Upon Tejada's arrival, pessimism, egoism exit

February 26, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - With his home run power and notorious cartoon antics, Sammy Sosa has brought a show-business buzz to the Orioles.

If you want a ballplayer to sell you hot dogs, Sosa, and his made-for-TV bunny hop, is your man. Look for him on a billboard near you.

But myth and reality are two different things. Who's the real face of the Orioles? It's the guy who showed his yesterday for the first time this spring.

Miguel Tejada is not just a baseball star. He's a player, the totally real deal, one of the top five in baseball according to a new survey of baseball scouts by The Sporting News.

And aren't the Orioles happy about that.

When he walked into the clubhouse yesterday, Tejada brought something a lot more substantial than outsized showmanship, which makes him equally as exhilarating as the Sosa sideshow.

A passport issue with one of his children kept Tejada in the Dominican Republic an extra day, but maybe it was divine intervention that the Orioles' best and most important player got a solo cameo for his spring debut.

The big dog who doesn't act like a big dog - and never blares the boom box - is in the house.

And upon his arrival, the clubhouse went from professional and bustling to almost fevered. It was a raucous pitch not seen around this camp since 1997, the last time the Orioles were big-shot playoff contenders.

No one in their right mind would suggest the Orioles could catch the Yankees and Red Sox this season. Then again, when it comes to baseball energy and enthusiasm, Tejada has plenty.

"The way we finished last year, it will help us. Everyone is going to believe when we take the field against the Yankees and Red Sox, we can win," Tejada said.

"If we all take it like we're a leader, we'll all be leaders."

It is one of those nebulous baseball words: leader. What does it mean, really? For Tejada, it means 100 percent performance and consistency. It means earning the title, on the field, not taking it, by taking over the clubhouse.

A Tejada clubhouse is a very good place. It's egalitarian, equal opportunity, optimistic, loose, professional, dedicated. It has no memory chip for bad days and quickly erases the complacency that can come with a good one.

"He doesn't think he's better than any of us. He's the same all the time, on the field, in the clubhouse, on the plane," Brian Roberts said.

"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had, not just because he's a great player, but because he's there to pick you up when you're down, or bring you down when you're up," he said.

"You see that he can't wait until the season. He can't wait to get on the field. He's got that energy, always making fun of himself. Whether he's happy, crazy, mad - he has all the emotions. There's no way to think his personality is false. If you're faking it, you don't go through all of that," Roberts said.

The strangest thing about Sosa and Tejada headlining the same team is that Tejada is the anti-Sosa.

Sure, Tejada appreciates the attention he gets. He appreciates being appreciated. This is a former MVP who wanted to showcase his talent in Baltimore, home of Cal Ripken, and in the American League East, where last year he eagerly joined Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter.

Tejada likes to please the fans, but the method is polar opposite from Sosa's. It's completely unselfconscious. Tejada doesn't seek the spotlight, but rather works so hard and so selflessly, he can't escape it.

"I'm not going to be worried about who the fans are going to be cheering for. I'm not going to pay attention to that," he said.

"I'm going to play for myself. When I take the field, I want to play hard for my team. I think the fans will like that, but I'm going to be one of the people enjoying Sammy Sosa," Tejada said.

As countrymen, Sosa and Tejada have already established a good relationship. Their lockers are side by side, and after the bear hugs and smiles for the camera, Sosa and Tejada sat down and exchanged a few private words.

Sosa has to understand that the fastest way for career redemption is not only hitting home runs, but also having the respect of his teammates for as long as he's an Oriole. Losing Tejada's support and confidence would be a major miscalculation on Sosa's part.

At the same time, Sosa's trade to the Orioles has done a lot to help Tejada believe the Orioles have improved. He can't stand the idea that a team he plays for can't compete. It is entirely against his nature.

"We have Sammy here, we have some new pitchers [in veteran relievers Steve Kline and Steve Reed], and this is something we can put in everyone's mind that everybody can believe more that we can do it," Tejada said.

There was no mistaking the swagger and the energy and the confidence inside the clubhouse yesterday. Roberts, B.J. Surhoff, Rafael Palmeiro, Sosa, Melvin Mora, Larry Bigbie, Javy Lopez and Jay Gibbons were lined up in front of the lockers.

They were a solid collection of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers and homegrown talent; then Tejada walked in and the Orioles had the infectious feel of a confident, happy team.

His.

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