Here's hoping Tejada's jolt awakens sleepwalking O's

December 10, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles have seldom displayed a sense of urgency during eight straight losing seasons. Attendance has never plummeted too far, after all.

Critical newspaper columns and angry talk show callers haven't stirred a significant response from them. Neither has a little booing from the home fans, or the odious sight of Red Sox and Yankees fans taking over Camden Yards.

As the losing seasons have piled up, the Orioles have continued to take few chances, sign primarily B-list players and avoid last place only because baseball expanded to Tampa Bay.

They desperately need a jolt, a slap in the face that actually stings, a thump to the head that makes them wake up and recognize how disappointing and depressing they've become.

Anyone who cares about the team can only hope that jolt came Thursday in the form of All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada's comments about being so frustrated that he wants out.

The Red Sox go through such emergencies five times a year with Manny Ramirez because the unpredictable slugger lives in his own world, and the Yankees are forever dealing with similar (and usually pointless) brushfires because they play in a tabloid town, but the Orioles are unaccustomed to having their placid, see-no-evil world view contested.

Bully for Miggy, who just couldn't take it anymore, just couldn't keep spouting the party line.

With any major sports franchise, there is a perceived reality - the one in the media - and the actual reality played out behind the scenes. The public seldom gets a view of the real thing, but Tejada's comments, which third baseman Melvin Mora backed up and advanced ("Who is going to pitch for us?"), unmistakably offered a window into what is really going on.

The players are just as upset as the fans and media about the organization's perpetually sluggish response to losing.

When the team-oriented Tejada is upset enough to ask for a "change of scenery," things are bad.

Some people will say he should just shut up and be a well-paid employee; the team's conservative approach was already established when he signed in 2003, after all.

But anyone who believes that is just apologizing for a team that seemingly would rather shut down than overspend to sign a couple of pitchers who would make the season more interesting, as Toronto just did.

Don't get on Tejada - he's the messenger here. My guess is you could canvas the clubhouse and get the same response from most players.

Now that Tejada has said what he did, the front office should go ahead and check out the market for him, just so see if some team is willing to give up a couple of top pitching prospects. But I'm guessing nothing of the sort will happen. I'm guessing Tejada can be talked off the ledge and back into his role as the team's leader. I can think of 72 million reasons over six years that will help.

But there's no taking back the truth he just laid bare. He is unhappy with his organization's commitment to winning, and as Mora indicated, many of his teammates are, too.

The Orioles have a choice. They can be angry at Tejada for effectively sleepwalking through the second half of the 2005 season and then speaking out against them like this, or they can take a good, hard look at themselves and realize he was sleepwalking and is now complaining strictly because of the state of the team.

I'm guessing they won't commit to such harsh self-evaluation. Too bad. Tejada isn't upset with the city or its fans. He's happy with his contract. The only thing driving his displeasure is the sad state of the Orioles.

Unlike the controversies that made news in 2005 - drunken-driving arrests, steroid busts, etc. - this headline is not off topic, not about character or off-field issues. This is right on the most important topic of all, the Orioles' potential to win.

Tejada, a winning player, expected a better effort from his employers - a more genuine effort. The fact that he's displeased doesn't make him an ungrateful brat. It makes him competitive, intolerant of losing - qualities that used to characterize the Orioles but now just reflect their past.

The fact that there are bright prospects in the pipeline doesn't satisfy such a player, who, not surprisingly, is averse to spending the prime of his career on a losing team that thinks it might be able to win at some point, if everything goes just right. He wants to win now, or actually, just have a better chance of winning.

If the Orioles' organization exhibited the same urgency, the same desire to win, Tejada would never have said a word.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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