Has any quotation gotten more use than P. T. Barnum's old chestnut that "there's a sucker born every minute"? That phrase was the first thing that came to my mind earlier this evening when I heard that the Royals had hopped aboard the Sidney Ponson train, giving everyone's favorite drunken, ruddy, judge-punching Aruban a minor league deal and an invite to camp. It's hard to say anything about Sir Sidney that hasn't already been said, so let me share a hilarious anecdote from Sam Walker's book Fantasyland. In a nutshell, a sports columnist who had never played fantasy baseball talked his way into the 2004 season of Tout Wars, the most prestigious rotisserie league in the country (other participants included Matthew Berry and Joe Sheehan). To make up for his novice, he went completely overboard, touring Spring Training sites and interviewing players to try to determine who was worthy of his team...and more importantly, who wasn't. To wit:
"...Ponson had managed to win seventeen games in 2003, and the Orioles, desperate for arms, rewarded him over the winter with a new $22.5 million contract. Ponson promptly showed his appreciation by ballooning to 266 pounds on a diet of beer and cholesterol and showing up to spring training struggling to do calisthenics. 'I swim,' Ponson said when I asked him about his winter conditioning program. 'I swim in the ocean at my house.' "
It gets better. During the live auction draft, the owners take turns nominating players for bidding. The idea is to toss out a guy that you have no personal interest in or need for, and to sit back while your opponents screw up their budgets. Naturally, Sam's sacrificial turkey is Sidney. In addition to the weight gain, Sid's pitching philosophy is lacking:
"...He'd been pitching around people. In other words, when tough batters came up, he tried to retire them by throwing garbage and hoping they'd flail away. Not only was this a dubious strategy, it was a dramatically dumb thing to admit to a guy with a tape recorder. When hitters finally caught on to him, Ponson would start walking more people than a pack of leader dogs."
So Sam nominates Ponson (valued by some roto previews as high as $19) at $12, and...deafening silence. Of course no one in that league of experts would be dumb enough to fall for Sidney. They started jeering poor Sam, referring to Ponson as the "fat hobbit", and in one case, even tossing out a joke bid of $11. No one made a serious bid; per the rules of rotisserie, Walker was stuck with the pitcher that he least wanted.
You know most of the rest of the story. Indeed, Ponson was hideously awful in the first half of 2004: 3-12, 6.29 ERA. But before the bottom completely dropped out, Sam was lucky enough to hook up with another relative newcomer to the league and unload Sidney for Jose Guillen. Crisis averted, right?
Um...right. Until he reacquired him in a failed attempt at a three-team trade. Inexplicably, the trade didn't end up a total loss, as Sidney went 8-3, 4.21 in the second half. Walker continues visiting with "his" players throughout the season, and his encounter with Ponson on September 3 at Yankee Stadium is one for the ages. The pitcher claims that he was opening up in his delivery too early during the extended slump. Later, Jim Palmer explains to Walker that the majority of Ponson's struggles can more accurately be blamed on his weight:
"While Palmer elaborates on the problems of rotund pitchers, Sidney Ponson walks up behind him. It takes a few seconds for Palmer to register the look of panic on my face, but when he wheels around Ponson is glowering at him. Palmer, trying to play it off, points to me.
'He has you on his rotisserie team.'
'Ya! He traded me!' Ponson says, stomping off."
Oh, to be a fly on the wall. Naturally, Ponson shut out the Yankees the next night, giving up two hits and winning 7-0. It was his last career shutout to date.
Caveat emptor, Kansas City.