SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - Miguel Tejada's passion for playing winter ball and his desire to make a good impression on his new fans in Baltimore entered a collision course this week.
Tejada's baseball-mad homeland, the Dominican Republic, hadn't won a Caribbean World Series on its home soil since 1989, and after narrowly missing the chance to clinch the title on Thursday night, Tejada came to a painstaking decision yesterday.
With the Orioles' blessing, Tejada, who hails from the Dominican city of Bani, decided to skip today's FanFest to concentrate on the rest of the Caribbean Series.
The Dominican Republic then clinched the series last night at home with a 4-3 victory over Puerto Rico. The Dominicans won their 15th Caribbean title and sixth in eight years.
The Dominican Republic finished 5-1, with its only loss coming against Venezuela.
The new Orioles shortstop, who signed a six-year, $72 million contract in December, taped a message for the fans that will be played today at the Convention Center, with team officials expecting about 12,000 to attend.
"I want to win this thing, and after that, I'll do anything [the Orioles' fans] want," Tejada said yesterday at his Santo Domingo hotel before the game. "I know my job is to play over there [in Baltimore], but I want to be here for my country and play in this game and try to win the championship.
"If the fans would understand, I'd appreciate it a lot."
For a few fleeting moments Thursday night, Tejada hoped he wouldn't have to disappoint anyone. His seat on a plane to Baltimore was already booked.
The undefeated Dominicans were one victory from the title. With his team trailing Venezuela by five runs, Tejada sparked a sixth-inning rally, using a surprising flash of speed to stretch a single into a double and punctuating the play with a Pete Rose-like dive into second base.
Tejada sprung to his feet and clapped as about 18,000 fans at Estadio Quisqueya rejoiced by waving Dominican flags, beating drums, blowing air horns and screaming at the top of their lungs. The frenzy continued as Tejada scored on a double by Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
After cutting Venezuela's lead to two runs, the Dominicans never got any closer in a 5-3 defeat, and when it was over, Tejada looked like he had just lost Game 7 of the World Series.
His team had to wait until last night to claim the title.
"My stomach is like this," Tejada said before last night, holding up a clenched fist to illustrate the pain of his decision. "How can I leave? I know my job is to play over there [in Baltimore], but I want to stay here for my country."
Moments later, Tejada learned that the Dominican president, Hipolito Mejia, had called the stadium, pleading for him to stay until the title was clinched.
But Tejada knew the Orioles' organization and thousands of their supporters would be disappointed if he weren't in Baltimore today to sign autographs and meet the fans.
Surrounded by his father, all four of his brothers and three other handlers inside the Dominican clubhouse, Tejada anguished over the decision while one of his agents made phone calls back to Baltimore.
By yesterday morning, Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan had sent word that Tejada had their blessing to stay in the Dominican.
"We have always understood the national pride of playing in these events," Flanagan said. "Historically, a lot of players have used this as a tuneup for spring training. To deny him that right would be a mistake."
Said Beattie: "We're very supportive of his decision, and we wish him luck."
Tejada, 27, started his career with the Oakland organization and had special language written into his last contract covering him against injury in the winter leagues. The Orioles extended that agreement in Tejada's six-year deal, meaning every time he takes the field in the Dominican, they have a $72 million risk.
But Tejada, who has Major League Baseball's longest current streak of consecutive games played, at 524, has shown no signs of slowing down.
"This guy doesn't need to play, but he still does," Flanagan said. "And I think that's what you love about him."
Along with Tejada and Ortiz, the Dominican starting lineup includes Florida Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo and Atlanta Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal, who moved to third base for the Caribbean Series, a six-day, round-robin tournament. Each team (Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominicans) plays each other twice, and the team with the best record at the end wins.
The Venezuela team featured Chicago White Sox outfielder Magglio Ordonez, and Mexico had Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, who allowed just two hits in six innings on Tuesday.
Yesterday, Tejada's agents were still exploring the options of renting a private plane to fly him to Baltimore after last night's game against Puerto Rico.
"The Caribbean Series is very important to the Dominican Republic," Tejada said. "It makes everybody proud. You play against other countries, and it's like winning the World Series."
When: Today, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: Baltimore Convention Center
Tickets: $10 for adults, and $5 for children 12 and under and those older than 55.
Orioles expected: Manager Lee Mazzilli, Kurt Ainsworth, Rick Bauer, Larry Bigbie, Jack Cust, Omar Daal, Eric DuBose, Jay Gibbons, Jerry Hairston, Jorge Julio, Javy Lopez, Melvin Mora, Rafael Palmeiro, John Parrish, Sidney Ponson, Tim Raines Jr., Matt Riley, Brian Roberts, B.J. Ryan, B.J. Surhoff