From Bani to Baltimore

Miguel Tejada's spirited play has made him a Dominican hero and a key part of the O's future

February 15, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

BANI, Dominican Republic - On the barren sandlot where Miguel Tejada used to field ground balls with folded milk cartons, a new generation of Dominican boys has come to play.

Their gloves are leather.

The field still doesn't have any bases. The weathered cement bleachers look like they could collapse under the weight of a hefty crowd. And one of the kids has gone home with the bat.

But a young pitcher hurls a standard-issue baseball toward home plate, a young catcher throws to second base, and an aspiring shortstop tags a would-be base stealer with a black Mizuno glove - a glove just like the one Tejada uses today.

In Los Barrancones, the neighborhood where the Orioles' new $72 million shortstop learned to look the ball into a makeshift mitt, progress is measured one glove at a time.

Beyond third base, there's a refreshment stand where a man sells Coca-Cola. A passer-by can stand in the sun and watch the palm trees blowing gently in the breeze, as the green mountains frame the lush Caribbean landscape.

For the 60,000 people who live in Bani, and their favorite son, this is the calm after the storm. The hurricane long ago passed, but Tejada remembers exactly what it's like to be smack in the middle of it.

Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane David took everything Tejada knew, forced his family from its home and leveled the town where he was born. As he begins the newest phase of his life with the Orioles, he has completely rebuilt himself.

By no small coincidence, his hometown has done the same.

Starting this baseball season, Tejada will attempt to bring the spirit of Bani to Baltimore. The Orioles are working on their own dramatic reconstruction, and they figured he was just the man to help them do it.

Finding shelter

The old Tejada house still sits on a corner, toward the back boundary of the Los Barrancones neighborhood. The place used to be a one-room shack, but like so much else in Bani, it has been renovated and expanded.

Tejada's sister recently had the house painted the color of peaches and cream.

The memories there aren't quite as sweet.

When Tejada was a toddler, his mother used to bathe him in the river near their first home, standing beside other women who used the same water for cooking and cleaning clothes.

Even by Dominican standards, the Tejada family didn't have much, but it was enough to lead a fairly peaceful existence.

That all changed Aug. 31, 1979, when Hurricane David took a sudden turn north and slammed into the island's southern coast, hitting Bani at peak force.

One of the century's fiercest storms to rise from the Atlantic, David unleashed winds that reached 150 mph and waves the size of four-story buildings into the unsuspecting city.

Tejada was only 3 years old when the hurricane hit, so his earliest memories are of chaos: flooding, death and starvation. David eventually claimed 1,100 lives.

"There was no food, no water, no lights for six months," said Guaroa Andujar, a close friend of Tejada's from Los Barrancones. "It was the worst [storm] anybody could remember."

Like thousands of others, the Tejadas fled to a disaster relief camp. Eventually, they settled on the north side of Bani, on a crowded street in Los Barrancones, a place where some of the worst was yet to come.

The money at home was always tight. By the age of 5, Tejada was working as a shoeshine boy. At 11, he dropped out of school to work in a clothing factory. Then, at 13, more tragedy.

Four days before Christmas, his mother died in her sleep of a sudden illness. To this day, Tejada is convinced she could have been saved with adequate medical care.

"I'll never forget," Tejada said. "When I signed my first contract with Oakland, I said, `Why don't I have the same problem this time, now that I can buy everything?' "

To that point in his life, no matter how bleak his family's situation looked, Tejada knew he could always count on Mora Tejada's love.

While his father, Daniel, tried to fend for the family working long hours in construction jobs, his mother would practically feed the whole neighborhood.

"We'd say, `Mora, I'm hungry!' " Andujar said. "She cooked chicken and rice for everybody - 25 or 35 people."

After her death, some of her responsibilities fell to Tejada. Searching for better-paying work, his father ventured north, leaving Tejada and his older brother, Juan, to help raise their three sisters.

Tejada knew they needed a better way.

"I wasn't sad [growing up in Bani]," Tejada said. "But when I started playing baseball, I was trying to find a future for my family."

A passionate player

Four months after his mother died, Tejada was playing baseball on a softball field in Bani when a part-time scout caught a glimpse.

Enrique Soto studied the scene closely and could practically feel the determination radiating from Tejada's 13-year-old body.

Tejada already had the makings of the violent, right-handed swing he brings to the plate today. But at the time, he was all skin and bones.

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