No masking his joy

Happy to be here, new O's catcher Hernandez says Tejada is, too

December 14, 2005|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Known for his prowess behind home plate, new Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez stood at a Camden Yards podium yesterday and deftly deflected his share of hardballs from the local media - ranging from his relationship with Miguel Tejada to what his signing means for former starting backstop Javy Lopez.

Hernandez, who passed his physical and officially signed a four-year, $27.5 million contract with the Orioles yesterday, stressed that he is still "best friends" with Tejada despite whispers otherwise.

"We have no problems, I don't know who came up with that," said Hernandez, who played with Tejada in Oakland, where each man named the other as his son's godfather. "We have heard some rumors [about a falling out] ... but we always keep in touch, We are best friends."

Hernandez said they spoke within the past few days and he is confident, despite Tejada's recent comments that he wanted a change of scenery, the star shortstop will be with the Orioles on Opening Day.

"I know Miggy is a great person and he is happy here. That's what he told me. He is happy here," Hernandez said. "I don't know where that comment comes from, but I think he wants to stay here."

Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan later said that he hoped Tejada had decided to stick with the team.

"What he said publicly has been out there for everybody to read," Flanagan said. "All of what he is saying, we are saying the same thing. He wants to win. We want to win. He's talking about a No. 1 starter. We want to do more than that."

Hernandez said he hasn't yet spoken to Lopez, the team's starting catcher the past two years who now looks to be expendable. But he has no problem sharing catcher or other positions with Lopez if that's what the Orioles want.

"Whatever role for me to help this team win, I will do it," Hernandez said. "No matter if I DH or if I catch or sit on the bench. Whatever role I need to play to make this team better, to win and go to the playoffs and try to get to the World Series, I will be happy to help with that."

After signing the four-year-deal - he'll be paid $4.5 million in 2006, $6.5 million in 2007, $7.5 million in 2008, $8 million in 2009 and has a $8.5 million team option with a $1 million buyout in 2010 - it's unlikely Hernandez will be sitting on the bench much.

Considered one of baseball's best game callers, pitch blockers and handlers of pitchers, for five years Hernandez helped shape the Oakland Athletics' impressive starting staff before joining the San Diego Padres in the November 2003 Mark Kotsay trade. He battled wrist injuries last season but still received high marks from San Diego management for his work behind the plate.

"You look at his record in handling pitching staffs," Flanagan said. "Wherever he goes, the ERA goes down."

Among those with more than 200 games caught since 1999, Hernandez ranks second in career catcher's ERA with a 3.88 mark. He's a career .262 hitter who made the All-Star team in 2003, when he had a career-high 21 homers and 78 RBIs.

Lopez, known more for his bat, has expressed a desire to play some first base. But he still wants to be a team's primary catcher as he enters free agency next winter.

Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said the Hernandez signing does "not necessarily" make Lopez expendable, but added: "I think there would be an interest in Javy on the market. ... I don't want to characterize it as Javy was totally excited that we have Ramon on board. We're still working through ... issues with him."

As with Lopez in 2003, Hernandez's postseason experience intrigued the Orioles. His teams have made the playoffs in five of his six full seasons.

"It tells you he knows what it takes to win," Duquette said. "I think we throw around the word winner too loosely, but he is a winner. When you go about adding pieces to the organization, those are the types of players you want. You want to have the gamers, guys that fans can relate to; guys that play hard and are winners. When you have those types of guys, it rubs off on everybody."

The same has been said of Tejada, the Orioles' energetic leader. Hernandez said after yesterday's news conference that he had no problem fielding questions about Tejada on what was supposed to be Hernandez's introduction day to Baltimore.

"I kind of had ideas that was going to happen, especially with Miguel being the type of player he is and the type of numbers he has put up, every team wants him in their lineup," Hernandez said. "When the rumors started to come out, I figured I'd get some questions about it."

He said the right things all day, starting with the first question about playing in Camden Yards.

"The first thing I liked when I came here with Oakland was when they play the national anthem and [the fans] go `Ohhhh.' I get pretty excited ... ," Hernandez said. "This town loves baseball and they know about the game, too."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Peter Schmuck and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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