Tejada cuts to the quick with nonstop positive spin

August 17, 2004|By JOHN EISENBERG

ALONG-ODDS RUN at the wild card? Hey, go ahead and speculate. Do the math.

You're entitled to some fun after enduring six years of losing.

But while you're calculating, you might want to monitor the more realistic and important competition unfolding as the Orioles head down the stretch.

It's a struggle for the soul of the team, that's all.

In one corner, there's the losing culture that has settled over the franchise like a dense fog since the late 1990s.

In the other corner, there's Miguel Tejada, whose intangible qualities are becoming more important and infectious every day.

Can Tejada blow away the dense fog with his relentless energy and enthusiasm?

Watch for the answer between now and the end of the season as the Orioles try to end 2004 on an upbeat note rather than with another collapse.

Don't bet against Tejada.

"He comes from the right place," Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said last night.

That's the "right place" as in an attitude that emphasizes team over individual, smiles over frowns and positive over negative.

Those are Little League qualities, kids stuff, but don't underestimate them. Injecting them into a grumpy team accustomed to losing, a team that had become accepting of fourth place, is how one player out of 25 can make a profound difference.

"He has brought something to this team that no one else could," second baseman Brian Roberts said yesterday. "It's one thing to have a rah-rah cheerleader sitting on the bench. It's another to have a rah-rah cheerleader who is your star player. You can't put a price tag on that."

He was more of a supporting emotional player in Oakland, where he played on a perennial playoff contender until signing with the Orioles last winter.

"Now, I'm more of a leader here; one of the guys who has been to the playoffs," Tejada said yesterday.

The Orioles knew they were getting one of the game's best shortstops, but they weren't as sure about his intangibles until they gave him a psychological test last spring.

He scored off the charts in key levels measuring leadership.

You saw it in evidence when the Orioles were losing in May and June, sinking to the bottom of the American League East standings.

"He was the same guy with the same energy and attitude," Palmer said.

You saw it again Sunday when the Orioles were six runs behind Toronto and headed for a depressing end to a successful road trip. Tejada kept talking and believing. The Orioles came back to win.

In every game, actually, you can see his nonstop chattering and gesturing, his obvious enthusiasm for playing, the sheer pleasure he brings to the park.

Quite a departure from the Orioles' recent past, which was defined by such qualities as Cal Ripken's quiet, old-school mentoring and Albert Belle's flat-out surliness.

Belle would have elbowed anyone who tried to include him in the ebullient post-victory handshake celebration Tejada has started.

But Tejada's powerful intangibles were most evident last month after he improbably won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in Houston.

"This is going to help Baltimore for the second half [of the season]," he said. "Those guys can see that no matter how far down we are, we can still win."

His response to a classic individual triumph was all about the team.

"That moment spoke volumes to me," Palmer said. "That's what team guys do. That's what winning is all about."

It was only natural that he mentioned rallying in the second half, as his Oakland teams did that almost every year. He brought up the subject again yesterday before facing his old team for the first time.

"We were always 10 back or seven back or something, and we'd come back and make the playoffs," Tejada said. "This is what I talk about now to the guys here. You can do this. We can do this.

"The same thing is going to happen here. We're young. We have to start at the bottom. But we're going to get there."

This year? That's asking a lot. The Orioles' young pitchers might be tiring. The schedule includes a two-week road trip beginning next week.

But the fight for the soul of the team isn't about this year so much as next year and beyond.

It's about the team's best player refusing not to set the bar higher and expect more.

It's about a franchise taking the first step and emerging from the dense fog of persistent defeat.

"Hey, we have guys in here who have never won. I haven't won since my sophomore year in college," Roberts said. "It gets old, playing for yourself in August and September. It gets very old. We've had enough of that. We want more of this."

More winning. More fun. More noise.

The sound you hear is Tejada, willful and relentless, huffing and puffing as he blows into the fog.

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