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On Island, Ponson No Longer Marooned

O's Pitcher Released From Aruban Jail

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page D01

ORANJESTAD, Aruba, Jan. 4 -- A man has certain needs at the end of 10 torturous days in the city lock-up, such as horsepower and loud music. And so it was that Sir Sidney Ponson, Knight in the Order of the Dutch Royal House, in his first acts of freedom upon being released from jail Tuesday afternoon, demanded from his agent the keys to his own Mercedes, which had been parked conveniently outside the police station -- "I'm driving," the Baltimore Orioles pitcher barked -- then wedged himself into the driver's seat and paused to turn the radio dial to something harder, faster, louder.

And with that -- plus a quick no-comment to the two reporters who had gathered to chronicle the moment -- Sir Sidney was gone. He was wearing his island nation's traditional mid-day garb: a white T-shirt, baggy shorts, flip-flops and shades. He had days' worth of stubble on his face and head, both of which are typically shaved clean. He did not smile. He backed up the Mercedes and pulled away in a dusty cloud.

Sidney Ponson is free from jail in his native Aruba, but still faces three serious charges stemming from a Christmas day incident at the beach. (AP)

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From the outside, it had seemed like a whirlwind 10 days for Ponson -- from the Christmas day fight on the beach that landed three people, including himself, in police custody after Ponson allegedly hit a local judge in the face; to the public prosecutor's decision two days later to exercise his legal right to extend Ponson's detainment for another eight days while the investigation continued; to the pregnant pause in the country's legal system over the raucous New Year's Eve weekend; and, finally, to his unceremonious release Tuesday at 12:12 p.m., Atlantic Standard Time.

But inside Ponson's jail cell, it seemed far from a whirlwind. It was 10 days of monotony, broken up only by a bath every morning and three square meals a day. Other than that? Boredom. Vicious heat. Blood-sucking mosquitoes. No television or radio. No beer. No visitors, except for his lawyer. And no reading material, except for a Bible at one's request.

Ponson, one learns by asking, did not request a Bible.

"He was more conversating with the other guys," said a watch commander at the sleepy police station in Noord, where Ponson spent the second half of his detainment following a transfer. The watch commander declined to reveal his name, saying the chain of command did not allow him to speak to the media.

"The guys [in the adjacent cells] enjoy him," the officer said. "They all know him. He's very famous here. I hope he learns a lesson from this. He needs to . . . get his act together."

The two acquaintances who were arrested along with Ponson released themselves on their own recognizance four days later by cutting through the bars of their cells with a saw and bending them apart. The escapees were apprehended on Sunday, reportedly in possession of $20,000 cash, drugs, jewelry and a police scanner.

Ponson, his lawyer said, had nothing to do with the escape and slept through the entire thing.

More is expected of Ponson in Aruba, where he was born and raised, where he has donated money and goods for years to locals in need, and where he was given one of the Dutch crown's highest honors for its citizens -- knighthood -- in 2003. At the time, he seemed humbled by the title's responsibilities, which include setting a good example for his fellow citizens with his behavior.

Presumably, that behavior does not include getting hammered on the beach, buzzing people too closely with one's personal watercraft, or -- after those people complained about it -- punching a man in the face, all of which Ponson is alleged to have done. (However, eyewitness accounts differ as to which party instigated the fight.) As for the fact the decked man turned out to be a judge -- W. Noordhuizen, a resident of the island for only three months, who has not responded to interview requests -- well, that's just bad luck. For that matter, so is the fact Ponson's arrest resulted in a 10-day stay in the slammer while the investigation plodded on, owing to the simple reality that Aruba has no system of bail.

"Public opinion here is, if [the alleged victim] was not a judge, this case would have been very different," said Vale Hart, a reporter for the Diario Aruba newspaper. "Maybe they wouldn't have even arrested [Ponson]. But because he was a judge, they did. That's not good. Something has to be done with our way of doing justice in Aruba."

A story in Tuesday's La Prensa newspaper compared Ponson's case to 10 similar ones in recent months and found the severity of Ponson's punishment to be more extreme than the others'.

"The feeling on the island is [the authorities] drew this [detainment] out as long as they could," said Ashiko Martinus, a childhood friend of Ponson's who was one of many friends and family members who gathered in a show of support Tuesday morning outside the courthouse where a judge made the decision to grant Ponson his release. "Maybe they want to make an example of him to the rest of the island."

Ponson arrived at that hearing Tuesday morning in a Mitsubishi Galant squad car (the license plate of which, like all in Aruba, contained the motto, "One Happy Island"). He emerged from the back seat on his own -- dressed in nice clothes, free of handcuffs -- as if exiting a cab at the front gates at Yankee Stadium, then walked into the courthouse without making eye contact with any of his family members or supporters.

Despite being released Tuesday, Ponson still faces three serious charges that could result in a prison sentence when the case goes before a judge. Those charges, according to spokeswoman Mary Ann Croes of the public prosecutor's office, are premeditated simple assault, attempt to commit severe assault and fighting in a public place.

That hearing before a judge -- in which, like a trial, Ponson's guilt or innocence will be determined -- will be held March 3, just as the Orioles are beginning their Grapefruit League schedule, with Ponson, who will be in the second year of a three-year, $22.5 million contract, again expected to be one of the team's top starting pitchers.

Ponson was released into the arms of a beautiful afternoon on the island he loves. Temperatures were in the 80s. Beachgoers frolicked in the surf, personal watercrafts buzzing along safely behind them. A giant cruise ship, like the ones Ponson used to work on as a teenager, hogged the horizon and disgorged its human contents into the tourist-trap shops along the main beach road.

The coming days promise to bring the same idyllic routine, but Ponson won't be around to see it. For weeks now, he has been booked on a plane back to the United States on Wednesday, where he will begin in earnest his preparations for spring training and the 2005 season at his residences in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Baltimore. The flight departs in the late afternoon.

Ponson, according to his agent, plans to be on it.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company