With Tejada, it's hard to curb the enthusiasm

Commentary

March 20, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It doesn't take long to get used to watching Miguel Tejada play baseball.

It doesn't take long to decide it's a real rip, not unlike the two hits he lashed off his ever-cracking bat yesterday in the Orioles' 3-1 win over the Dodgers.

It doesn't take long to realize, "Oh right, this is what it means to have an MVP on the team. This is what it's like to have a player who elevates the energy and execution level of an entire team, an entire franchise."

"I enjoy playing baseball," Tejada said.

It shows. Halfway through spring training, it's pretty clear why Tejada is here. His 17 hits lead the club.

He clearly doesn't want another slow start, like last year, when as the reigning 2002 American League Most Valuable Player, Tejada was hitting .178 on May 7. Of course, he went on to hit .326 after the break, leading the Athletics to the AL West title.

His impact on the Orioles is already enticingly apparent. Halfway through spring and it's clear Tejada, who played winter ball, is ready for the season. Today. He's here to collect hits, RBIs and wins.

It doesn't take too long watching him attack pitches to wonder: Is it wrong to gush over a player as eager, as alive, as Tejada?

If Derek Jeter is the understated, classy leader of the Yankees; if Nomar Garciaparra is the edgy perfectionist who churns for the Red Sox; if Alex Rodriguez was the supermodel for the new breed of power-hitting shortstops, what do the Orioles have in Tejada?

Catalyst. Live wire. Cheerleader. Ringleader.

"I'm just happy. I have a brand new uniform, a brand new pair of shoes, my kids and family are healthy," Tejada said.

"When I was a kid, I said I want to be a baseball player. Right now, I get paid every 15 days to play baseball. Why wouldn't I be happy?"

This is the 2002 AL Most Valuable Player who walked into the Orioles' clubhouse his first day of spring and shouted: This is no longer a losing team.

He has continued to bring that intensity to the park every day.

"That guy knows what it's about: Winning. The ring," Mark McLemore said, nodding over to Tejada.

"He's always screaming, yelling, making everyone comfortable. It's natural stuff for him," Melvin Mora said about the Orioles new shortstop.

Feeling a little uninspired? Watch Tejada attack a pitch for a double down the third base line that skids all the way to the wall.

In his first at-bat against Jose Lima yesterday, that's what Tejada did, putting an immediate charge into the Orioles' offense.

Surely, there'll come a time when we understand why Oakland general manager Billy Beane lamented Tejada as a guy who'll swing at anything, but for the Orioles, Tejada's aggressive style is what the doctor ordered.

"He's just strong. He doesn't have a long swing. It's short, compact. He's going to hit a lot of balls to the right-center-field wall," Sidney Ponson said, adding: "That's good for us."

Feeling a little unfocused? Watch Tejada gesture and shout at his teammates.

"If you're sleeping out there, he wakes you up. When you have a guy like that on the field and in the clubhouse, it makes a difference," Mora said.

Feeling a little down about a play? Watch Tejada take his glove off and applaud Mike Fontenot.

After Fontenot made a diving stop behind second base and barely missed throwing out the runner at first, Tejada stood and clapped.

"I did that because I like what I see. I clap for him because he made the play. He's a young guy. You make plays like that, that is a great effort to save another run," Tejada said.

Feeling a little unsure whether the aggressive style Tejada employs will help more than it hurts? Watch Tejada charge, bend and bare hand a spinning ball before throwing the runner out to end the inning.

"For the last six years we had to sit on the opposite side and see him do that. Now he can do that for us. That helps a lot," Ponson said.

Worry that Tejada will overplay too many balls, overrun bases, like the kind of overaggressive base-running blunder that helped cost the A's a trip to the AL Championship Series last year?

The Orioles will do what they have to do to curb the errors.

"I set some pretty lofty goals, even for MVPs who make great plays all the time. Miguel has the kind of offense that if he cuts his errors down he will get enough looks to be a Gold Glove. That's the hidden goal," bench coach Sam Perlozzo said.

As an infielding guru who worked with Rodriguez, Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken, Mike Bordick and Omar Vizquel, Perlozzo has similar designs to help Tejada get even better.

"Miguel is so active, so anxious, the goal with him is to get him to stop making the easy mistake. Sometimes you just have to eat the ball. You don't want to do anything to take away his aggressiveness. That's his game. He's an attacker. He puts a charge into the ball. But I will find a way to help him get even better," Perlozzo said.

It's a promise that Tejada and Orioles fans can appreciate.

In the meantime, Tejada is as advertised. Active. Eager. Positive. Accountable. Supportive. Available.

Is it wrong to stop and gush?

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