FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Miguel Tejada began returning dividends on his new $72 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles long before he ever walked onto the field.
When the 2002 AL MVP joined the Orioles as a free agent in December, he immediately gave the downtrodden franchise a jolt of credibility. Soon after that, free agents Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson signed with Baltimore, too.
"I think the other guys - Ponson, Raffy and Javy - signed because they know they're going to make us a good team after they signed me," Tejada said. "All those guys decided to come here because they know we're going to find a ring or something."
Winning the World Series is an ambitious goal for a team that has endured six straight losing seasons, but these aren't the same, young Orioles. The addition of Tejada promptly gave the team star power, and soon after that the other free agents played follow-the-leader.
Upon arriving at spring training, Tejada continued to play the role of team leader.
"He's definitely the heart of the team right now. He's the one that really motivates the team," Lopez said. "He's the one that never stops talking. It's fun to be around him."
Playing baseball doesn't seem like work for Tejada, whose engaging smile rarely leaves his face.
"I like the joking around in the dugout and the clubhouse," he said. "We're a family. The only way that you can concentrate on the game is relaxing. This is why I come to the ballpark every day happy, and at the same time try to make my team happy, too."
The Orioles haven't had a shortstop this outgoing or productive since Cal Ripken Jr., whom Tejada once idolized. The two are alike in yet another regard: Tejada's current run of playing in 594 straight games ranks 20th in major league history but is far behind Ripken's record of 2,632.
"I don't think anybody is going to break that record," Tejada said. "I play all those games because I like to play baseball."
During his MVP season with the Oakland Athletics two years ago, Tejada hit .308 with 34 homers and 131 RBIs. Last year, he hit .278 with 27 homers and 106 RBIs despite batting .176 over his first 32 games.
A slow start this season appears unlikely, if his lofty batting average (.390 through Monday) this spring is any indication.
"He's been hitting like that since our first game," rookie manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Obviously, we're happy to have him on our side."
Tejada enjoyed his six-year run with the A's, but he decided to bolt when the Orioles offered him a six-year deal and the chance to lead a young, changing team through the final stage of a lengthy rebuilding process.
"I wasn't tired of Oakland; that's the team that I've been playing for all my career," he said. "I think Baltimore is the future. I think this team is going to be, in the future, very good."
There's a good chance Tejada will be leading the way.
"I don't want to be best guy on the team. I just want to be a guy that can help the team and someone who makes all those young guys find something to be happy about," he said. "That's what I do, and I think everybody is happy here."
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