With Tejada driving, O's will be hard to pass

July 14, 2005|By John Eisenberg

THREE YEARS ago, there was almost no chance of Miguel Tejada being recognized as the best shortstop in the American League. His competition included Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra - major market superstars - and Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in the major leagues.

But Tejada kept playing and excelling, and the baseball world now views him differently. He isn't a caddie for his better-known rivals; he is widely regarded as the AL's best shortstop and one of the game's best players, period.

The latest validation of his higher standing has come in recent weeks. Tejada was voted the AL's starting All-Star shortstop ahead of Jeter (Garciaparra is now in the National League; Rodriguez a third baseman) and collected the game's MVP award Tuesday night.

His rise among the pantheon of shortstops illustrates his talent, innate steadiness and the firmness of his resolve. Prevailing over Jeter, Garciaparra and Rodriguez was a long shot, but he did it.

It is against that backdrop that the second half of the Orioles' 2005 season, which begins tonight, looks the most promising.

When the season began, the Orioles' chances of making a playoff run seemed absurdly small, about the size of Tejada's chances of becoming the starting All-Star shortstop a few years ago.

But the Orioles are surprisingly in the running with Tejada and Brian Roberts leading the way, and given Tejada's track record, it's a mistake to dismiss their chances as impossible.

Yes, the Red Sox and Yankees have larger payrolls and more players accustomed to winning, but the Orioles have Tejada, and that at least makes it a fight, if not an entirely fair one.

Of course, Tejada alone can't take them where they want to go; a long list of other things have to go their way. The front office has to make a trade for a dependable starting pitcher. Pitcher Erik Bedard and catcher Javy Lopez have to come back strong from the injuries that have limited their availability. The pitching staff needs to recover from its recent crisis. It would be helpful if Sammy Sosa started hitting.

But as long as some (or most) of those things break right around him, Tejada can carry the Orioles into September as legitimate contenders. His will is that forceful.

He just keeps playing and hitting, and good things seem to happen.

Let's be clear: The Orioles are his team, no one else's. As brilliant as Roberts has been this season, Tejada is the team's MVP, heart and soul.

Some teams take on the personality of their manager, but the Orioles resemble the ebullient Tejada, not low-key Lee Mazzilli.

You didn't see players from any other team showing off their favorite handshakes, hugs and bumps in the All-Star dugout, as Tejada, Roberts and Melvin Mora did Tuesday night.

The Orioles' collective personality was anywhere from inoffensively bland to outright grim during the losing years before Tejada arrived as a free agent for the 2004 season, but he has engineered a makeover as startling as it is essential to the team's improved record this year.

Their clubhouse is just a louder, happier place to be, and anyone who doubts the connection between that and the improved record is mistaken.

The Red Sox had to reinvent their culture before they could accomplish what they did last year; they were paranoid, unsmiling and defensive for years until they became "idiots" - and then World Series winners.

The Orioles were not as depressed as the Red Sox after just seven straight losing seasons as opposed to 86 years without a world championship, but they clearly needed to purge the losing culture that had set in.

Tejada has attacked it from the moment he put on the Orioles uniform, endlessly chattering and encouraging and famously declaring at one low point in 2004, "I am not a loser."

No, he is not.

And he is slowly, steadily pulling the Orioles up to where he resides.

The symbolic turning point came at the All-Star break a year ago, where Tejada improbably won the Home Run Derby - precisely the kind of individual accomplishment that had come to define the Orioles during the losing years when Cal Ripken's various feats were all they had to trumpet.

Tejada said he hoped his Derby win would show his teammates, then 11 games under .500, that they could win.

Since he uttered that team-first comment, the Orioles have played .537 baseball, going 88-76 in the second half of 2004 and first half of 2005.

Yes, they still have problems, holes, pitching issues. Things could come apart.

But with the indomitable Tejada around to shoulder their effort to contend, they have a chance.

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