FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sidney Ponson couldn't escape the rumors this winter, even between trips to his native Aruba to oversee the construction of his house. He was going to Texas for Gabe Kapler. He was part of a five-player package headed to Philadelphia for All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen. Or maybe it was Cincinnati for Dmitri Young.
So, naturally, he ended up returning here as part of the Orioles' restructured pitch- ing staff, with the same high ceiling in an organization that exhibits a lower tolerance for his failures and underachieving ways.
Acknowledging he was injured before leaving camp last spring, Ponson is trying to re-establish himself in the same uniform he's worn since 1998. He won only five games in 15 decisions last year, went on the disabled list once and was shut down for the last five weeks. Once considering him untouchable in trade talks, the Orioles were willing to listen.
They're hoping the same is true of Ponson.
The almost daily lessons that come to a young pitcher, especially one with so little experience at the upper levels of the farm system, were expanded for Ponson last year. His insistence on not telling club officials about his elbow pain worsened a condition diagnosed as tendinitis. Unable to compensate for the inflammation, he made only three starts before going on the DL. His last appearance came Aug. 28, exactly two months after his final victory - a two-hit shutout in Toronto.
"I was never 100 percent," he said. "I'm so stubborn I kept telling everybody I wasn't hurt when I really was. I just pitched through it, and hoped the pain would go away. It never did.
"I went home and sat down and thought about it. Hopefully, I won't be dumb enough to do that again. If something's wrong, I'll tell them. I'd prefer to lose one or two starts than the rest of the season."
The Orioles need more wins out of him. Ponson's 34-44 career record contradicts his obvious physical tools. On the verge of a breakthrough after going 12-12 in 1999, he's nine games below .500 the past two years.
"I really want to take the next step," he said. "I have a lot to prove. I have to prove to myself I can still pitch up here, that my 12-win season wasn't a fluke. But that's part of baseball. You have to keep going out there, you have to keep battling."
And you have to stay immune to outside distractions, the kind that make you purchase change-of-address cards. Ponson, 25, remains one of the Orioles' most marketable players, but his value isn't getting any higher. He recently signed a one-year deal for $2.65 million, with incentives that could add another $225,000, and is eligible for free agency after the 2003 season.
Restating his preference to stay in Baltimore, he understands the importance of giving the club fewer reasons to move him.
"If the Orioles want to trade me, they can trade me. I hope they don't. I love being here," he said. "I think it's a good thing that everyone's trying to get me. It means you're doing something good."
"When you see a kid that has his kind of stuff at his age," manager Mike Hargrove said, "it's usually other teams wanting him more than you're pushing him out."
The Rangers held serious interest in Ponson this winter, but the Orioles apparently pulled him from any discussions involving Kapler. "That tells me they still believe in me, that I can be a great pitcher here," Ponson said.
"Everything's on me. ... I just want to stay healthy and pitch the whole year here."
Unsure about getting a "straight answer," Ponson said he hasn't approached Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations, about his status in the organization and its initial willingness to let him go at the right price.
"It's easy to get impatient and trade, but we owe it to ourselves and Sidney," Thrift said. "He's worked hard since September to improve his physical condition, and I truly believe that's the key to his development. Sidney knows what he has to do, and records will take care of themselves if you're prepared to do a winning job and you have talent. You have to keep an open mind and see what happens."
Ponson said he's thrown every day without soreness, but Hargrove is just as impressed with the waistline as the elbow, noting how the right-hander is in better shape than previous springs. It's another positive step, with much room to move forward.
"I think I'm right where I should be," Ponson said, describing his career more than his current health and fitness. "I only had about five innings in Triple-A and 70 in Double-A. Basically, I learned to pitch in the big leagues against the best players. It's kind of hard to do. Sometimes you have good years, sometimes you have bad years.
"The way I look at it, you have a bad year, you see how you handle yourself the next year. That's what makes you a good pitcher."