Orioles are seeking a way to shed troubling Ponson

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Angered by troubled pitcher Sidney Ponson's second drunken-driving arrest in seven months, the Orioles are exploring several options to be rid of him, including voiding the remainder of his hefty contract, club sources said yesterday.

After Ponson's arrest yesterday morning on charges of driving while impaired and driving under the influence - his third drinking-and-driving arrest in nine years and third overall arrest in nine months - members of the Orioles front office met at owner Peter G. Angelos' downtown law office to discuss a course of action.

The club officials, described as "extremely angry" by one source, apparently did not reach a conclusion. But their favored option might be invoking standard clauses in Ponson's three-year, $22.5 million contract that would void his $10 million final season because of conduct detrimental to the team or an inability to stay in shape, two club sources said.

If they choose that path, however, they almost certainly would face a grievance from the Major League Baseball Players Association on behalf of Ponson.

An independent arbiter would then decide whether Ponson's actions were in specific violation of the contract. Based on precedent, voiding a binding agreement is nearly impossible, one industry source said. But if anyone could do it, the source said, "it would be the owner," referring to Angelos, an accomplished attorney.

Even if Ponson, 28, who is on the disabled list with calf and thumb injuries, remains with the team, he could be facing a suspension for leaving the bench and going to a club level suite at Camden Yards during Wednesday's game.

According to several ballpark sources, Ponson left the clubhouse in uniform pants and an Orioles pullover jacket during the first half of Wednesday's game and joined friends in the fourth-level suite No. 22, which he periodically rents.

He stayed between one and two innings before rejoining the team. One ballpark source said he was drinking soda and not alcohol while in the suite. It was at least the second time he has visited the suite during a game, another ballpark source said.

Interim manager Sam Perlozzo said he still needs to set some team policies, but, "I would assume if you are here and in uniform, you are on the bench."

He did not notice Ponson's absence from the dugout Wednesday but said when informed of the report: "If that's true, I would think that is grounds for a suspension."

Finished for season

Because of his injuries, Ponson, 7-11 with a 6.21 ERA in 23 starts, probably won't pitch again this season. His career here, which began in 1998, also is likely over. The team attempted to deal him to San Diego for first baseman Phil Nevin in July, but Nevin would not lift his limited no-trade clause.

Now, given his physical and legal problems and pitching struggles since signing his deal in 2003, a club source said Ponson is un-tradable. The club is hoping that will change next spring, but it would prefer having the Ponson saga resolved before then.

It could give him his outright release, but the Orioles would have to pay most of his full salary next season - even if he plays in 2006 with another team. The Orioles almost certainly wouldn't do that, a source said.

That leaves the voiding option, something the club considered twice before: Once last summer when Ponson's weight ballooned to more than 260 pounds and after his January DUI arrest in Florida was reported.

It is a drastic move and one that never comes without opposition from the players union. If the move is grieved, an arbiter's decision would be final, but the sides could settle before then. A union spokesman declined to comment regarding Ponson.

Dealing with a disgruntled employer might be the least of Ponson's worries, however.

Maryland Transportation Authority police arrested him at 1:31 a.m. on traffic charges of following too closely, DUI and DWI on southbound Interstate 95, said Cpl. Pamela Thorne, a spokeswoman for the agency. A team source said Ponson had left Rick's Cafe Americain in Canton, but an employee at the bar wouldn't confirm yesterday that the pitcher had been there.

An officer spotted Ponson, who was driving a black 2005 Mercedes Benz in the southbound lanes, and pulled him over in an area just south of Interstate 395. The officer, who did not recognize Ponson, conducted a field sobriety test, "the results of which gave the officer enough probable cause to take him into custody," said John Ryan, a transportation authority spokesman.

According to the report, Ponson was following less than half a car length behind a Volkswagen, according to the police report. When asked how much he had to drink, Ponson said: "I had three beers at the bar, and my last beer was 20 minutes ago." Asked why he was so close to the other car, Ponson replied, "I was following my girlfriend home."

While performing a heel-to-toe test, Ponson stepped off the line and began to fall over, reaching for the jersey wall to gain his balance, the officer reported. He refused to take the one-leg-stand test, swaying from side to side as officers demonstrated it.

Ponson, who was traveling alone, told police he was an Orioles player and should be released because he was going back to Aruba. After his arrest, Ponson was taken to the agency's tunnel command detachment on I-95, south of the Harbor Tunnel, where he refused a Breathalyzer test, Ryan said.

Refusing the Breathalyzer can result in a driver's license suspension for 120 days. A second refusal or more could lead to a yearlong license suspension, another transportation authority spokeswoman said. But Ponson would have to go through a court process and be found guilty of the charges before his license is affected, the spokeswoman said.

It was not clear yesterday whether he had refused a Breathalyzer test in Maryland in the past. Ponson, who was released to a friend at 5:30 a.m., is awaiting a hearing for his January arrest on a DUI charge in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which team officials didn't learn about until reporters discovered it two months later.

In addition, he spent 11 days in jail after allegedly punching a judge on an Aruba beach Christmas Day. Charges were dropped after Ponson agreed to make restitution and a substantial donation to local charities, and perform community service.

His first drunken-driving arrest occurred in Frederick on Aug. 29, 1996, while he was a member of the Orioles' Single-A affiliate Frederick Keys. He was charged with DUI, DWI and unsafe lane-changing; he subsequently received probation before judgment.

Chance of jail term

Warren A. Brown, a local defense attorney, said Ponson is facing one year in jail for the latest infraction.

"And they could ask for enhanced penalties because it's his second arrest in Maryland," Brown said. "But he should be all right since the arrest was made in the city, except for his notoriety. He could avoid jail time. He'd be in a lot more trouble if this happened in the county."

Brown also said authorities most likely will take the Fort Lauderdale arrest into consideration, "but it won't really be embraced because it happened so far away. It's not an affront to the laws of Maryland. But, legally, they could use it against him."

Ponson arrived at Camden Yards during batting practice yesterday and declined to comment through a team spokesman. With permission from Perlozzo, he left the game in street clothes shortly after it started.

"I'm going to take care of business," Ponson told Perlozzo.

The manager responded: "Now would be the time."

Sun staff writer Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this article.

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