Orioles may be left with one option: Deal Tejada

ON BASEBALL

December 13, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY

Two weeks ago, it was unfathomable.

No way could the struggling Orioles trade Miguel Tejada, their best player, their leader, their energy.

That move would be admitting defeat. It would have officially signaled what we all know deep down: These Orioles have no chance to win the division anytime soon.

In late November, trading Tejada would have been justifiably laughed at in the warehouse. That was then. Now, trading Tejada should be more than a consideration.

If the right package is out there - and it should be, considering Tejada's age, talent and reputation - the Orioles need to do it. And not think twice.

Tejada's tremendous ability can't magically rub off on his teammates. His fervor for winning can only take the team so far, like first place in early July. The Orioles can finish under .500 with or without his bat and glove. His true value has nothing to do with what he does on the field. It's his presence - his willing and happy presence - at Camden Yards that earns his $72 million contract.

The only way the Orioles get better is to have Tejada sell this destination to others. He can do that actively, by phoning free agents. And he can do that passively, by just being himself and showing that Baltimore is, indeed, a fine place for a superstar. Don't underestimate the power of the latter.

Every time any pending free agent is asked about Baltimore, he mentions Tejada's name. It goes something like this: "I'd love to play for the Orioles. They aren't that far away from competing. They have promising young pitching and one of the best players in the game. I'd love to play with Miggy."

Tejada is to the Orioles what Brett Favre was to the Green Bay Packers. And if his presence can bring in a couple Reggie Whites - especially ones who can pitch - the Orioles really could turn this embarrassment around.

But Tejada cracked last week. Maybe he did it because he thought it would put pressure on the front office to find quality pitching. Maybe he really does want out. Regardless, it was a defining moment. He said he needed a change of scenery and was sick of the Orioles' losing ways. Without realizing it, he also severely lessened his value to this club, even though every frustrating word was understandable.

Unless he offers a mea culpa with the same flourish he plays the game - unless he does a national tour with his words appearing in every major newspaper and hitting every national radio and television network - the damage of his original proclamation is irreparable.

Coveted free agents who once publicly said they'd like to come to Baltimore and play with Tejada privately won't consider it now. Why would they want to go somewhere that sucked the life out of a guy as positive as Tejada? Why would they take a chance signing a long-term deal knowing Tejada is one complaint away from leaving? Why should they believe his lame and late explanation that he never asked to be traded?

What about his teammates, the ones who feed off him? We all saw Tejada's intensity - and subsequently the club's - plummet in August and September. Think they aren't worried Tejada will quit on them if he is unhappy?

And then there's new manager Sam Perlozzo. He already has had to deal with more distractions and controversy in five months than most managers do in a decade. Think he maintains the same trust in Tejada knowing that his best asset in finding a solution actually could be a huge part of the problem?

With all that said, this disaster cannot be laid solely at the anxious feet of Tejada. His timing was terrible, but don't think it wasn't planned. No way was this a coincidence. Not by a guy who could have unloaded countless times in 2005.

Despite whispers of unhappiness, he never outwardly criticized manager Lee Mazzilli. He supported Rafael Palmeiro during the steroids fiasco. He said the right things when his feud with Sammy Sosa became public. And he kept virtually mum when a congressional report revealed that he delivered vitamin B-12 more frequently than a bingo caller.

He didn't publicly rip the Orioles until after executive vice president Mike Flanagan told reporters during the winter meetings that Tejada was "on board" with the team's moves. Flanagan made it seem as if his star shortstop were OK that they hadn't tried particularly hard to obtain A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett and Carlos Delgado or watched Paul Konerko pass on their money.

Tejada probably felt betrayed, lied to and lied about. He probably didn't think his agent's comments - that Tejada was serious about winning, but hoped it could happen in Baltimore - were strong enough.

So he did it himself. And he shouldn't be blamed for speaking his mind. In fact, more power to him. But the result is that by being honest, Tejada has made it more difficult for the Orioles to secure quality players and improve this team.

Ironically, Tejada may have been trying to help the organization and instead may have crippled it. It's too late to sweep it under the American League East cellar rug.

Now, barring an extremely public olive branch from a superstar who wasn't in the wrong, there's only one way to end this saga.

Trade Tejada for top prospects, take your lumps, proceed as a faceless organization and hope that a young, legitimate recruiter eventually emerges.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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