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From Bani to Baltimore

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BANI, Dominican Republic - On the barren sandlot where Miguel Tejada used to field ground balls with folded milk cartons, a new generation of Dominican boys has come to play.

Their gloves are leather.

The field still doesn't have any bases. The weathered cement bleachers look like they could collapse under the weight of a hefty crowd. And one of the kids has gone home with the bat.

But a young pitcher hurls a standard-issue baseball toward home plate, a young catcher throws to second base, and an aspiring shortstop tags a would-be base stealer with a black Mizuno glove - a glove just like the one Tejada uses today.

In Los Barrancones, the neighborhood where the Orioles' new $72 million shortstop learned to look the ball into a makeshift mitt, progress is measured one glove at a time.

Beyond third base, there's a refreshment stand where a man sells Coca-Cola. A passer-by can stand in the sun and watch the palm trees blowing gently in the breeze, as the green mountains frame the lush Caribbean landscape.

For the 60,000 people who live in Bani, and their favorite son, this is the calm after the storm. The hurricane long ago passed, but Tejada remembers exactly what it's like to be smack in the middle of it.

Twenty-five years ago, Hurricane David took everything Tejada knew, forced his family from its home and leveled the town where he was born. As he begins the newest phase of his life with the Orioles, he has completely rebuilt himself.

By no small coincidence, his hometown has done the same.

Starting this baseball season, Tejada will attempt to bring the spirit of Bani to Baltimore. The Orioles are working on their own dramatic reconstruction, and they figured he was just the man to help them do it.

Finding shelter

The old Tejada house still sits on a corner, toward the back boundary of the Los Barrancones neighborhood. The place used to be a one-room shack, but like so much else in Bani, it has been renovated and expanded.

Tejada's sister recently had the house painted the color of peaches and cream.

The memories there aren't quite as sweet.

When Tejada was a toddler, his mother used to bathe him in the river near their first home, standing beside other women who used the same water for cooking and cleaning clothes.

Even by Dominican standards, the Tejada family didn't have much, but it was enough to lead a fairly peaceful existence.

That all changed Aug. 31, 1979, when Hurricane David took a sudden turn north and slammed into the island's southern coast, hitting Bani at peak force.

One of the century's fiercest storms to rise from the Atlantic, David unleashed winds that reached 150 mph and waves the size of four-story buildings into the unsuspecting city.

Tejada was only 3 years old when the hurricane hit, so his earliest memories are of chaos: flooding, death and starvation. David eventually claimed 1,100 lives.

"There was no food, no water, no lights for six months," said Guaroa Andujar, a close friend of Tejada's from Los Barrancones. "It was the worst [storm] anybody could remember."

Like thousands of others, the Tejadas fled to a disaster relief camp. Eventually, they settled on the north side of Bani, on a crowded street in Los Barrancones, a place where some of the worst was yet to come.

The money at home was always tight. By the age of 5, Tejada was working as a shoeshine boy. At 11, he dropped out of school to work in a clothing factory. Then, at 13, more tragedy.

Four days before Christmas, his mother died in her sleep of a sudden illness. To this day, Tejada is convinced she could have been saved with adequate medical care.

"I'll never forget," Tejada said. "When I signed my first contract with Oakland, I said, 'Why don't I have the same problem this time, now that I can buy everything?' "

To that point in his life, no matter how bleak his family's situation looked, Tejada knew he could always count on Mora Tejada's love.

While his father, Daniel, tried to fend for the family working long hours in construction jobs, his mother would practically feed the whole neighborhood.

"We'd say, 'Mora, I'm hungry!' " Andujar said. "She cooked chicken and rice for everybody - 25 or 35 people."

After her death, some of her responsibilities fell to Tejada. Searching for better-paying work, his father ventured north, leaving Tejada and his older brother, Juan, to help raise their three sisters.

Tejada knew they needed a better way.

"I wasn't sad [growing up in Bani]," Tejada said. "But when I started playing baseball, I was trying to find a future for my family."

A passionate player

Four months after his mother died, Tejada was playing baseball on a softball field in Bani when a part-time scout caught a glimpse.

Enrique Soto studied the scene closely and could practically feel the determination radiating from Tejada's 13-year-old body.

Tejada already had the makings of the violent, right-handed swing he brings to the plate today. But at the time, he was all skin and bones.

Soto invited him to his baseball academy, giving Tejada the chance to eat regular meals. Soto also gave Tejada his first glove and taught him to play shortstop.

"He's always been a good hitter," Soto said through a translator. "He was a strong little guy."

Asked how a 5-foot-9 pipsqueak could rise from Los Barrancones to become the American League's Most Valuable Player, Soto pointed to his heart, saying, "It's because of the ability he had and the passion he has for the game."

In those early years, Tejada wore his baseball uniform everywhere. On the back of his jersey, he wore No. 4, a tribute to his favorite player and a fellow Dominican shortstop, Alfredo Griffin.

By 1993, Soto felt Tejada was ready to make a push for the major leagues. He delivered his pupil to the Oakland Athletics, who signed Tejada to a $2,000 contract.

Tejada was 17, but some major league scouts believed he was older. The speculation persisted quietly as he rose through the Oakland system. It was still there in December, when the Orioles signed him to the six-year contract.

In those days, it was common practice for Dominican prospects to fudge their age, making themselves appear younger to draw the attention of pro scouts. But Tejada's agent, Diego Bentz, said any age discrepancy would have surfaced last winter, when Tejada secured his green card, for permanent residency, in the United States.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a crackdown by immigration officials exposed several Dominican-born players as being older than they had declared, including one-time Orioles shortstop prospect Ed Rogers, whose age on the roster jumped from 20 to 23.

But Tejada comes to the Orioles with documentation that he's really 27. Those 10 years he spent in the Oakland system were a blur.

It took him just one season to emerge as a serious prospect, as he tied for the Dominican Summer League lead with 18 home runs in 1994. The next year, he secured a $30,000 loan from the A's to renovate and expand his family's house in Los Barrancones.

After his mother's death, his father met another woman, and his family had grown to four brothers and three sisters. All were relying on Tejada's success.

Even with that added pressure, he climbed the ranks quickly, dazzling scouts with his power numbers. The A's loved his raw talent at shortstop but implored him to concentrate on making the routine plays.

At Single-A Modesto in 1996, Tejada made 45 errors.

"I learned a lot from those errors," Tejada said. "If I don't make all those errors, I might not be the same shortstop now."

One year later, Tejada was in the big leagues. Before long, he emerged as the A's energetic leader, spurring four consecutive runs to the playoffs that all ended in first-round exits.

Tejada secured his financial future in early 2000, when Oakland signed him to a four-year, $11.3 million contract. But even with all their success, the A's were operating on a shoestring budget.

During Tejada's MVP season, in 2002, there were strong hints Oakland would eventually lose him to free agency. In Michael Lewis' best-selling book, Moneyball, A's general manager Billy Beane refers disparagingly to Tejada as "Mr. Swing at Everything."

The A's were determined to increase their on-base percentage, a statistic that credits a hitter for walks, and despite his other attributes, Tejada's career OBP is .331. By comparison, Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora has a career OBP of .350.

But that didn't stop the Orioles from making Tejada their primary target in this year's free-agent market. After six consecutive losing seasons, their fans were clamoring for a star and starting to go numb from recent years of seeing offseason moves fail to materialize.

Signing Tejada helped the Orioles regain credibility.

"I know I'm going to have a lot of great moments in Baltimore," Tejada said. "I'm going to be the same there that I was in Oakland. I'm going to be happy every day. I'm going to be joking around with those guys, I'm going to be giving 100 percent every day, and I'm looking to win from the first day of spring training."

Trappings of success

The hurricane has lifted, but Tejada's life is back in a state of flux.

When he signed his deal with the Orioles in December, it meant a new set of responsibilities for his handlers.

Last week, he was resting comfortably in the presidential suite of a seaside hotel in Santo Domingo while two members of his entourage spent a sleepless night trying to organize his life.

There was a trip to Baltimore to plan, and about 10 members of Tejada's extended family were coming to scout out their new city.

Tejada has filled his entourage with family members and friends. Andujar, his old pal from Los Barrancones, was working for a Bani television station when Tejada hired him to be a personal assistant.

"It's a good life," Andujar said. "Miguel is not just a boss, and not just a friend. He's my brother."

For Fitzgerald Astacio, the cell phone almost never stops ringing. He studied medicine for four years before going to work for the SFX Baseball Group, the agency that represents Tejada. Now, Astacio tends to the needs of the group's Dominican clients, including Vladimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz.

"I've got a lot of players I like, but Miguel is the best," Astacio said. "Miguel gives you 100 percent. He respects the fans. He respects himself. He makes a lot of money, but I think if nobody paid him money to play, he'd still play."

Tejada had come to Santo Domingo to play for his country in the Caribbean World Series, and Astacio was trying to help him filter through the distractions to focus on baseball.

Forty miles from Bani by car, Tejada looked comfortable in this element. He showed up for an interview wearing a stylish, white short-sleeved shirt, designer black jeans and a bracelet with diamonds spelling out TEJADA across his wrist.

His hair had been dyed maroon, but his most notable feature was still his smile.

"Sometimes," Tejada said, "when I think of all the stuff I have, I think back to before when I was a kid. Sometimes, I feel happy to see a lot of stuff, but I think of the past and the present, and I just think, 'Oh, man.' "

Even though his formal education ended early, Tejada has learned enough English to appear comfortable in conversation, even if he has a hard time articulating some of his deepest thoughts.

Having made a better life for himself, he's trying to give back to the people and places that gave him shelter from the storm.

He has a good relationship with Dominican President Hipolito Mejia, and he leaned on him to improve the Los Barrancones area. When Tejada lived there, it was a crowded slum, but now all the potholed roads leading out have been paved.

Tejada also has committed more than $1 million to replace that old field where he started playing baseball with a modern complex, complete with lights. And he routinely ships Mizuno equipment back to Soto to distribute around the old neighborhood.

On the eastern outskirts of Bani, Tejada is building a shopping complex. Closer to downtown, his father runs a new Esso gas station built with Tejada's earnings from baseball.

Tejada's heart has never strayed from Bani. That's where he met his wife, Alesandra, and they have two children now. Their daughter, Alexa, is 4, and son, Miguel Jr., is 2.

Bani is a manufacturing center that produces bananas and coffee. Unlike the polluted metropolis of Santo Domingo or the rugged sugar mill town of San Pedro de Macoris (the hometown of Sammy Sosa), Bani prides itself on its clean streets and its beautiful civic plazas.

The hurricane is a distant memory.

In a new development on the other side of town from Los Barrancones, the Tejadas live in a cream-colored, two-story house, which is enclosed by a huge wall with razor wire on top.

"I want to stay in Bani because I'm close to my family, and my wife is close to her family," Tejada said. "Bani is a town where everybody loves me, and it's a small town, and that's where I want to be. I don't want to be in a big city like New York. I don't want to be in that situation. Bani, that's where I want to live my whole life."

On the night Tejada was named MVP, his selection touched off a huge celebration in Bani that led all the way to the capital in Santo Domingo. Mejia invited Tejada to the presidential palace and sent out his motorcade for an escort.

The streets were lined with so many people, the motorcade could barely move. A drive that normally takes one hour took four. When Tejada sees the way the people respond to him, it gives him a deeper sense of his goals.

"I want to be a player every kid has a chance to see and give them an opportunity to learn about playing baseball," Tejada said. "And it's not only playing baseball. It's outside the field, too, being a great person. I want to be like Sammy Sosa - a great person."

Tested loyalties

Santo Domingo is stirring. It's early February, and from the bartenders to the taxi drivers, all anyone can talk about is baseball.

Tejada and his undefeated Dominican teammates are one victory away from clinching the country's first Caribbean World Series title on its home turf since 1989.

But Tejada glances up at the scoreboard, and his stomach twists into knots. The Venezuelan team has the Dominicans down by five runs.

With a win, Tejada can celebrate the championship tonight and be on a plane tomorrow for Baltimore, where the Orioles are preparing to hold their annual FanFest at the Convention Center.

With a loss, Tejada will have to make a tough decision: disappoint his new fans in Baltimore or disappoint an entire country.

About 18,000 have packed Estadio Quisqueya, turning the rustic downtown ballpark into a vibrant display of national pride. The Caribbean Series is an annual round-robin tournament among the best teams from the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

In the sixth inning, salsa music is blaring over the loudspeakers when Tejada strolls to home plate, hoping to start a rally. On cue, the caffeinated public address announcer starts blurting out words in Spanish, building to a climax: "Mi-guel TEEEEEEEEE-jada!"

The noise is quickly replaced with the sound of air horns, whistles and drums. Hundreds of Dominican flags are twirling in the air. The sound builds again when Tejada bloops a hit into center field.

And then it happens. Tejada rounds first base with a burst of speed, and dives headlong - Pete Rose style - into second base. Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox slugger, will sit by his locker later in the Dominican clubhouse, marveling at the effort.

"For me, he's one of the most exciting players in the big leagues to watch," Ortiz says. "When you play with a guy like Miguel, you have to play baseball. It's unbelievable."

Tejada doesn't have to be there, of course. While many stars dabble in winter ball, few players of his caliber are so committed to it. Tejada's major league contract is guaranteed even if he gets injured in winter ball, and he has been coming back since he first signed with Oakland.

Despite their $72 million risk, the Orioles aren't overly concerned. It's not as if playing winter ball has slowed Tejada's regular-season production. He holds the major leagues' longest active streak of consecutive games played with 594.

"I don't do it because I want to break Cal Ripken's record [of 2,632 consecutive games played]," Tejada says. "Nobody's going to do that. I do it because I love to play baseball. I don't like to come out of a spring training game."

Tejada's double sparks a three-run rally, but the Dominicans fall short in a 5-3 loss, forcing them to come back the next day against Puerto Rico to clinch the title.

No one looks more despondent than Tejada. He senses the importance of FanFest in Baltimore but says: "How can I leave? I have to stay here for my country."

He sits at his locker for two more hours after the game, perplexed. All four of his brothers are there, along with his father, bodyguard and personal driver. Astacio and Andujar are there, working their cell phones, trying to get in touch with someone back in Baltimore, but it's after midnight on the East Coast.

Mejia has called from the presidential palace, imploring Tejada to stay.

Manny Acta, the Montreal Expos' third base coach who is managing the Dominican team, makes his own pleas. Then he steps back for a moment and sums up what he's seeing.

"The Orioles just made the best decision ever by signing him," Acta says. "This guy has so much heart, and so much pride, it's unbelievable."

The next day, word comes from Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan that Tejada has their blessing to stay in the Dominican. Tejada tapes a short apology to be played at FanFest, telling Orioles fans he will be all theirs as soon as the Caribbean Series ends.

Meanwhile, back at Tejada's hotel, a receptionist named Margarita Campos is talking about how much he is loved in the Dominican.

"But we are sad today," she says. "He has to leave for Baltimore and won't be able to play tonight."

The visitor gives her a scoop: Tejada is going to stay. Campos takes a step back and rejoices. "Really?" she says. "You made my day!"

That night, Tejada helps the Dominicans to a 4-3 victory over Puerto Rico, touching off another celebration that lasts until 7 a.m.

Tejada misses FanFest, but by Tuesday night, he makes it in time for a less publicized event. He boards a bus, along with new Orioles teammates Sidney Ponson and Jay Gibbons, for a private dinner with 200 injured war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"He didn't complain about being tired or anything," Flanagan says. "The first thing he said when he got there was, 'Thank you very much, Mr. Beattie and Mr. Flanagan, for letting me play.' "

Miguel Tejada file

Position: Shortstop

Age: 27

Hometown: Bani, Dominican Republic

Height: 5 feet 9

Weight: 200 pounds

Bats/throws: Right

Orioles contract: Signed six-year, $72 million deal in December

Season averages 2000-2003: .283 batting average, 31 HRs, 116 RBIs

AL MVP Award: 2002

Consecutive games streak: 594

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