Tejada's winning aura is paying off already

February 25, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Let there be no revisionist history on this one. So the Orioles overpaid for their major offseason acquisition. Right here, right now, the price was right.

Can you tell something about a baseball player by the way he dashes out of the dugout on his very first trip to the field on his very first day of spring training with his new team?

Miguel Tejada didn't have to scamper up the steps at Fort Lauderdale Stadium like it was Opening Day yesterday, but he did, bats in one hand and the other waving to the applauding crowd in the stands.

"The only thing I say to anybody, this team is not a losing team anymore. We're going to be a winning team. Doesn't matter who we're going to play. We're going to play like we're champions," he said.

"I'm here to win" is Tejada's motto, eschewing any suggestion that he might miss all the winning he did while he racked up postseason berths and Most Valuable Player honors in Oakland.

"I'm going to play postseason in Baltimore. I'm going to be in there again pretty soon."

Who has the heart to suggest otherwise, especially when Tejada compared the Orioles' slew of pitching prospects to who he saw come of age in Oakland?

You want fresh, new perspective on the Orioles? Here's Tejada, at your service.

Can you tell something about a player by the way he saunters from his locker to the training table, surveys the platters of cold cuts and starts slapping piles of ham and scooping mounds of chicken salad on his plate?

Don't be shy, Miggy.

Tejada took all of about 30 seconds after entering the clubhouse door to demonstrate a level of ease, comfort and control that surely signals he's the Orioles' new alpha male.

But not in a way anyone might find obnoxious.

"We [will] have [Rafael] Palmeiro here. That's who we'll be looking to in the clubhouse. He's going to be the big guy everybody wants to follow. I'm going to be in the field to help these guys. As for hitting, if someone asks me, I'm going say I'm following Palmeiro because he's the guy to ask."

Respect thine elders. Respect tradition. Respect your good fortune.

Check, check, check for Tejada.

That doesn't appear to mean Tejada will be shy about assuming a centerpiece role, pronto, even with Palmeiro at the helm and Cal Ripken's legacy hovering. "I first saw him when I was 10 years old. On TV back in the Dominican. He's like a god back there," Tejada said of No. 8.

Orioles fans should breathe a sigh of relief, considering how long the team has gone without this kind of player, this kind of energy, this kind of All-Star. There's a thin line between cocky and confident. Tejada is on the correct side of the line.

Um, the last free-agent signing of this magnitude was Albert Belle. Let's just say that there's about 180 degrees difference in personality between surly Joey and bring-it-on Miggy. His mastery of the English language is pretty terrific. There's not a lot that Tejada misses or is unable to communicate, but that's not the best way to get a read on what Tejada has brought to the Orioles.

Remember the Beatles song? "Something in the way he moves" ... or something like that. That's Tejada, ready to fill the void. It's about attitude, body language.

After last year's sixth straight losing season, which was preceded by the death of Steve Bechler in spring training, this was a franchise aching for some attitude, some positive body language.

"I'm going to start to walk in the same clubhouse that Cal Ripken walked," Tejada said, assuming the proper mixture of respect, awe and willingness to man a position and fulfill a role the Orioles have long and sorely missed.

If Ripken was the Iron Man who ruled the roost with cool, smooth, calculated poise, then Tejada is the opposite of him, too. Out of that West Coast time slot, into a division that now boasts the four best shortstops in the American League, if not baseball (even though one now plays third base), Tejada is ready for his close-up.

"Well, it's great for me. A lot of people ... can see me now. I don't have to worry that people will have to wait till 10 o'clock to see me. Now they can see me on TV," he said.

"I like attention. I'm going to say that. I like people. I like to do something to see the people talk about me. That's all."

A steady diet of Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez faces Tejada, whose eyes glint and whose words say bring it on.

"I know there's a lot of good shortstops in this league and this division. I'm happy to play against those guys. But I'm not going to try a little competition. I'm just going to try and beat them."

In 2002, when Tejada won the AL MVP, he notched himself into that elite company by leading the A's to the AL West title on a massive second-half surge. The A's won 20 games in a row, with Tejada winning two games late in the streak on a last-at-bat homer and bases-loaded single. He went .366 with 18 RBIs during the streak - more than enough on-the-field evidence to counter A-Rod's verbal campaign for MVP votes.

For now, A-Rod is out of Tejada's hair, sort of.

"He's the best player in the league. He can do whatever they want. He can come back later to shortstop and he's still the best. He play third base to try and be on the better team. I really give a lot of respect to him. But for me? I'm happy to play shortstop. I'm happy to make the big play."

For this, the price was right.

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