The Orioles have been searching for answers to Sidney Ponson's pitching woes all season, and since nothing else seemed to work, they decided yesterday to take the matter to a taller source.
Ponson wound getting 15 minutes of stern advice from five-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson.
Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks was talking to Johnson before batting practice, and before long the subject switched to Ponson.
Johnson said watching Ponson pitch Tuesday night - a game Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks won, 8-1 - reminded him of himself 10 years ago.
Hendricks asked if Johnson would mind telling Ponson those very same words. So they called Ponson over from the batting cage, and later, this is how Johnson related what he said: "You throw harder than me. You're younger than me. But it's got to click from within. Something's got to click for you. You owe it to yourself, your fans and the organization. You won 17 games last year. Now you should want to win 20."
Johnson, 6 feet 10, had just finished his running exercises for the day, and he pointed at Ponson several times as he spoke, with Ponson nodding in agreement. Hendricks sat back and listened.
Johnson, 40, talked to Ponson about ways to improve his conditioning and spoke of the difficulty he had last season when knee injuries limited him to 18 starts.
"He said people were writing him off," Hendricks said.
Johnson has come back strong this season. On May 18 in Atlanta, he tossed the 17th perfect game in major league history and has now won his past five starts.
Ponson, 27, has gone in the opposite direction. After going 17-12 with a 3.75 ERA last season with the Orioles and San Francisco Giants, he is 3-7 this season with an ERA (6.47) that ranks among the worst in baseball.
Those struggles have raised questions about Ponson's weight. He weighed 264 pounds when he arrived at spring training, which was 15 pounds heavier than his reporting weight in 2003.
Now, Ponson is down to 253 pounds.
"I told you guys in spring training, if I throw a bad couple games, it's going to come up," Ponson said of the weight issue. "It always comes up. I've lost 11 pounds since the season started, and the trainers say that's unheard of. I'm working hard, but right now it's not working out."
Ponson has had no shortage of pep talks this season. This week, he walked into the B&O; warehouse unsolicited and had a sit-down with Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan, his pitching coach in 1998.
Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli called Ponson into his office for a 25-minute meeting on Wednesday. And countless others, including Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, have offered their advice. In the past, Ponson has had similar discussions with 300-game winner Roger Clemens.
But sometimes it takes another voice to make a difference. Johnson remembers getting a similar pep talk from Nolan Ryan in 1993. Until then, he had never won more than 14 games in a season.
"He called me over and talked to me about pitching and things I have to do to get better," Ponson said. "I appreciate that. It's the first time I've met him. He just loves to help everybody. He loves the game so much. He said to keep my head up, I'm struggling right now, but it's one of those things."
Ponson's next start will come Sunday against the Giants, and he said he's looking forward to starting with a clean slate.
Johnson told Ponson he was going to get in touch with Hendricks in a month to find out how his progress is coming.
"I said, 'Don't waste my time here. I'm going to check on you.'"