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In Aruban court of sunny opinion, O's Ponson rules

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORANJESTAD, Aruba - Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson might confound local baseball fans at times, but the people of this Dutch Caribbean island have a keen understanding of their famous native son.

"What do the license plates on our cars say? 'One Happy Island,'" said Wim Ellens, a 22-year-old windsurfing instructor. "Sidney is a typical Aruban. He comes from the beach lifestyle. He wants to enjoy himself."

That penchant has earned Ponson, 28, a reputation some pro athletes would abhor.

"He is a star but also a party person," said Maritza Maduro, assistant editor of Awemainta, a newspaper that publishes in Papiamento, a local language of Aruba.

Ponson probably would not dispute that depiction, although his Aruban friends warn not to take the image too far.

"He doesn't pretend to be someone else. He is Sidney Ponson. He wants to have a good time. But he doesn't want to overdo it, either. He knows when to go home," said Daniel Werleman, general manager of CafM-i Bahia, Ponson's favorite Aruban nightspot.

Ponson admittedly overdid it on Christmas Day, when an argument about his Jet Ski driving led to a beach altercation. Ponson allegedly punched a man who turned out to be a judge, and ended up being detained for 11 days. Alcohol was a factor, said Ponson's Aruban attorney, Chris Lejuez.

Released last week, Ponson apologized for his behavior and asked the judge for forgiveness before departing for Florida, where the Orioles begin spring training next month. He must return to Aruba for a March 3 trial at which he is expected to receive a sentence including community service and/or a fine rather than jail.

The incident has renewed the debate over whether the Orioles were right to sign Ponson to a three-year, $22.5 million contract last winter. In 2004, Ponson reported to spring training overweight, lost nine consecutive decisions before the All-Star break and finished with an 11-15 record.

Outgoing and opinionated, he has long exhibited enough talent to win in the major leagues; the San Francisco Giants gave the Orioles three players for him in July 2003, believing he could help them win a World Series. But he has a 69-80 career record, and his commitment and maturity have been questioned.

Will his 11 days behind bars change him?

"I think he is going to be a better professional after this," said Carl Michael Bikker, an Aruban sportscaster. "He needed to tone it down. He was still coming back to Aruba every year [after baseball season] and having fun on the beach like when he was 14. [The fight] was like a time bomb. Someday it was going to explode. Now that it did, we all hope that's it."

Change for the better?

Chu Halabi, the Orioles' longtime Aruban scout who signed Ponson and still counsels him, said, "Sometimes a bad thing can end up being a positive."

Ponson hasn't commented other than reading a brief statement last week. Some Arubans aren't interested in what he says so much as how he behaves.

"He could use this incident as a lesson or go right back to the way he was. It is up to him," said Vincent Maduro, 21, a ticket-taker at a movie house.

Scrutinizing Ponson is a popular habit on this resort island of 100,000 inhabitants, which was under Dutch rule until 1986 and still uses the Dutch legal and education systems. The pitcher is easily Aruba's biggest celebrity. His only competition, locals say, is a recent Miss Universe runner-up.

Games in which Ponson pitches are shown on local television, and most people root hard for him.

"We are very proud of him. I don't have one bad thing to say about him," Froilan Vanderlinde, a jewelry store saleswoman, said last week.

"He represents us to the rest of the world," added Ramon Garcia while hawking condominium rentals on a downtown street. "This is a small island. We don't have many people who go away and succeed like that. And Sidney is easy to root for. He is still the same person as when he was a boy."

A visit to Ponson's homeland makes it easier to understand him. Located in the southwestern Caribbean, just north of Venezuela, Aruba exudes leisure. The sun shines, the beach beckons, few car horns honk.

"People here don't talk about work; they talk about what they're going to do after work," said Ellens, the windsurfing instructor, a native of Belgium who came to Aruba a dozen years ago. "People here go to the bank and take out loans so they can buy firecrackers to shoot off on New Year's Eve."

Ponson hasn't forgotten his roots. He has spent $80,000 to build a major league-caliber clubhouse at the local ballpark; he donated $70,000 of food and appliances to Aruban flood victims; and staged charity softball games and concerts.

"His heart is huge. He does so much for the island," Garcia said.

There are critics, too

But Ponson also receives his share of criticism. Some Arubans are jealous of the money he earns and attention he receives, Halabi said. Some don't like the way he represents Aruba. Some perceive him as brash.

"I don't know if he can handle being famous," said Maduro, the newspaper editor.

"There are those who don't like him. I am not going to lie. But it is because they don't know him," said Werleman, the nightclub manager.

A kid with a fastball

There was no way of foreseeing such a controversial future when Halabi discovered Ponson pitching on a Little League diamond at age 11. Halabi had been scouting for the Orioles for six years, and had signed future major leaguers such as Eugene Kingsale and Calvin Maduro. (Kingsale became the first Aruban major leaguer in 1996.)

"Then one day I saw this little freckled kid throwing pure smoke," Halabi, 59, recalled with a smile last week. "It was obvious immediately that he had a chance to be the best of them all."

His athletic genes were potent. His uncle had been one of the island's best pitchers. His mother had played on national volleyball teams and All-Star softball teams.

"Sidney was clearly gifted when he was 8," said Chicho Berlis, Ponson's Little League coach. "He was born to pitch. A pitcher has to be tough, and he is tough. At first, he threw so hard, he couldn't throw strikes. We got over that. Then, we had no one who could catch him. But we found someone."

Ponson was as headstrong as he was talented. According to Halabi, he was once ejected from a game for shouting at the umpire, "Take off your mask if you can't see!"

"But I had no problems with him at all. He was a good boy," Berlis said. "You have to know how to manage him. You tell him what he is going to do. You don't give him a chance to think about doing other things."

Meager beginnings

Ponson's parents were divorced when Halabi began trailing him. His father, Hubert, a pastry chef, lived on the other side of the island. Ponson and his younger sister, Maybelline, lived with their mother and grandparents in a small house not far from the beach.

Ponson's grandfather operated a fishing boat. His uncle ran a catamaran service. His mother worked as a department store supervisor. There was not a lot of money, but there was enough.

"Sidney wasn't wealthy by any means. But there was food on the table. The grandfather fished," Halabi said.

Ponson attended La Salle College, a Catholic high school, and spent his free time either playing baseball or helping his grandfather and uncle on the beach. His chores ranged from diving for catch to pouring drinks at private parties on the catamaran.

"He had to fend for himself in a lot of ways. He grew up on that beach," Halabi said.

Throwing 90-mph fastballs by age 15, he attracted many scouts. But he signed with Halabi and the Orioles when he was 16, turning down what Halabi called "a much larger" offer from another team.

He graduated from La Salle and headed for the United States, where, unlike some players from Caribbean islands, he adapted easily. (He speaks English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamento.) He has spent more time in the United States than Aruba since turning pro, but returns every year after the season.

He was anointed a knight in the Order of the Dutch Royal House in April 2003, a high honor, but the Christmas Day fight and his detainment have tarnished his reputation.

Ruckus at the beach

Few witnessed the incident. Ellens, the windsurfing instructor, said he was swimming in the water at Boca Catalina when the ruckus started.

"I heard the Jet Skis, and next thing I knew, I heard the beach police sirens," Ellens said. "Only later did I realize it was the fight with Ponson."

Two weeks later, the incident remains a major topic of conversation on the island. Was Ponson driving his Jet Ski recklessly? Did the judge insult him, or did Ponson start the fight? Why was he detained for 11 days?

"Aruba is not a place where you see guns, but every day there are fights, and no one goes to jail," Werleman said. "I saw a guy get hit with a baseball bat, and the cops came, and the guys who did it didn't go to jail. But this was different because it was Sidney, and the guy [he allegedly hit] was a judge. The police wanted to say, 'Hey, we treat everyone the same.'"

Lingering ethnic contentiousness, dating to the days of Dutch rule, also was a factor, according to Eddie Daou, a businessman and longtime baseball broadcaster.

"They made a big issue of it because he hit a judge that was Dutch, and the prosecutor is Dutch, and the court judge is Dutch," Daou said. "Unfortunately, Sidney hit the wrong person at the wrong time."

Lejuez, Ponson's attorney, said the judge at Ponson's release hearing denied Ponson was detained because he had struck a Dutch judge.

Some Arubans aren't interested in hearing any excuses.

"He needs to change the way he acts," said Maduro, the newspaper editor.

"He is a hero to my 10-year-old son, but I told my son, 'This is no way for anyone to act,'" said Manolo Sabnini, an electronics salesman. "If he has abused someone, he should be punished like everyone else."

Aruba's streets and beaches are full of rumors. Werleman said he had heard one about Ponson being involved in another fight at CafM-i Bahia on Christmas Eve.

"It's true he was here and there was an argument inside. But he was outside, not involved, and he left," Werleman said. "Yet people the next day were saying he fought here. Aruba is a little island, but it is overrun with rumors."

He 'needs to cool it'

Regardless of what is true or being said, many believe the incident should serve as a wake-up call for Ponson. Even Ramon Garcia, an unabashed supporter, said the pitcher "needs to cool it."

Yet Werleman, the nightclub manager, disputes that.

"Sidney does what he wants to do. I don't think he bothers anyone," Werleman said. "It's his life. If he wants to live it that way, that's his choice. He is the one who got there and makes the money. People who say he needs to cool it shouldn't decide for him."

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