Tejada certain to pick up O's pace

Baseball

February 20, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- For the past four days at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the talk has centered on prospects and the pitching coach, new faces and old ones in new positions and a rookie manager's philosophies and expectations.

"This is what spring training is supposed to be about," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan. "This time is like the baseball player's New Year."

If nothing else, the start of spring training has returned a sense of normality to an organization after the most tumultuous year in Orioles history. The club has enjoyed the respite, even if it realizes that the tenor of training camp will undoubtedly change in the next few days.

All-Star Miguel Tejada's arrival, which will come tomorrow morning at the latest, will surely prompt the media to rehash some of the unpleasant memories, including the shortstop's trade request in December. Tejada remains an Oriole, though his satisfaction with the organization is an issue that isn't likely to go away for the time being, or at least until he addresses the issue.

"I think it is pretty much over with," said outfielder Jay Gibbons, who showed up at Fort Lauderdale Stadium a day early and took batting practice yesterday. "[Tejada has] reiterated a couple of times now what his intentions were. He just wants to win, like everybody else in here. He was frustrated. It will be a one-day story as far as I am concerned and it will be over with. ... I think it is going to be a lot less stressful spring training than last year ... or the last few years."

Gibbons, one of the longest-tenured Orioles, has experienced it all. He was around in 2001 when Albert Belle's hip condition forced him into premature retirement. He answered questions in 2002 when the national media descended on Orioles camp to talk to the club about life without Cal Ripken, and he experienced the aftermath of the death of pitcher Steve Bechler.

Then around this time last year, the clubhouse found itself in the middle of baseball's steroid controversy as two Orioles, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, were called to testify before Congress about the issue.

"We've had serious drama here the past few years," Gibbons said. "I am looking forward to a nice, relaxing, no-story spring training. Knock on wood."

That, of course, is probably unlikely, as long as Tejada is around. The franchise's most celebrated player put a cap on the organization's miserable 2005 when he said in early December that he'd like a change of scenery.

In making the trade request, which he rescinded about a month later, Tejada cited the Orioles front office's inactivity, and later said the club needs to go out and add pitching. Third baseman Melvin Mora backed up his friend and teammate, saying to a Sun reporter on the day of Tejada's trade request, "Who is going to pitch for us?"

Pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen, who combined for 28 wins last season, were aware of the comments, but said they did not take it personally, and they still view Tejada as a good teammate and the undisputed leader of the team.

"To me, I am going to have the same respect and [admiration] for him," Lopez said. "I think he was kind of frustrated because of what happened last year. Honestly, that doesn't hurt my feelings. It's not about pitching, it's about the team. He can say whatever he wants, but in the end, we are a team."

Added Chen: "I don't sense any [hard feelings]. He's the leader of the clubhouse and of this team. He was talking in general, not pointing at anyone or the whole staff."

In a conference call Tuesday to promote the World Baseball Classic, Tejada said he plans to speak to the team and explain himself when he arrives at camp. Several Orioles said yesterday that they would happily listen, even though they didn't think an apology was necessary.

"I know where he is coming from because I talked to him [this offseason]," said Javy Lopez, who also requested, then rescinded a trade demand this offseason. "If he wants to apologize to us, that's something, in my opinion, that he doesn't have to do. But if he feels like he has to do it, then most likely, it will be to the pitchers to make sure he didn't offend them."

Both Flanagan and Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said the decision to speak to the team is up to Tejada, who had a positive meeting with club officials in his native Dominican Republic after the withdrawal of his trade request.

Perlozzo has mandated that negativity stays out of the clubhouse. All of last year's issues - Palmeiro's steroid controversy, the fall from first to fourth place in the American League East, Sidney Ponson's legal problems - are in the past, the Orioles manager has said, and he is lukewarm about answering those questions.

Tejada's arrival could spur plenty, but the Orioles manager has vowed to do his part to quash any potential problems. He also maintained he has no hard feelings toward Tejada, who did not return the manager's calls this offseason.

"Mike and I talked about it today and we feel like we'd like to bring Miggy in and see exactly where he is coming from and what would be comfortable for him," Perlozzo said. "I feel like it's all over myself and I would like it to get it that way as quickly as possible. I don't want to move backward. I want to move forward, period."

So do Tejada's teammates, who have enjoyed four long-awaited days, free of controversy and full of baseball.

"This is like a new beginning for us, a fresh start," Javy Lopez said. "We don't have players like Sammy or Palmeiro, who are Hall of Famers. Hopefully, we don't have the controversy. I see a good group of guys here that are going to keep this team quiet and normal."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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