In July 2006, when the New York Yankees took a flier on troubled pitcher Sidney Ponson, general manager Brian Cashman expressed hope that Ponson's recovery from alcohol issues might lead to a new and more productive phase of his career.
"He's been dry since August," Cashman told reporters.
In hindsight, that might be the nicest thing a major league executive has said about Ponson in the past five years.
Ponson was far from the worst pitcher to don a big league uniform in the 2000s. Jose Lima, a 21-game winner with Houston in 1999, posted a 43-62 record with a 6.00 ERA for the Astros and four other clubs this decade. Mike Hampton, Darren Dreifort, Chan Ho Park and Carl Pavano will be remembered for their injuries and monumentally bad contracts, although Park found a second wind toward the end of the decade.
We also would be remiss not to mention Denny Neagle, who: (A) couldn't stay healthy after signing a $55 million deal with Colorado, (B) pleaded guilty to patronizing a prostitute in 2006 and (C) earned a mention in the Mitchell report the following year.
Mark Hendrickson, Casey Fossum and Esteban Yan hung around an awfully long time for guys with 5.00 career ERAs. Mike Maroth became baseball's first 20-game loser since Brian Kingman. And lots of fans in Baltimore will argue Daniel Cabrera was a bigger waste of talent than Ponson ever dreamed of being.
But all that competition couldn't steer us from Ponson, an Aruba native whose career will be remembered for a series of embarrassing incidents and lots of squandered potential. No pitcher in recent memory was more adept at raising expectations and then dashing them through a combination of stubbornness, immaturity and a lack of discipline.
He was a veritable Bermuda Triangle of disappointment.
It's instructive to recall the expectations that heralded Ponson's arrival in Baltimore. Ten years ago, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove was comparing Ponson to Bartolo Colon, and Syd Thrift, then Baltimore's general manager, looked at that 97 mph fastball and labeled him "a future No. 1 pitcher."
But Ponson rarely delivered on his promise. In 2003, he posted a 17-12 record in 216 innings with Baltimore and San Francisco. He was dubbed "Sir Sidney" after being decorated as a Knight of the Order of the Dutch Royal House by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Fellow Aruban big leaguers Eugene Kingsale and Calvin Maduro also received the honor.
For Ponson, it was strictly a tease. The Orioles signed him to a $22.5 million contract, and he responded by going 18-26 with a 5.64 ERA over the next two seasons. In the first year of his new deal, Ponson allowed a staggering 265 hits.
That was only half the story. In 2004, Ponson was charged with punching a judge during a confrontation on a beach in Aruba, a matter for which he apologized and reached a settlement. He spent time at an alcohol rehabilitation facility after two drunken-driving incidents in 2005. The Orioles, citing a failure to live up to the morals clause in his contract, tried to void his deal. Ponson filed a grievance with the MLB Players Association, and the two sides eventually reached a settlement.
Over a three-year span, Ponson was released by Baltimore, St. Louis, the Yankees, Minnesota and Texas. He pitched for the Netherlands at the 2009 World Baseball Classic but was banned from international competition for two years after testing positive for a dietary supplement.
The Royals, desperate for starting pitching help, gave Ponson a chance this past season. But they released him in August after he posted a 1-7 record with a 7.36 ERA.
The people closest to Ponson have always characterized him as more of a wayward rogue than a bad person at heart. Because of his immense talent, he grew accustomed to finding a new opportunity around every corner.
"If teams keep calling my agent, then I have a chance," Ponson said during the spring of 2007. "The day the phone calls stop, then I don't have a chance anymore."
Just a hunch, Sidney, but the phone has probably stopped ringing. In lieu of a Cy Young Award, you'll have to settle for this.
Also considered: Mike Hampton, Jose Lima, Mike Maroth, Carl Pavano