FORT MYERS, FLA. -- The criticism started at this time last year with each grounder that got past the outstretched glove of Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada. It got louder as the 2006 season progressed to the point where several scouts wondered whether Tejada should make the move to third base then, rather than later in his career.
Tejada, who idolized Alfredo Griffin, his beloved countryman and one of the reasons the Oriole grew up with dreams of becoming a major league shortstop, heard the chatter about his diminished range. He maintains that he wasn't hurt by it, and on this day, he refused to use his ailing knee early last season as an excuse.
But when he started preparation for this season, there was one thought that drove him, that has made running under the hot Florida sun this spring and the lifting in a stuffy weight room a bit more tolerable.
"I want to keep being the shortstop," Tejada said of his motivation. "My goal is to try to be the shortstop as long as I can. I don't want to lose anything I worked for. I just feel like I want to be better. I want to keep my body better. That's why I worked as hard as I can."
It was about 3 1/2 weeks ago when a leaner Tejada reported to spring training, vowing to be a "different Miguel." He would work harder, show up earlier and lead more. By all accounts, he has been true to his word. The smile and energy that had been two of Tejada's trademarks have returned after two tumultuous seasons that included a highly public trade demand and his name being included in talk of baseball's steroid scandal.
"Miguel Tejada is the last guy that you'd ever have to worry about," said Orioles utility man Chris Gomez, a 14-year major league veteran who called Tejada one of the best teammates he's ever had. "He's going to go out there and play 162 games, put up great numbers and play solid defense. And he does it year in and year out. If anyone ever has worries about him, it's silly. You're wasting your energy."
Orioles center fielder Corey Patterson got to know Tejada last season, but he acknowledges watching him closer this spring. He's seen Tejada, under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Jay Shiner, running up and down the bleachers after a two-plus-hour team workout. A workout rat in his own right, Patterson has seen Tejada in the weight room long after many of their teammates have gone home.
"He's definitely the best player on the team and if he is still working hard, it makes us want to work hard," Patterson said. "He is somebody I pay attention to, just to see his work ethic. He is the kind of guy you want on your team."
Leading the way
Tejada, 30, says he has tried to make an impact with the Orioles' younger players. After a workout earlier this week, Tejada slammed a medicine ball off the side of the team's clubhouse, an exercise aimed to improve his hip and backside mobility. While he did it, Val Majewski, a 25-year-old outfielder who has since been sent to minor league camp in Sarasota, sat behind him and watched.
"It's not because they see me doing that for me. They think I do it for the whole team," said Tejada, who hit a career-high .330 last season with 24 home runs and 100 RBIs and set a franchise record with 214 hits. "If they see me working like this, everybody is going to keep working hard. I don't do it to try to look good. I do it to help the team because the more I can be in the game, the more I can help the team."
Tejada has played all 162 games for six straight seasons. He has played in 1,080 straight games and if he plays in every game this year, he'll have the fourth-longest streak in baseball history behind only Cal Ripken Jr., Lou Gehrig and Everett Scott. While some in the organization wonder whether the occasional day off would help Tejada, the shortstop said it is up to manager Sam Perlozzo, though he has no intention of requesting a day off.
"I feel much better," said Tejada, who concedes that he hasn't always come into spring training in the best shape. "I am ready to go. From the first day of spring training, I've felt that my body is ready to go."
Instead of returning home to the Dominican Republic this offseason, Tejada stayed in Florida and worked out regularly at Perfect Competition with other baseball stars, such as Manny Ramirez and Magglio Ordonez.
Shiner visited Tejada in November to supervise and offer fitness ideas. When he returned in January, he concluded that Tejada had done everything asked.
"I was very impressed," said Shiner, who said that Tejada still weighs about the same (215), but cut down his body fat and is more muscular. "He showed up in shape. Many days, he has been the last guy still here. I believed [he was serious about it] in November when I saw what he was doing and when I came back in January, I was excited. He stayed on course with it and got stronger and faster."
Speed and strength
Shiner said Tejada's workouts have been focused on improving his foot speed and movement. During one drill, Tejada shuffles back and forth between cones as Shiner rolls baseballs to him. The exercise is designed to maximize the steps to get to the ball, simulating the act of fielding a baseball while moving left or right. Team officials have been pleased with the range Tejada has shown thus far in camp.
"He is moving around a lot better than he did last year," Perlozzo said. "When his knee was bad [last year], I knew there was nothing that I can do about that. ... It was an up-and-down year for him defensively for multiple reasons."
Teammates said Tejada got a bad rap for his defense last season, considering that he was nursing knee and hamstring injuries the first couple of months of the season. Tejada did make 19 errors, tying his lowest total for a full season in his career. But it was his range that was often criticized by scouts and baseball officials.
"He wasn't fully healthy early last year and yet he still went out there and did all he could. Of course, your range is going to be limited, but most guys wouldn't have even been out there," Gomez said. "He got healthy soon thereafter, and I thought he was great. I don't think anybody could deny that. He got this label, where someone says one thing about range and all of a sudden you don't have range. It sticks. I think it is really unfair."
The Orioles, who moved Ripken from shortstop to third late in his career, say there have been no such discussions with Tejada. It certainly would be a prickly topic for the shortstop, who was coveted before the trade deadline last July by the Los Angeles Angels, who intended to move Tejada to third base. Tejada let everyone know he was not interested. And he worked all offseason to make sure he doesn't have to hear the same conversation again.
"He's still a big league shortstop," Perlozzo said. "There is no question. I think Miggy is ... always going to be a middle infielder. When you move a guy over there, you expect him to say that he is not covering anything out there. I don't see that happening with Miguel. I think he is a very proud man, and I think the fact that anybody even mentions something like that is part of his motivation to change their minds. I think he'll continue to do that."