LIFE LESSONS sometimes come in strange packages, and Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson clearly is still sorting out what happened in Aruba two weeks ago.
Is he mad?
Maybe all of the above.
Ponson has had plenty of time to reflect on the Dec. 25 incident that led to his arrest on assault charges and his confinement in an Aruba jail for 11 days, but clarity isn't coming easy. He knows he screwed up, but he also feels abandoned and betrayed by an island nation in which he is supposed to be a hero.
"It's no fun," he said yesterday, after completing a lengthy workout at Camden Yards, "but I just have to prepare myself for baseball and whatever else is going to happen. ... You always work to get better, as a person and as an athlete."
The baseball part appears to be coming along well. Ponson has lost weight and -- according to pitching coach Ray Miller -- is throwing the ball better in January than most pitchers throw in July. Throwing so hard, in fact, that coach Rudy Arias had his hand wrapped in an Ace bandage after catching him.
"Happens every winter," Arias muttered.
Ponson can just hope that is the only painful thing involving him this winter that will happen again.
He is hesitant to recount the incident at Boca Catalina, where he allegedly got into a beach brawl with several other men and is charged with assaulting and injuring an Aruban judge. The trial will take place in March, and lawyers have advised him to refrain from public comments about the case until after it is resolved.
Ponson made a public apology after he was released from jail, but it's obvious from talking to him that there is a lot more to the story -- and hard feelings that run much deeper than those that caused that fateful dust-up on Christmas Day.
The only thing he seems sure of is that he must make some changes in his life, one of which may surprise you and a lot of his countrymen.
"I have to," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen. After this, I have come to understand that a lot of people in Aruba dislike me."
He flew into Baltimore this week to meet with Miller and refine his workout regimen with the training staff -- and no doubt explain himself to club officials who remain understandably concerned about his judgment and maturity. Tomorrow, he'll return to his new home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and continue getting ready for spring training.
What he will not do is return to Aruba before the trial date, and he said yesterday that there is a pretty good chance he has moved out of his home country for good.
"That [Florida] might be my home from now on," he said. "I don't have to go to Aruba. I can go for a few days to visit my family, but I don't need to live there anymore."
If that sounds like the defiant boast of a guy who refuses to take responsibility for his actions, it's not quite that simple. There was both anger and sadness in his voice, as if it had never dawned on him that all the fame and money and bluster would not breed some resentment and jealousy on an island where someone with $20,000 -- much less $20 million -- would be considered wealthy.
"There are always going to be people who are going to think what they want," Ponson said. "They have to get to know me. The people who know me know what kind of person I am. But I can go out with five friends and get a little loud and there's always going to be somebody at another table who is going to say something."
Ponson, 28, would like to chalk up the whole beach blanket beatdown to youthful indiscretion, though he isn't that young anymore.
"Every day in life, you do something and you think to yourself, 'Why did I do that?' " he said.
Miller, who relates to young pitchers as well as anyone, said he also can relate to what Ponson is going through in his personal life.
"We all grow up at some point," Miller said. "I punched a whole bunch of people when I was young. There just wasn't anyone around to write about it."
Despite the obvious, Miller said Ponson has made great progress since he went through a horrible first-half slump last year that forced him to do some serious professional soul-searching.
"I think Sidney was at the lowest point of his life when I got here," Miller said. "He was disappointed in himself. I don't think I did anything. I was just a different person to point him out there and say 'Let's go.' "
Ponson won't argue the point. He says now that he was devastated by the 3-12 start that focused way too much attention on his offseason conditioning and his off-the-field behavior. But was it really the lowest point in his life?
"Not anymore," he said.