Ponson has new look for fresh start By R.B. FALLSTROM, AP Sports Writer January 15, 2006
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Sidney Ponson has a new look to go with his fresh start: a full head of hair.
The right-hander, who signed a free-agent deal with the St. Louis Cardinals last month, showed up at the team's Winter Warmup on Sunday with dark brown, curly locks. In the past he shaved his head.
ADVERTISEMENT Ponson said he stopped doing that in mid-September, shortly after the Baltimore Orioles voided his contract and then released him.
"I think my hair makes me look skinnier," he said. "Actually, I weigh the same but I've trimmed down a little bit.
"The only thing I've been doing is working out and watching TV."
Ponson, who signed a $1 million contract, is looking forward to reviving his career after a series of missteps in recent seasons. Ponson had a $7.5 million salary last year before legal troubles sidelined him.
He was arrested Aug. 25 and charged with driving under the influence and driving while impaired. He served a five-day jail sentence last month for driving while impaired, and the charge of driving under the influence was dropped under a plea agreement.
Ponson said he hasn't had any alcohol since the arrest. He spent time in rehab, and is regularly seeing a counselor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who specializes in dealing with addictions.
"In this 4 1/2 months I probably craved it once or twice," Ponson said. "It's like a habit. I used to associate beer with water sports and the first time I went home to do water sports I'm going, 'A cold beer would be nice right now.'
"But my counselor says don't think about it, just enjoy it and it goes easier."
Ponson has assured Cardinals manager Tony La Russa that he'll seek a counselor in St. Louis, too.
"I'm going to find somebody, I told Tony when we had a meeting," Ponson said. "It's an ongoing battle and it's not easy, but you have to want it to do it, and I want to do it."
Ponson said he doesn't consider his last two seasons wasted, including a 7-11 record and 6.21 ERA last year. He realizes there will be a spotlight on everything he does in St. Louis.
"It's going to play out when the season starts," he said. "Old issues will rise and things like that, I know that, I've been in this game for so long.
"You lose a couple of games and they're going to ask you if you're doing this or doing that, and I have to deal with that."
Ponson is prepared for whatever the Cardinals want him to do, whether that means pitching out of the bullpen or starting. The team will enter spring training next month with six potential starters, including rookie Anthony Reyes.
Ponson, the opening day starter for the Orioles in 2004, said the adjustment would be mostly mental.
"I just have to do what I need to do and whatever they come up with," Ponson said. "If Reyes is going to be the fifth starter, so be it, I'll be in the bullpen and I don't have a problem with it.
"I'll help any way I can, I just want to go to a World Series and win it all."
Teammate Albert Pujols, the NL MVP, knows Ponson can help the Cardinals get there.
"He's got some good stuff," Pujols said. "If he puts his head straight, I'm telling you he's going to help us out a lot.
"I've heard he's doing a lot of changing."
However he's used, Ponson anticipates just being part of the staff as opposed to his days as the ace in Baltimore. Chris Carpenter won 21 games and the NL Cy Young Award last year, and the Cardinals also have Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis.
"In 2004 at the start of the season, getting a big contract put so much pressure on me," Ponson said. "As soon as I lost my first game I wanted to go out there and do better, I wanted to do super good, and that sometimes backfires.
"And it did backfire on me."
Ponson plans to report to the Cardinals' spring training site in Jupiter, Fla., in early February about two weeks early. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 16.
"I think there's a lot left in the tank," he said.
Is it his time already? Anthony Reyes sure hopes so.
After longtime St. Louis Cardinals starter Matt Morris departed as a free agent last fall, Reyes - the team's top pitching prospect - figured to move into the fifth spot in the rotation behind National League Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan.
But that was before the Cardinals signed former Baltimore Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson.
"I think it's a big six," general manager Walt Jocketty recently said of the Cardinals' collection of starters on stlcardinals.com, the team's official Web site.
"I think, obviously, with Carpenter, Mulder, Marquis, Suppan and Reyes, and now Ponson, we've got six starters for five spots," Jocketty elaborated. "I think the idea is to go to spring training and have a competition and see.
"What it does is, it does provide some insurance if we feel that Anthony's not ready, but I think that Anthony Reyes will be a part of our - should be a part of our pitching staff at some point this year."
Undoubtedly, good, healthy spring competition will be how Cardinals manager Tony La Russa will approach the situation, beginning next month when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Jupiter, Fla.
Obviously that means good, healthy competition between rookie Reyes and veteran Ponson, who is more experienced but also has experienced numerous off-field issues since going a combined 17-12 with a 3.73 earned-run average for the Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants in 2003. He is 18-26 with an ERA above 5.50 since then.
What did Reyes, who has done nothing but impress during his short time with the Cardinals, feel about the most recent turn of events?
"To be honest with you, I didn't know what to think," said Reyes, in Springfield on Friday for the annual Cardinals Caravan stop at the Crowne Plaza hotel. "I was hoping to that I'd have a shot to make that fifth starting job.
"As far as I know, I'm still in the mix. Hopefully in spring training I can compete for that job and win it. It's going to be great, 'cause I like competition."
In four games covering 13 1/3 innings with the Cardinals last season, Reyes was 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA, striking out 12 while walking four. On Aug. 9 at Milwaukee, Reyes threw 6 1/3 innings in his big league starting debut against the Brewers, earning the victory and giving up just two runs on two hits.
Just as importantly, Reyes gave the Cardinals' regular rotation an extra day's rest before he was sent back to Class AAA Memphis following his one-shot stint. He would be recalled to St. Louis for September after posting a 7-6 record and 3.64 ERA for 128 2/3 innings at Memphis, where he recorded 136 strikeouts while walking 34.
All 23 of Reyes' Memphis appearances were starts, and he hurled two complete games, including a one-hit shutout on May 19, when he stymied the Portland Beavers 2-0.
Also impressive with the Cardinals during last spring training, Reyes is a hard thrower with good command who changes speeds well. And the 24-year-old native of Downey, Calif., pitches with the poise of a veteran despite only two seasons in the pros.
"I had a great time with the whole thing, playing well enough where I got the call up at the end of August," Reyes said. "I was just real happy being there in the rotation at all.
"The whole thing has just been command and putting the ball where I want to put it," he added. "The higher you go, if you miss just a little bit, those guys will hit it out of the park."
A solid athlete also known to swing the bat with authority, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander was selected by St. Louis in the 15th round of the 2003 draft out of the University of Southern California. Reyes recorded 140 strikeouts in 111 innings while going 6-2 with a 2.91 ERA during the 2004 season at Class AA Tennessee. He had begun his first pro season with Class A Palm Beach, going 3-0 with a 4.66 ERA and a 38-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio for 36 2/3 innings.
Despite an elbow injury that plagued him beginning with his junior season at USC, Reyes was drafted in the 13th round by the Detroit Tigers in 2002. But he opted to remain with the Trojans as a senior and signed with St. Louis the following year, although he didn't start pitching professionally until 2004.
"I've had some stuff to prove," Reyes conceded. "I came out of college being hurt all the time. I felt that I was good enough to compete up at that level and was fortunate enough to be able to get up so quick."
Once physically sound, Reyes has risen rapidly. Now he just wants the chance to prove he should be a part of La Russa's regular rotation.
"I'm ready to get going," Reyes said. "I'm kind of bored sitting at home right now, so I'm ready to start off spring training. I'm looking forward to fighting for a job. I'm 100 percent (physically) and ready to go."
But there's a fine line between being impressive and being too aggressive, especially early in camp. The latter can result in disaster for a pitcher.
"Yeah, you just want to go down there and show 'em what you've got, but you don't want to try and do too much, 'cause it's definitely not a good thing," Reyes said. "You want to stay within yourself and show them what you have and how you can help the club.
"However they want to use me, it doesn't really matter," he added. "Just try to go out there and give them a reason not to send me down. As long as I can get a jersey at the end of spring training."
If he does, at his age, he could be wearing it for a long, long time.