The most contentious dispute of the 2003 Orioles season seemed like a distant memory yesterday when starting pitcher Sidney Ponson, the team's prodigal son, agreed to come home.
The Orioles reached agreement with Ponson on a three-year, $22.5 million contract, pending a physical exam scheduled for Monday.
Ponson, 27, had turned down a three-year, $21 million offer from the Orioles before they sent him to the San Francisco Giants at the July 31 trade deadline for pitchers Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman.
That day, Ponson said he didn't think he would ever come back. He vented his frustrations toward Orioles management, aiming specifically at executive vice president Jim Beattie.
So this time, the Orioles let vice president Mike Flanagan handle the negotiations with Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, and both sides seemed to come away happy.
"It's a win-win for everyone," Praver said. "Sidney gets an opportunity to return home to a much-improved ballclub. The Orioles get Sidney back as he heads into his prime, and they still have two of the pitchers [Ainsworth and Hannaman] they obtained from the Giants."
Ponson agreed to the deal on a cruise ship off the coast of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He has been making his annual guest appearance on the "Orioles Cruise," with Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray, longtime bench coach Elrod Hendricks, and outfielders Jay Gibbons and Marty Cordova.
Their ship returns to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Saturday, and Ponson plans to return to his Baltimore apartment that night.
"When I got traded, I sat down and talked to Mike [Flanagan]," Ponson said. "I've always loved Baltimore, and I told him I was open to coming back."
Ponson tasted free agency and decided to go back to his roots.
"I was looking for a contender," he said. "We had offers from other teams, but I told Barry I wanted to come back to Baltimore."
The Orioles were open to having him back after spending most of the offseason addressing the offense, signing shortstop Miguel Tejada, catcher Javy Lopez and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.
Ponson, whose career record is 58-65, was the top young starting pitcher remaining on the free-agent market, and he gives the Orioles' depleted starting pitching staff a much-needed boost.
He moves atop a starting rotation that also will include some combination of Ainsworth, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley, Rodrigo Lopez and Omar Daal.
Last year, the Orioles watched Ponson blossom into the kind of starting pitcher they always hoped he would be, but it came in his final year before free agency.
Less than two weeks before the trade deadline, the Orioles began working on a contract extension, starting Ponson with a three-year, $15 million offer. The talks stalled until the week of the trade, when Ponson finally countered at three years, $30 million.
The Orioles made one last offer -- three years at $21 million -- and when Ponson declined, they shipped him to San Francisco.
Yesterday, Ponson said the comments he made toward Beattie that day were fueled by the emotions of going through his first trade. He had been with the Orioles since they signed him out of Aruba at age 16.
"Whatever I said was in the past," Ponson said. "If I thought that was going to be a problem, I wouldn't be here talking to you guys now."
On Tuesday, Beattie also talked about mending bridges.
"If Sidney comes back, obviously I'll have a talk with him," Beattie said.
"I've spoken to Barry [Praver] about it, and hopefully Barry has passed on whatever sentiments I've talked about. I didn't get to know [Ponson] very well."
Ponson, who made $4.25 million last season, will return to the Orioles after gaining some valuable experience.
After going 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA for the Orioles, he found himself thrust into a pennant race for the Giants. He handled himself well, impressing Beattie and Flanagan with his poise, even if his record was a modest 3-6 with a 3.71 ERA.
In Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Ponson surrendered a three-run lead in an eventual 9-5 loss to the Florida Marlins.
But after being a part of six consecutive losing seasons with the Orioles, Ponson got the taste of playing for a contender, and his old team will look to him now for leadership while their younger pitchers develop.
"Once you go through a postseason or a World Series, you're different when you come back from that," Flanagan said. "It certainly helps you prepare for a regular-season start. I think we're getting back a much more polished product."
The Orioles' projected starting pitchers for 2004, with their statistics from last year:
Pitcher, team(s) W-L ERA
Sidney Ponson, O's/S.F. 17-12 3.75
Rodrigo Lopez, O's 7-10 5.82
Kurt Ainsworth, S.F. 5-4 3.82
Eric DuBose, O's 3-6 3.79
Matt Riley, Bowie/Ottawa 9-4 3.34