Birds of a feather

The O's hang out together. Now, can they win together?

April 20, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. -- It started back in February, when one of the Orioles' new relievers struck up a conversation with a team leader before the second full-squad workout of the spring.

Jamie Walker, a self-proclaimed redneck with a thick Southern drawl, had never spoken to Miguel Tejada, the Spanish-speaking shortstop whose English remains a work in progress.

Soaking in adjacent whirlpools in the cozy clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the Tennessee-born pitcher, who went to the World Series last season with the Detroit Tigers, and the Dominican shortstop, who yearns to get back to the playoffs, found a common ground. They talked about winning and the attitude and dedication needed for the Orioles to end a stretch of nine straight losing seasons.

"I went up to him and said, `I am in this with you guys,'" Walker said. "I know he's been disgruntled here in the past. That's what you hear, at least. But I've played against him, and he comes to play every day. I respect that, and I think he respects guys that do that, too."

Walker, a 35-year-old veteran who made his big league debut 10 years ago, was one of 16 players or coaches who at the start of the month experienced their first Opening Day as Orioles. He was signed primarily because he was a left-handed reliever who could get people out, something that was sorely missing from the 2006 Orioles.

But he also fit in with what the front office has been trying to do for the past two seasons - repair a clubhouse that was fractured during the once-promising 2005 season because of losing, steroid allegations and other off-the-field problems.

"It was best available talent and then best available character. Those were the two criteria that we focused a lot on," club vice president Jim Duquette said. "It's been a concerted effort based on what happened in 2005. I am impressed with how quickly it has come together."

The Orioles, who bring an 8-7 record into the start of a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays tonight at Camden Yards, have given off some mixed signals through the first three weeks of the season. Their overhauled bullpen has justified the front office's $42 million-plus investment. Their offense, defense and starting pitching have been good at times, but also prone to lapses.

But the longest-tenured members of the organization acknowledge there is a different feel in the clubhouse. They said that the 2007 Orioles are looser and closer-knit.

"That's a part of why we win," designated hitter-first baseman Kevin Millar said. "There is a feel of trust in this clubhouse. It's been awesome. Trust, caring for each other, pulling for each other - that equals W's. Your talent is going to take over for an extent, but you'll lose a lot of games when you don't have guys that care about each other."

Progress being made

Millar wasn't an Oriole during the 2005 season and didn't see how bad things got in the clubhouse. That season featured Sidney Ponson's legal problems, a rift between Tejada and Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro's steroid suspension and the subsequent fallout that brought Tejada into the discussion and a collapse out of first place.

"Some things went on that year where it badly hurt people's trust," outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "Guys were going their own way. It was understandable. There was just a lot of tension going on. But in the last year and a half, it's gotten progressively better."

Millar, one of the leaders of the Boston Red Sox's 2004 world championship team, who was brought to Baltimore to play a similar role, noted to reporters last season that the clubhouse attitude still needed to improve.

"We're not here to collect paychecks and have rims and tires on our cars and dress [fancy]," Millar said last year. "We're here to win baseball games. We've got to challenge each other, help each other and do that. I don't think that goes on enough. ... That's the thing we lack. ... We've got too many sideshows. We've got too many guys worrying about what suit they're wearing."

His comments agitated several veterans, including Tejada and Melvin Mora.

"This is a whole different situation now," said Millar, who cleared the air with his teammates a day later. "We were playing bad baseball then. This is a great mix of baseball guys. We don't have any superstars. We're all just average guys."

Fun and games

Millar is generally viewed as the ringleader, the first player to make a joke or arrange a team outing. It started this spring when about eight Orioles lived in the same apartment building. They went out to dinner and hung out at the beach after the workouts or games.

On one occasion, most of the team's regulars had gotten the afternoon off and didn't have to make the three-hour trip from Fort Lauderdale to Viera to play the Washington Nationals. Aubrey Huff wasn't so lucky.

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