Tejada loses patience but not the faith

Slide leaves team leader frustrated but still driven to make Orioles a winner

August 19, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - There have been times this season when the emotional face of the Orioles franchise has looked more like a picture of frustration and fatigue than enthusiasm.

When Miguel Tejada signed with the Orioles as a free agent before the 2004 season, leaving a highly successful Oakland Athletics organization that maintained it couldn't afford him, he brazenly vowed that Baltimore would no longer be home to a losing baseball team. However, in the 20 months that have followed that declaration, the Orioles have experienced more losses than wins.

This week in Oakland, where the Orioles staged a revival of sorts with a three-game sweep of the American League wild card-leading A's, Tejada confessed to feeling several emotions upon returning to the Bay Area. But regret in the uniform he chose to wear was not one of them.

"I am happy here," Tejada said. "We don't want to be losing. Everybody here wants to win. We have that attitude. We just had a tough time. You guys see how we started the season, when we were in first place. Everybody has ups and downs. ... But we all want to win."

And perhaps nobody wants do so more than the Orioles' shortstop, who at least outwardly has appeared to take the team's slide from first to fourth place in the AL East harder than anybody. When the Orioles were consistently winning earlier this season, Tejada's bilingual chatter filled the clubhouse, amusing teammates and loosening any tension or pressure that lingered over a first-place team.

But as the losses have mounted, the loquacious Tejada - at least in the clubhouse - has turned down the volume, and the 1,000-watt smile he used to flash at a moment's notice has become less visible. Sitting quietly at a clubhouse table after several losses recently, Tejada looked so disgusted at times that it appeared he could barely swallow the post-game meal.

"I was concerned about Miggy, because he is the go-to guy for us [to get] life," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, the former bench coach who took over for the fired Lee Mazzilli on Aug. 4 and has guided the Orioles to nine wins in 13 games. "When he is down, it makes it tougher for all of us. [The slump] was tough on all of us. There is no magic way to get him to be happy when you are losing."

A's third base coach Ron Washington learned that a long time ago. He was a mentor to Tejada while he was in Oakland, and the two still talk about twice a month.

"Miguel comes to the ballpark every day, to be just that, a winner," Washington said. "He wants to win, but I don't think he is going to just get fed up. Miguel was here when we were losing and his attitude never changed. I am quite sure he is talking to the front office. He is the man over there. He wants to make sure they are doing the best they can to put people around him so they can win. He can't do it by himself."

That didn't stop Tejada from trying. During the Orioles' post-All-Star break slump, Tejada appeared to be trying to lift his team out of its malaise with every swing. Perlozzo noted later that the shortstop wanted to help out his teammates so badly that he was trying too hard.

In Oakland, Brian Roberts was the latest Oriole to suggest that Tejada might benefit from an occasional day off. He has played in 876 consecutive games, the longest current streak in the majors and eighth-longest streak in baseball history.

Tejada almost certainly will fall considerably short of the 34-homer, 150-RBI season he engineered in 2004, but it's not like he is having a subpar season. Entering tonight's series opener in Cleveland, he leads the American League in doubles and extra-base hits, is second in total bases and is in the top 10 in batting average, slugging percentage and RBIs.

However, Tejada, 29, has not been exempt from the team-wide affliction of failing to drive in runners at crucial times. He has 78 RBIs, but just 18 in the past 42 games. He leads the AL in hitting into double plays and is batting .220 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

Disputing the notion that he is trying too hard or that he simply wasn't seeing enough good pitches because of Sammy Sosa's struggles and Javy Lopez's earlier injury absence, Tejada says his numbers are insignificant.

"My numbers are going to be there," said Tejada, who is hitting .329 over the past 19 games. "I don't care if I have any RBIs. I'd rather have wins. ... The only thing I try to do here is to be there for my guys. Just go out there, work hard, show the guys. That's the only thing I can do. I don't try to be the best guy on the team."

Those close to Tejada say that while he is frustrated by losing, he is more determined than ever to make the Orioles a perennial contender.

"He is the last guy that would ever abandon this team," said Jay Gibbons.

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