Ponson: Jail stay was 'life-changing experience'

Updated: February 21, 2005, 4:43 PM ET
Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- An 11-day jail stay in his native land of Aruba taught Sidney Ponson a valuable lesson, one that will forever alter the way he handles his celebrity status.

Being a high-paid major league pitcher has its perks. Ponson owns a lavish house in south Florida and parks his new black Mercedes in a prime spot at the Baltimore Orioles' spring training camp.

But popularity has its price. In the wake of a Christmas Day brawl in which he landed in jail after allegedly punching a judge, Ponson says he's no longer at ease in public.

"I approach things differently now," he said Monday. "I definitely see this as a life-changing experience. ... You sit in a restaurant, you're always looking around. I'm looking over my shoulder because you never know what can happen. You pay more attention to the little things."

Soon after being released from jail, Ponson retreated to his Florida home. He must return to Aruba for a hearing on March 3 and still intends to visit his homeland during the offseason. But his misadventure on Christmas made him realize that not everyone in Aruba perceives him to be a hero.

"Now I know a couple people on the island don't like me, but it's part of being a human being," he said. "Some people in Baltimore don't like me."

That's one reason why he's so comfortable in Florida.

"Nobody knows me in Fort Lauderdale. It's awesome," he said. "I go everywhere and nobody knows who I am."

In Aruba, almost everyone knows Sidney Ponson. In 1998, he became the third Aruban to play in the major leagues. In 2003, he was decorated in his homeland as a knight in the Order of the Dutch Royal House.

He would trade that honor for the chance to shop for groceries without being pulled aside to talk about baseball, or to sign an autograph.

"I can't keep a low profile. I'm the only one there. I go to the supermarket and they notice me," he said. "What happened, I can do nothing about. That doesn't mean I'm going to go to Aruba and sit in my house. I might as well just stay here. I am who I am, and hopefully people respect that.

"I will never throw Aruba away. I was born there, I still love that island. I will go back. Time heals everything. I just approach things different now."

Ponson, 28, has long carried a reputation as a fun-loving guy with a solid right arm. But he's also considered something of an underachiever; his lifetime record of 69-80 belies his talent.

At this camp, however, Ponson is carrying a renewed determination that some attribute to his harrowing stint in jail.

"He was probably embarrassed about what happened. It's something you'd like to say is behind him right now," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said. "You don't want to say it was a blessing in disguise, but I think it was a little bit of an awakening. I can see a big difference in his attitude in camp."

It's almost as if Ponson is more at home on the baseball diamond than in his homeland.

"He can't go home and just relax on the island because he's a star," Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said. "He goes there and everyone's after him. Since that incident, though, he's changed his lifestyle. It's obvious watching him on the field."

Said Ponson: "Right now I'm calm, relaxed, happy to be here with my teammates. I want to get this behind me. I made a mistake -- I keep saying that over and over again -- and I cannot undo that. I just have to focus on baseball."

Ponson reported to camp at 253 pounds, 13 pounds less than his reporting weight of a year ago. He's in better shape in body -- and in spirit.

"Sidney is certainly very focused on this season, as witnessed by the condition that he's in," said his agent, Barry Praver. "I think it would be safe to say that an experience like that would have an impact on anybody, on their personal life and their business life. When you are a high-profile person you have to be more cautious, and you do become more of a target."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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