When Miguel Tejada takes his rightful spot as the American League's starting shortstop in tonight's 76th All-Star game in Detroit, he'll look to his left and see his buddy and Orioles teammate, Brian Roberts, probably baseball's most surprising new star.
To Tejada's right will be New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the game's highest-paid player and perennial Most Valuable Player candidate.
If Tejada is searching for the absolute best player in baseball, however, the argument can be made that he should simply look inward.
"It would be Miguel Tejada," said Boston Red Sox All-Star center fielder Johnny Damon when asked who was currently the game's premier player. "I think he has pushed himself to the elite over the past couple of years. He is just getting better, and with the energy he brings, it's really amazing."
Damon, a teammate of Tejada's with the Oakland Athletics, isn't shy with his opinions. He gladly rattled off his "Top Five Stars of All-Stars," in order: Tejada, New York Yankees Derek Jeter and Rodriguez, St. Louis Cardinal Albert Pujols and Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki.
Of the major league players, coaches and front office personnel also queried, no one else was confident enough to offer a top five. Most shied away from singling out one player over the others.
"I don't really think about it like that, everybody is different ... " Jeter, the Yankees' star shortstop, said. "There are so many different angles you can go on."
Maybe so, but the same names - basically Damon's top five - were mentioned again and again. [See Tejada, 4d] [Tejada, from Page 1d] And the respondents weren't blindly loyal to their teams.
"It is hard to say who is the best," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "To me, I think the best player in the world is Ichiro Suzuki; he is phenomenal."
Cleveland Indians reliever and former Oriole Arthur Rhodes, who played with Suzuki in Seattle, wasn't ready to say that his former teammate was absolutely, positively the best in the game.
"Can I pick two?" Rhodes asked. "One is Ichiro and the other is probably Alex [Rodriguez], because they play hard and can do everything. ... You can put Tejada in there, too."
Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, who has probably watched as much baseball as anyone still in uniform, said his answer has changed. Last year at this time, he would have said Jeter. Now, it's Tejada.
"I have watched him, day in and day out, for a year and a half. And he has really been impressive," Hendricks said. "Not just on the field, but off the field and how much he expects of other players."
Based on drive, ability and desire, Hendricks believes there are three players who rise above the rest.
"If I wasn't in the game in any capacity and I was going to the ballpark, I would want to go see three players play, not in any order: Jeter, Ichiro and Tejada. I wouldn't pay to see anybody else," Hendricks said. "They play the game the way it should be played. They play right. They don't cheat themselves. They don't cheat their teammates."
Orioles reliever Steve Kline said if the entire major leagues were his playground and he had the first pick to select anyone for his team, he'd lean toward St. Louis third baseman Scott Rolen, because he "is really unselfish."
But if he were picking the best in the game, Kline would go for a new Orioles teammate over an old Cardinals one.
"My top choices would be Miggy and Albert [Pujols]," Kline said.
Of the two, Kline gives Tejada the slight edge "just because of his qualities in the locker room. He is more of a leader type. Albert is more quiet. He just wants to come and play ball where Miggy is more of a leader. But Albert is getting better at that."
Not all Orioles immediately mention Tejada. Third baseman Melvin Mora believes New York's Rodriguez is No. 1 overall.
"I don't care what other people say, he is the best player in baseball," Mora said of Rodriguez. "People might talk bad about him, but he is the best player."
Mora, however, wants an asterisk next to his choice. He figures there should be separate categories when talking about baseball's best. For pure numbers, it's Rodriguez. For ability in the clutch, he gives the nod to Jeter. And when it comes to elevating teammates' performances, then Mora points to his left.
"I put Tejada in first place as the guy who comes to the clubhouse ... puts the team on his shoulders and carries them," Mora said.
Some of the sport's biggest stars were left out of the discussion. New York Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield said the San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds is the best player he has seen, but knee problems may prevent him from returning to glory. Other top sluggers, such as Boston's Manny Ramirez and the Los Angeles Angels' Vladimir Guerrero, weren't mentioned - possibly because of perceived defensive or leadership shortcomings.
Indeed, the consensus top five has a lot in common. All are strong defensively, excellent offensively, extremely durable and have an unending desire to win.