laden contract I still found myself somewhat surprised.

 

Of course, I expected that Ponson would get an opportunity to pitch in the majors in 2006.  My best guess was that he would wind up somewhere like Texas, Detroit or maybe even Tampa Bay.

 

But the St. Louis Cardinals?

 

This changes everything.

 

You see, as someone who has followed Ponson closely during his entire career in Baltimore, I've gotten used to being disappointed by him.  Whether it's showing up for spring training in terrible shape after signing a huge contract or slugging a judge on Christmas Day, Sidney's track record is at least one of consistency.

 

So I found it impossible to believe that Ponson's recent DUI arrest – and his subsequent release by the Orioles – would have been enough to convince him to clean up his act.

 

That's why I was convinced Ponson would have trouble finding a job with a contending team.  After all, who would take a chance on a guy with his track record?

We're talking about someone who took a limo from New York to Baltimore – and back again – in order to catch a Metallica concert the night before a start.  (It's no surprise that he gave up six earned runs in 1 1/3 innings while "Enter Sandman" was still stuck in his head the next afternoon.)

 

We're talking about a guy who got drunk on a beach in his native Aruba last Christmas and wound up punching a judge, leading to an eleven-day stay in prison.

 

We're talking about a guy who followed up that prison stay with a DUI arrest in Florida just days later. 

 

And we're talking about a guy who just spent five days in a Baltimore City jail cell for his August DUI arrest following a game in Baltimore.

 

After each of those incidents, we heard the same message from Sidney: "This is a wake-up call for me.  I will learn from this."

 

Only he never did.

 

But surely the St. Louis Cardinals – a first-class organization with a commitment to winning – would steer clear of a character like Sidney Ponson, right?

 

Unless…

 

Unless this time he's serious. 

 

Ponson told a Baltimore Sun reporter earlier this week that he did, in fact, spend 30 days in an alcohol treatment facility.  He also confirmed that he speaks to a therapist weekly and that the toughest thing he had to do was tell his mother he had a problem.

 

That story is very different than the old story we'd hear from Sidney, which usually sounded something like, "I'm as entitled as the next guy to go out and have a good time; I just need to be more careful."

 

I had a feeling that the Sidney Ponson story would have an ending similar to Dennis Martinez' story.  Only I just didn't expect the plot twist to happen so quickly.

 

Martinez came up with the Orioles in 1976 as a 21-year-old right-hander with all the talent in the world.  He was a pitcher who was revered in his native country (Nicaragua) and he seemingly had the baseball world at his fingertips. 

 

Until a drinking problem got the better of him.  After Martinez conquered his addiction, he went on to great success in Montreal in Cleveland.  Martinez posted an earned run average over 5.00 for three straight years in Baltimore before moving on to the Expos.  And then "El Presidente" averaged nearly 14 wins per season for seven years north of the border.

 

Ponson came up with the Orioles in 1998 as a 21-year-old right-hander with all the talent in the world.  He, too, was revered in his native land (Aruba) and it sure looked like Ponson had the baseball world at his fingertips.

 

Until a drinking problem got the better of him. 

 

Sure, there have been signs along the way.  The infamous Metallica road trip in 2000 was a red flag.  But Sidney was young, everyone thought, and he still had a world of talent.

 

So much talent, in fact, that the Orioles gave him a three-year, $22.5 million contract before the 2004 season. 

 

But then Ponson showed up for spring training in such miserable shape he was unable to complete the team's running drills.  Later that season, as Ponson was on his way to a 5.30 earned run average, the Orioles explored ways of voiding that contract due to Ponson's poor physical condition.

 

The Orioles decided against voiding Ponson's contract at that time, but that decision proved to be only temporary.  Three alcohol-related arrests in a span of nine months led the club to release Ponson last August, and we now know that Ponson began the process of turning his life around soon after his release.

 

The similarities between Ponson and Dennis Martinez have been obvious to Orioles fans over these past twelve months. 

 

And while many fans may never forgive Ponson for taking the club's money and putting forth only minimal effort in return, the overwhelming majority sincerely hope that Ponson does get his life turned around at some point. 

 

Martinez was 31 years old when he packed his bags for Montreal – and a second chance at big league success – and we all know how that turned out. 

 

Ponson, on the other hand, just turned 29 – and he has plenty of life left in his right arm.  Seeing a photo of a slimmed-down Ponson leaving a Baltimore courtroom last week gave me a glimpse of what might be to come. 

 

And when I saw that Ponson had cleaned up his act to the point where the St. Louis Cardinals were interested, well, I became more convinced than ever that Ponson is on the fast track to a Dennis Martinez-style turnaround.

 

I would not be shocked to see Ponson do very well in St. Louis – and a return to his career-best level of 17 wins is certainly not out of the question.

 

Ponson's time here in Baltimore was frustrating to say the least.  Everyone could see that Sidney had the talent – and everyone could also see that he lacked the desire to harness it. 

 

I suspect all that began to change last September when Ponson took the much-needed step of seeking help for his alcohol problem.  So that's why – even though Sidney was such a disappointment here in Baltimore – I will be rooting for him to finally harness his talent in St. Louis.

 

Dean Wormer of Animal House fame most likely said it best: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

 

Wormer wasn't speaking about Sidney Ponson when he uttered those words.  But maybe, at age 29, Ponson has finally gotten the message.

 

 

Jody Madron is a freelance writer based in Sykesville, Maryland.  His work has appeared regularly at CREATiVESPORTS.com, SportsBlurb.com, BaseballNotebook.com and Foxsports.com. 

 

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