Long story short: This is Tejada's team

April 04, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

Let us begin the 2004 baseball season with words of gratitude: Thank you, Tony Batista.

The dance-stepping third baseman may be gone from Camden Yards, but he's not forgotten. It was Batista who repeatedly told Miguel Tejada that Baltimore was the place Tejada should seriously consider going when Tejada became a free agent.

Thank you, too, to Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. The A's saved their hard-earned pennies to sign Eric Chavez to a long-term deal this spring. Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Tejada were allowed to leave, but the A's held onto Chavez, believing the third baseman was the one homegrown position player worth making a cornerstone of the franchise.

Damon loves Boston, Giambi looks anxiety-ridden in New York, Chavez is an excellent player for the "small-market" A's.

But Tejada? He's ready for his close-up, Mr. Angelos, who opened the wallet to beat Seattle and Detroit for Tejada. Overpaid? Not really, not considering the Orioles' need for a player like this.

Tejada is a star. He's a centerpiece. He's a durable ball hog who can't play enough innings at the quarterback spot in the field. His consecutive-games streak isn't Ripken-esque, but it speaks of Tejada's tenacity, will, desire and joy of playing the game.

Offensively, he's a high-yield three-hole hitter who can't take enough attacking cuts at the baseball. He slices doubles down the line. The ball jumps off his bat and sails over the fence. He hit some of his 27 homers in cavernous Network Associates Coliseum last season. How many will he hit this year in Camden Yards? Tejada hits with zeal, he runs with fervor - sometimes too much; he can't find enough new, aggressive ways to charge slow rollers.

Do you like your hometown team anchored by a superior talent who also likes the spotlight? Tejada is your man. If there's a single reason the Orioles are a more formidable team this year than last year, it's because of this former American League Most Valuable Player.

When the Orioles take the field tonight, Tejada will be the one whose energy and body language, whose expectations and execution will let Orioles fans know this is a new team, a new season.

So the Orioles are picked to finish fourth in the AL East, again. Maybe third if the Blue Jays' starters falter, or, God forbid, the Orioles are picked to finish fifth if the Devil Rays use smoke and mirrors as their starting rotation.

But it will be difficult to mistake that the Orioles are different, even if so much about the division remains the same. Yes, Tejada wanted the money. Who, besides Vladimir Guerrero, who went west to Anaheim, wouldn't want $72 million to play for the Orioles? Money moves free agents to interesting decisions.

However, Tejada also wanted Camden Yards. He wanted the spot where Cal Ripken once played. Tejada wanted the AL East. He wanted to go up against Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra and now Alex Rodriguez, night after night. He wanted the prime-time television slot. He wanted to be embraced and admired for his work ethic and ability by all those East Coast baseball fans who were sleeping by the time Tejada was hitting homers out West.

Unlike so much else about the Orioles, Tejada begs no questions.

Not like these: Will Sidney Ponson win 20 games as the Orioles' ace this season, or will his starts against other ace pitchers wreak havoc on Sir Sid's psyche? He has the money of an ace. He has the role of an ace. Can he finally fulfill that role?

Rafael Palmeiro is going to the Hall of Fame. He wants to wear an Orioles cap, which makes his return to Baltimore a lot like Eddie Murray's in 1996. They came home to roost - and bask in the appreciation of Orioles fans who respect everything Palmeiro stands for and has done, including the millions he makes hawking a certain pharmaceutical.

But what if, by chance, production wanes, which can happen to 39-year-old hitters - even ones as smooth as Raffy? All eyes are on Palmeiro, who is here to finish a career - and stay a step ahead Father Time.

Will Kurt Ainsworth emerge as a formidable starter? He has the pitches and the presence of a frontline pitcher, with high expectations from everyone. But until he notches his first full season in the major leagues, there's that question.

Will Larry Bigbie and Luis Matos take that next step? Will Jay Gibbons get more pitches to hit, now that he has so much protection in the batting order? Will Javy Lopez be the Javy Lopez who hit 43 homers last season, or will he bounce back down to reality, especially now that he's in a new league and out of Turner Field, where Lopez registered 26 of his homers and 62 points higher in his batting average?

Can super utility man Melvin Mora settle into the third base job, as he is one of two AL East players making the demanding switch to the hot corner this season? Will Eric DuBose, Erik Bedard, Matt Riley and/or Denny Bautista make starts in the big leagues this season that confirm what the Orioles promise: They're one year away from a formidable, young staff, even without a frontline veteran pitcher on staff this season to help them understand the rhythm and the ropes?

The Orioles, like all teams, enter the season with questions. Questions litter the horizon, which makes it all so interesting, or frustrating, depending on your point of view.

But in the middle of all those questions, there's one Oriole who presents no mystery.

His name is Miguel Tejada.

Thank you, Tony Batista.

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