Former Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson has walked out of a jail cell and into the arms of a contender.
The St. Louis Cardinals have reached agreement on a one-year contract with Ponson and intend to plug him into their rotation. Ponson is guaranteed a $1 million base salary and could receive another $1.5 million in potential incentives.
"We know he has tremendous baseball talent, and we feel he's at a point in his life and career where it's a mutual benefit for both Sidney and the Cardinals," general manager Walt Jocketty said.
The Orioles released Ponson on Sept. 1, less than a month after his second arrest on a charge of drunken driving in 2005. He went on the disabled list Aug. 9 with a strained calf and never again pitched for the club that brought him to the majors in 1998.
The team is attempting to void the remainder of his contract, which would have paid him $10 million. The players association filed a grievance on Ponson's behalf, and the matter is scheduled to go before an arbitrator in March.
If Ponson wins the grievance, the Orioles will be responsible for the remainder of his contract, minus what he receives from the Cardinals.
Jocketty and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa met last month with Ponson, 29, and his agent, Barry Praver, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. They had planned to be in the area to meet with another free-agent pitcher, A.J. Burnett, who eventually signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We all felt very comfortable with Sidney and where he's at in his life right now," Jocketty said. "I think Sidney would be the first to admit that he's had some problems in the past. We feel very confident that he's working hard to get his life back in order, and we provide an avenue for him to work and play in that will help him with that process and give him full support."
Ponson entered a 30-day alcohol treatment program in California on the same day that the Orioles released him, and he continues to speak each week with a therapist in Fort Lauderdale.
"After my last problem, I sought help for myself. I didn't wait for anyone to push it on me. I decided it on my own," Ponson said from Aruba during a conference call with reporters. "I talked to my mom, and she wanted me to do it. It was the hardest thing to do, look my mom in the face and see how much I hurt her. Since I got in trouble last time, I haven't had one drop of alcohol.
"The first thing you go through is denial, and then I faced it. The first thing I did was I called my agent and told him straight out. I needed help, and I was vulnerable. He helped me find a place.
"It was hard. Nobody wants to go through that. But there's a point in your life when you have to be a man and look in the mirror and say, 'I need help.' I'm not ashamed of it. And today I feel much better about myself, saying I needed help."
Ponson is 76-91 with a 4.81 ERA in the majors and went 0-6 in his last seven starts. He spent his entire career with the Orioles, with the exception of 10 regular-season games with the San Francisco Giants in 2003 after a trade at the non-waiver deadline. He signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract with the Orioles on Jan. 14, 2004, but went 18-26 in parts of two seasons and gained more attention for his brushes with the law.
The trouble began with Ponson's arrest on Christmas Day 2004, for punching a judge on a beach in Aruba. He spent 11 days in jail, and the charges later were dropped after he made restitution to his accusers and substantial donations to charities on the island.
Ponson was arrested in Fort Lauderdale on a charge of driving under the influence in January, but the team didn't find out until two months later. He also drew the ire of team officials when he left the dugout during a game and visited friends in a Camden Yards suite. Ponson served five days in protective custody at the Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore last week after being convicted for drunken driving in the August incident.
"I think Sidney can be a productive pitcher if he takes care of himself," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "If that's his goal, first and foremost, then I think he can probably do it. But whether he does that, I guess the jury is still out.
"He needs to stay healthy and get his personal life in order. We certainly, as an organization, gave him a lot of chances to do that, and he ran out of chances. Maybe this is an awakening."
Jocketty said the Cardinals did a thorough background check on Ponson before pursuing him. Along with the standard morals clause, Ponson's contract includes some specific behavioral language.
"No. 1, as you'll find as you get to know Sidney, he's a very personable young man, and very fun to be around," Jocketty said. "He's a guy we just felt very comfortable with when we met, and we felt he was very sincere in wanting to turn things around. It was his idea to seek help, and he's been on the straight and narrow ever since.
"There's always a risk," Jocketty added . "We know that, and he knows that. But you have to have faith in people at some point, and we feel Sidney warrants that.
"Everybody deserves a second chance, and we're here to provide it. Now, that doesn't mean we'll just let things slide, either. We're going to watch him and stay on top of it and make sure we don't have any problems. We feel with the leadership we have on this team, it provides a great opportunity for Sidney to correct himself and go forward. But obviously, we were very aware of it, and it's a very serious issue."
The Orioles attempted to deal Ponson last season, but an agreement with the San Diego Padres fell through when first baseman Phil Nevin invoked his no-trade clause. The Texas Rangers long held interest in Ponson, but any potential moves during the summer were nixed when he suffered the calf injury.
The Rangers and Seattle Mariners made overtures to Ponson this month, but he chose the Cardinals, who needed another starter after Matt Morris signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the San Francisco Giants.
"It provides more depth to our rotation, more depth to our pitching staff. That's been a priority of our offseason plan," Jocketty said. "We look at Sidney as a very good piece of that puzzle we're trying to put together."
"Hopefully, they'll find a spot for me somewhere," Ponson said, "and whenever they give me the ball, I'll go out there and pitch."