Miguel Tejada, shown here playing shortstop for the Astros,… (AP photo )
For 13 big league seasons, Miguel Tejada held steadfast to the belief that he was a shortstop. He shrugged off criticism about his diminishing range and faulty footwork, and ignored the suggestions that a move to third base was long overdue.
In agreeing to terms on a one-year, $6 million deal Saturday to return to Baltimore, the immensely proud Tejada finally gave in to the idea Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail presented him with more than two years earlier. Tejada's willingness to play third base, however, is only the first step in what the Orioles expect to be a challenging transition for the six-time All-Star and one-time American League Most Valuable Player.
"I think if you play shortstop in the big leagues for 10 years, you will adapt," said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, Tejada's double-play partner from the 2004 to 2007 seasons. "It's certainly not going to be easy, and it's not going to be overnight that he's going to turn into the best third baseman ever. But he has the ability, the arm strength certainly. It's a matter of getting over there, getting the repetitions and getting comfortable."
That process will start next month in Sarasota, Fla., when Tejada, 35, reports to spring training. Though Orioles officials won't comment publicly about their plans for Tejada until he passes his physical, they undoubtedly have begun thinking of ways to make things as easy as possible for him. But Juan Samuel, the Orioles' third base and infield coach, cautioned that there are no shortcuts to making a successful transition.
Samuel, a fellow Dominican Republic native and a player Tejada looked up to growing up, is expected to spend plenty of time teaching the veteran his new position under the hot Florida sun.
"It's going to take a lot of work for him to get used to that position," said Samuel, who acknowledged at Saturday's FanFest that he was surprised the Orioles turned to Tejada to fill their third-base vacancy. "It's a reaction position, a quick position. We know he's got the arm strength to play that position. We have to see how things transpire in spring training. That's why they call it the hot corner so we'll maybe have him play a little bit deeper."
Tejada, who will be at Camden Yards on Tuesday to take his physical, told ESPNdeportes on Sunday, "Mentally and physically, I was getting ready to play third base since the season ended last year."
Still, the only time he has played the position in games of any significance was in last year's World Baseball Classic, when the presence of Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes on the Dominican roster pushed Tejada to the hot corner.
MacPhail, who asked Tejada whether he would consider moving to third base before he traded him to the Houston Astros for five players in December 2007, speaks all the time about the importance of infield defense. That's one of several reasons the Tejada acquisition came as a surprise to those familiar with MacPhail's history and what he's trying to build with the Orioles.
MacPhail acknowledged on Saturday that "any position change anybody makes, you just don't know for certain until they get there.
"From what I've read, [Tejada has] made it clear that it's something that he would entertain and is properly aware that at this point in his career, that's the right move. He's certainly not the first shortstop if he ends up playing third that has made that change."
Of course, Orioles fans remember Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who won two Gold Gloves as a shortstop, successfully moving to third base later in his career. More recently, Alex Rodriguez made the move after joining the New York Yankees, who had Derek Jeter entrenched at shortstop. Rodriguez has become a solid third baseman, but even one of the most gifted players in the game has had struggles making the transition.
The Orioles said it would be unfair not to expect the same for Tejada, whose work ethic has never been questioned.
"There'll be a learning adjustment," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley, who advocated Tejada's return. "They'll be times when, like anybody else, he's going to make mistakes. But I think overall he'll do a good job."
Orioles utility infielder Robert Andino, who has played both shortstop and third, said the same thing that has made Tejada such an accomplished hitter will aid his transition as a fielder.
"I think it is difficult when you've played a position for a while, but he's played a lot longer than me," Andino said. "He's a good ballplayer. I don't think he'll have a hard time. It's just about making an adjustment. That's all it is in this game."
And the fact remains that Tejada was brought back for other reasons, primarily for his right-handed bat and his leadership ability.
"We know he can help us with the bat," Samuel said. "I think we need some offense. We could deal with the defensive part of it as long as he can contribute offensively, and I know he's going to do that."