With Tejada, O's best move was no move

May 02, 2006|By RICK MAESE

For once, we come together to celebrate inactivity.

As much as you like Leo Mazzone on staff and Ramon Hernandez behind the plate and the image of Chris Ray coming in from the bullpen, the Orioles' best offseason move was one that required no movement at all.

Keeping Miguel Tejada on the roster, in the clubhouse and wearing an Orioles uniform is turning out to be the smartest decision from what seemed to be an especially sedentary offseason.

Before we talk about his production and attitude, let's remember those fears. That man who stoically stood at shortstop last August and September wasn't the same Miguel Tejada Orioles fans had watched the previous 1 1/2 seasons. Something had changed.

Many people behind the scenes report that Sammy Sosa had said something that encouraged Tejada to suppress a lot of what defined the fiery infielder.

Then in the offseason, the voiceless superstar became a disgruntled one, asking for a change of scenery -- which is the way an athlete tells a girlfriend, "It's not you, it's me," before purchasing a one-way ticket out of town.

Even after Tejada rescinded his request, a popular theory was that the Orioles would be bringing back a player who wouldn't put forth full energy. Trade for Manny Ramirez, for Mark Prior, for Bobby Abreu, they shouted.

Though only one month into the season, we can safely say that it's a good thing the front office didn't bite on those trade offers.

Though Abreu had a good April, Prior hasn't pitched a single game and Ramirez is hitting only .276. Tejada's the one leading the majors in batting. He's the one who has hit safely in 23 of 27 games this year. And he's the one who hit the 405-foot, two-run homer in the ninth inning last night.

But the bat's not even the most important reason to be grateful that Tejada's still in Baltimore. It's that he's back. Him -- the old Tejada.

Well, almost.

Tejada's barking from the dugout, chattering in the infield and even cracking jokes during meetings on the mound. There has been a noticeable shift in attitude over the past couple of weeks, reminding people in the organization how much fun Tejada seemed to have in his first season here.

Some in the clubhouse point to a conversation that took place between Tejada and teammate Kevin Millar during the series with the Cleveland Indians 1 1/2 weeks ago.

Millar had watched Tejada the past several years from opposing dugouts. The Tejada he remembered was not the same one he saw during spring training or the first couple weeks of the regular season.

"A lot of people still thought something was missing," Millar said. "That he still wasn't Miggy. He wasn't as loud as I anticipated him being. I didn't know what I could do, but I wanted to do whatever I could to get the old Miggy back."

It was during batting practice that the two started talking about hitting. Slowly the conversation turned to something much bigger. Millar wanted Tejada to know that this team needs more than his bat in the lineup.

"Something here needs to be lit," Millar said. "I told him that I really wanted him to be himself. Last year, that team is gone. We have new faces, we're turning a leaf over, let's be a new team. Don't worry about what I think or someone else thinks. Be who you are. Sometimes in this game, we try to be too cool. Or we just aren't being ourselves. We don't have time for that. This team needs Miggy to be Miggy."

He can't just be a part of this team. He has to be one of its leaders. Manager Sam Perlozzo also has noticed something a bit different lately. He said it hit him during last weekend's Seattle series.

"We're starting to see signs of a team. ... First time in quite a few years that I've thought the guys were pulling together as a team," he said.

It's easy to find things to dislike about Tejada. (He's often the last one in the clubhouse, and he runs out groundouts like first base might be on fire.) But his performance in April reminded everyone what kind of raw ability the Orioles almost watched flee town.

When Tejada met with Millar, he was in the early stages of what would turn into a 14-game hitting streak. By the end of April, he had six homers and 21 RBIs. He set the club record for hits in the month of April with 43.

Nursing a knee injury, Tejada served as the designated hitter Sunday and last night but is expected back at shortstop tonight.

The Orioles entered May with a long list of injuries. Only two players have been in the lineup for every game -- Tejada and third baseman Melvin Mora. That's not a surprise.

The Orioles knew that if they brought back Tejada, with his having the longest active consecutive-games streak in baseball, they could count on him taking the field every day.

Team officials must be relieved by the way he's playing thus far, and even more importantly, by the fact that he seems to be enjoying himself again.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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