Charged With Emotion

Orioles: Miguel Tejada's vibrant nature gives his new club a welcome lift.

April 04, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

It was spring training, the games were meaningless exhibitions and the Orioles were starting to get a sense of their newest leader and newest character, Miguel Tejada.

Not just the way he fielded the shortstop position. Not just the way he hit - and he did plenty of that this spring. But also the way he brought them to life when everything else seemed dead.

"It'll be quiet on the bench, and, out of the blue, he'll just yell something," said Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons. "He'll blurt out a movie line or something. Half of the time, I don't even know what he's talking about."

Watch the Orioles' dugout closely tonight, when the season opens against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, and there's a good chance Tejada will have everyone smiling.

Signed to a six-year, $72 million contract in December, Tejada isn't just an All-Star-caliber player, but he's also one of the most entertaining athletes his teammates have ever met.

"I never knew I was going to have so much fun playing next to somebody," third baseman Melvin Mora said.

Sometimes, it's a movie line. Tejada likes anything with Martin Lawrence, and his recent favorite was Ice Cube's Friday After Next.

Sometimes, it's a series of expletives, spoken rapid-fire - some in Spanish, some in English.

Sometimes, he'll make an error and start yelling at his glove.

"I just hear him, and if I could understand him, I could probably tell you a funny story," said bench coach Sam Perlozzo. "He's talking real fast, and the way he says it, it's funny, so you start laughing. Then we have to go around asking people, `What did he say?' Then we get a second laugh out of it."

Tejada, 27, spent his first six big league seasons with the Oakland Athletics, and Gibbons remembers one highlight from the sports reel last July. Tejada went hitless in three at-bats against Anaheim pitcher Jarrod Washburn - making him 1-for-36 lifetime against the left-hander - and was so disgusted, he started tossing his equipment over the A's dugout into the stands.

First, it was a couple of bats. Then, it was some batting gloves. Then, it was some sunflower seeds. Behind the dugout, some young Oakland fans were sitting there deliriously happy while the former American League Most Valuable Player tossed them his goods.

"He was just like, `If none of these are working, you take them,'" Gibbons said. "I thought that was great."

Now, after spending six weeks with Tejada at spring training, Gibbons has a deeper sense of what that personality can mean for the Orioles.

"We haven't really had that," Gibbons said. "We've had quiet leaders. Cal [Ripken] and [Jeff] Conine were great, but they led by example. We had a real laid-back team last year. We didn't have anybody fiery. The manager [Mike Hargrove] was kind of laid-back, and so were we."

Tejada epitomized the youthful energy of an Oakland team that averaged 98 victories over the past four seasons. During their 20-game winning streak of 2002, who could forget the sight of Tejada in front of the A's dugout, twirling the white towel to ignite the fans and pointing to the sky after all those home runs? He plays with a passion that is hard to comprehend, until you see him play winter ball in his native Dominican Republic, where every one of his at-bats touches off a meringue party.

In the beginning, former A's manager Art Howe used to scold Tejada about being too emotional on the field. Tejada would ground out and berate himself all the way back to the dugout, to the point where it became a distraction for his teammates.

Eventually, Tejada learned to channel that energy. When he has the occasional outburst these days, it's done for effect.

"Most of the time, I do it to push myself," Tejada said. "And I like to keep the team loose. When the team's loose, it's happy. And when you're happy, that helps you play baseball."

If Tejada were just another player, his antics might not go over as well. But beyond the laughs he provides, he produces. For his career, he has hit .270 with 156 home runs and 604 RBIs. He's also another Ripken with his consistency, having played in 594 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the majors.

Some of Tejada's Spanish musings are lost on his American-born teammates, but utility infielder Luis Lopez understands them all.

"The one thing I can tell you is all he talks about is winning," Lopez said. "He's so positive out there, and you need that. ... There are three types of leaders for a team. There are leaders who are outspoken, leaders who are quiet and the ones who do it on the field.

"I think, with this guy, we got all three of them."

Talk to Tejada's former teammates, and they'll share some funny stories. Talk to them long enough, they'll share some touching ones, too.

In the 2002 Division Series, Oakland infielder Olmedo Saenz ruptured his Achilles' tendon running to first base. With the injury threatening to end his career, Saenz watched the next game from his hospital bed.

He saw his jersey hanging in the A's dugout.

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