Latin flavor gives O's a recipe for success

December 17, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

IN CASE Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Ivan Rodriguez or Vladimir Guerrero ever gets a hankering for some Caribbean cuisine en route to or from Camden Yards, word around Baltimore is that Carolinas on South Broadway serves an awesome pollo guisado.

The stewed chicken dish (with rice and beans) has been known to satisfy the cravings of many far from their warm and native land -- or, in the case of Tejada, Lopez, Rodriguez and Guerrero (from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), their native islands. There's also Caribbean Kitchen on North Calvert Street, where the jerk chicken is out of this world.

OK, so we're getting slightly ahead of ourselves in regard to Lopez, Rodriguez and Guerrero. But why not? Is there any doubt that the tectonic plates under Camden Yards were jolted into a Richter-smashing seismic shift the moment the Orioles announced they had signed Tejada? Is there any doubt that the Confederate money Syd Thrift could not give away during those five years of pain and misery has now morphed into Monopoly money on Zoloft?

See Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan spend.

See Peter Angelos revel in the talent-flush, yet fiscally depressed free-agent market.

See the Orioles erupt out of a six-year chasm of major league credibility and contention into a deep free-agent pool they apparently share with no one. This, despite claims by super agent Scott Boras that interest in Rodriguez is coming from as many as 899 major league teams, not including the Ham Fighters and Orix Blue Wave.

Something tells us Beattie/Flanagan/Angelos won't get played by Boras, not the way Tom Hicks got played by Boras in the Alex Rodriguez/Chan Ho Park era of free-agent shenanigans. Not only are the Orioles still on track to make the kind of ticket-selling splash the Rangers owner once made with the A-Rod signing, but the Orioles also have emerged as the absolute prime beneficiaries of a market brought to its knees in 2000.

How did this operation get so lucky that it has the money that no one else does? Can this really be happening that all the Orioles' fiscal and emotional momentum is surging forward at the same exact moment? Don't ask. Just enjoy, especially since current Orioles leadership seems to have a dead-aim feel for how to make the most of this incredible market and rare opportunity. From Nowheresville to King of the Mountain, the Orioles stand poised to prove themselves one of the most formidable forces in baseball this winter, second only perhaps to the Red Sox -- should the deals in the Orioles' "Plan A" pan out as is being speculated.

Tejada was key -- and not because it was never a legitimate option to play Brian Roberts at shortstop, not if you wanted the Orioles to contend in the American League East. Short, catcher and a premier power hitter: Those were three places the Orioles had to upgrade to make good on their promise to challenge for the AL wild card.

At $72 million, Tejada may have been overpaid by the Orioles. The Red Sox think so, otherwise why are they so eager to get rid of their All-Star shortstop? Chalk up another Orioles coup. The organization has now officially reordered the entire market for that particular position, with A-Rod looking to get out of Arlington to Boston; Nomar Garciaparra unable to seal a long-term deal with the Red Sox and Omar Vizquel heading back to Seattle after the Mariners lost the bidding war for Tejada to the Orioles.

As the Orioles' first free-agent deal of this brave new era, Tejada had to be for premium dollars. That was the one sure way to get the ball rolling. It was also a smart-money move, since it helps alter the perception of Baltimore among other high-profile players.

That's why it might be time for a primer on Baltimore's Latino community, now that Camden Yards appears to be baseball's newest hotbed for Caribbean-born All-Stars. The big question for all those forlorn, downtrodden, skeptical Orioles fans used to be: Why would Vladimir Guerrero ever want to come to Baltimore? Now, thanks to Tejada, it's: Why wouldn't Guerrero come? The Marlins can't pay the same kind of rock-solid dollars and the Yankees are banking on Gary Sheffield -- another sign that George Steinbrenner might be on the verge of steering the $200 million Yankees into a down cycle. Sheffield is a great player, but who wouldn't make a run at Guerrero, bad back and all, in this market? Again, happy days are here again for a baseball city long overdue for a restoration of pride. Even better, the new Orioles are taking on the personality of some of the game's finest Latino stars -- a turn of events that should inspire us all.

"I'd venture to say Baltimore is wonderfully diverse. If someone needs to sell [Guerrero, Lopez or Ivan Rodriguez] on that, I'd be happy to do that," said Hector Torres, executive director of the Maryland Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

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