The Baltimore Orioles are growing increasingly impatient and frustrated by the performance of starter Sidney Ponson and are beginning to question the decision to give him a three-year, $22.5 million contract in the offseason.
On Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Orioles came home following a three-game sweep at the hands of the rival New York Yankees, the team's front office called together members of the medical and strength-and-conditioning staffs to discuss Ponson.
The right-hander, 27, is 3-6 with a 6.48 ERA, the second-worst ERA among American League starters two months into the season, and he has been battered and beaten twice by the Yankees in the past eight days.
He is also overweight, although the degree thereof and its effect on his performance are open to debate. The team is concerned enough about Ponson's conditioning to have gathered its brain trust Friday to discuss the options.
"We've been dealing with [the weight issue] with him for 10 years now," said one team official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Ponson signed with the Orioles as a free agent out of Aruba in 1993. "I'm not sure there's anything we can do. We've all talked our heads off to him. At some point, it has to come from within."
Even if the Orioles wanted to do something more drastic than lecturing him, they would have little recourse, because baseball contracts are guaranteed.
"There are different avenues to try to rectify the problem," Orioles Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Flanagan said. However, he declined to be specific, saying only, "Nothing imminent is going to happen."
A team source said owner Peter Angelos "has been on the warpath" in discussions with the front office in recent days regarding Ponson. However, reached Friday afternoon at his Baltimore law firm, Angelos declined to comment.
This much is certain: Ponson weighed 250 pounds when the Orioles traded him to the San Francisco Giants last July for three young pitchers. After re-signing with the Orioles, he reported to spring training camp in February at 265 pounds. And he currently weighs 255 pounds. While some pitchers, such as David Wells, have been successful despite weight issues and questionable conditioning habits, many in the Orioles' camp feel Ponson is cheating the team.
"It was really a slap in the face to the Orioles when he showed up in spring training in the kind of shape he did," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who now serves as an analyst on Orioles telecasts. "There are too many variables in this game that you can't control to let yourself be undone by a variable you can control."
According to a source familiar with the contract negotiations, at one point the Orioles proposed a weight clause -- such as the one in the contract of catcher Javy Lopez, who loses money when he is over a prescribed weight. However, a weight clause for Ponson was never agreed upon. Flanagan and Barry Praver, Ponson's agent, declined to comment.
"It was all part of the negotiations," Flanagan said. "I don't really want to get into the specifics of the negotiations."
Meantime, Ponson insists his problems this season are the result simply of making bad pitches at the least opportune times. Earlier in the season, he was mechanically out of whack, he said, but now he feels in fine form.
"It's definitely frustrating for me and my teammates, that I'm not throwing the ball very good right now," he said. "But if I keep working hard, things will turn around." He added: "I know I'm having a bad stretch right now, and not to point fingers or nothing, but look at the tapes. [The Yankees] are getting calls [from the umpires] that we don't get. And it seems like every time they get a break, they take advantage of it. It's amazing. You can't do nothing about it."
Asked about the opinion of fans who say he is too overweight and too complacent to win, Ponson responded, "If I'm winning, I bet no one says this stuff. You can't do anything about the fans. If they're better than us, they should be playing. They look for the obvious and run with it. . . . It doesn't concern me. If things go right, it doesn't matter how you look or what you do. If things go wrong, they will always find something. That's life."
As for the implication that Ponson has grown satisfied after signing his big contract this winter, Praver said, "Anyone who would say that about Sidney doesn't know Sidney."
Still, Ponson's apparent lack of conditioning is maddening to those connected with the team who say his vast potential is being wasted. And according to Palmer, the behavior is reckless, particularly in the wake of teammate Steve Bechler's death because of heat stroke brought on by ephedra use in February 2003.
"Part of the responsibility of being a professional athlete is you show up in shape," Palmer said. "The tragic irony of Steve Bechler's death is that the one guy came in overweight. The other guy came in overweight. One guy makes a minor league salary; the other makes $4 million. The one guy dies tragically, and the other guy keeps carrying around extra weight and gets a huge contract. That's irresponsible.
"Now, fast-forward to this year. [The Orioles] said, 'Sidney, you're our guy. We like the fact you want the ball, and that you eat up innings. But you have to be a leader.' Maybe it's too much to ask for him to be a role model, or to change his life. So was it a bad decision [to give Ponson the contract]? That's up to Sidney. It is if he doesn't make every effort to make himself better."
3-6, 6.48 ERA