Tejada's charm, skills in Baltimore are cause for applause

December 19, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

MIGUEL TEJADA could not sleep. All night, all he could think about was putting on his new jersey and making it official.

Even in this age of cynicism and big money - and we all understand Tejada has 72 million reasons to be thrilled about his new gig in Baltimore - Tejada could not help himself.

Yesterday, the former Oakland shortstop slipped on his new No. 10 jersey. He tugged down hard on a black cap emblazoned with the orange Oriole. He lit up like a kid at Christmas - which he may or may not be, depending on whether you believe he's 27 or, more likely, 30. Who cares?

Tejada, beaming, allowed his bright eyes to dart around the crowded room. Then he spontaneously clapped - for himself; for his proud father, Juan Cesar Tejada; for his brother, Juan; wife Alejandro and their children.

He clapped for the Orioles and he clapped for anyone else who wants to believe, as Tejada apparently does, this is perfect.

Not a bad moment for a man who once had to beg for change in the streets of his native Bani in the Dominican Republic.

While reigning American League Most Valuable Player Alex Rodriguez had spent the past 48 hours attempting to displace Nomar Garciaparra and move his discontented self from Texas to Boston, Tejada was 180 degrees the opposite.

Get this, world: Miguel Tejada wanted to come to Baltimore.

For that we can thank Tony Batista, whom the Orioles must no longer feel they overpaid in 2003. Consider it a bonus, for persuading Tejada to look hard at Baltimore.

As the godfather to Tejada's young son, Batista spent months telling free-agent-to-be Tejada how much Batista liked it here.

So Tejada was long convinced he wanted to play in Camden Yards. He wanted to be the centerpiece of an organization desperate for a big-shouldered star. He wanted to sign with a franchise that was for nearly two decades anchored by an MVP/All-Star/Hall of Fame shortstop who helped redefine the position.

And when he meets up with Cal Ripken, Tejada - who has played 162 games in each of the past three seasons - joked he was going to ask Ripken "how he can do it, how he play so many games."

Not to generalize about professional athletes, because certainly a slew of them do good things for their teams and communities, but there is no question why the Orioles were not the least bit hesitant about signing Tejada to a six-year deal, the largest in franchise history.

Tejada is a cornerstone on and off the field. There is value for players willing and able to take on the role of ambassador, to be the face of the franchise. There is an intangible value for players who assume responsibility.

Already, there was talk yesterday about how Tejada had asked to be taken to an Orioles Christmas party, how his contract may contain language about charity contributions and community work.

Yesterday, amid all the introductions and media interviews, Tejada was eager to walk into the Orioles clubhouse for the first time.

He said he doesn't care if he bats first, second, third, fourth or ninth. He wants to play.

He said he doesn't want to assume he's a new team leader; he wants to prove he's a leader by the way he goes about his business, the way he prepares, the way he plays.

"My first three years in Oakland, we lost more than 90 games a year, but we worked together and you see what we did. We came together," Tejada said.

It has been a long time since the Orioles have generated any serious, big news - other than the revolving door of managers, general managers and minor league call-ups since 1998.

Eddie Murray was inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, but that was as much a grim reminder about how long it has been since the Orioles were an elite franchise as it was a celebration of Murray's stellar career.

You might have to go back to Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak or, later, Ripken's farewell tour and retirement to find a development as significant for the Orioles as Tejada's official introduction as the team's newest MVP shortstop.

And what better endorsement could Tejada get than from the shortstop whose legacy was one more reason Tejada was sold on the Orioles.

"Just like every other Oriole fan, I'm excited," Ripken said.

"Miguel is one of the top players in the game. The shortstop position has been a celebrated one, especially here, with players like Mark Belanger, myself, Mike Bordick. Miguel is durable. He sits in the middle of the order. He takes responsibility. He's great on defense, and he's an offensive force. He does it all," Ripken said.

"When I moved over to third base, we had Mike Bordick, one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. That's first and foremost what you want at the position ... but to get one of the best hitters and one of the best two-way players, that's exciting."

Though Tejada has named Alfredo Griffin as his role model growing up, Ripken said he was flattered when Tejada mentioned his name as a model for durability.

"That makes me happy and you see, he's taken on that," Ripken said.

"What we think is OK for players these days is to play 140, 145 games. Miguel obviously understands the value of that position. I kind of liken it to Eddie Murray. You wanted him there in a crunch situation. When he was in the infield, there was stability. Everything was all right."

Forget for a minute that the Orioles need more impact players to contend. Forget, even, that more impact players are on their way. For one day, there was an exciting start to the new Orioles.

Miguel Tejada took over a spot where great ones have played. He took over with a promise to uphold the legacy. That alone was reason to smile and clap.

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