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Birds of a feather

The Baltimore Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. -- It started back in February, when one of the Orioles' new relievers struck up a conversation with a team leader before the second full-squad workout of the spring.

Jamie Walker, a self-proclaimed redneck with a thick Southern drawl, had never spoken to Miguel Tejada, the Spanish-speaking shortstop whose English remains a work in progress.

Soaking in adjacent whirlpools in the cozy clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the Tennessee-born pitcher, who went to the World Series last season with the Detroit Tigers, and the Dominican shortstop, who yearns to get back to the playoffs, found a common ground. They talked about winning and the attitude and dedication needed for the Orioles to end a stretch of nine straight losing seasons.

"I went up to him and said, 'I am in this with you guys,'" Walker said. "I know he's been disgruntled here in the past. That's what you hear, at least. But I've played against him, and he comes to play every day. I respect that, and I think he respects guys that do that, too."

Walker, a 35-year-old veteran who made his big league debut 10 years ago, was one of 16 players or coaches who at the start of the month experienced their first Opening Day as Orioles. He was signed primarily because he was a left-handed reliever who could get people out, something that was sorely missing from the 2006 Orioles.

But he also fit in with what the front office has been trying to do for the past two seasons - repair a clubhouse that was fractured during the once-promising 2005 season because of losing, steroid allegations and other off-the-field problems.

"It was best available talent and then best available character. Those were the two criteria that we focused a lot on," club vice president Jim Duquette said. "It's been a concerted effort based on what happened in 2005. I am impressed with how quickly it has come together."

The Orioles, who bring an 8-7 record into the start of a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays tonight at Camden Yards, have given off some mixed signals through the first three weeks of the season. Their overhauled bullpen has justified the front office's $42 million-plus investment. Their offense, defense and starting pitching have been good at times, but also prone to lapses.

But the longest-tenured members of the organization acknowledge there is a different feel in the clubhouse. They said that the 2007 Orioles are looser and closer-knit.

"That's a part of why we win," designated hitter-first baseman Kevin Millar said. "There is a feel of trust in this clubhouse. It's been awesome. Trust, caring for each other, pulling for each other - that equals W's. Your talent is going to take over for an extent, but you'll lose a lot of games when you don't have guys that care about each other."

Progress being made

Millar wasn't an Oriole during the 2005 season and didn't see how bad things got in the clubhouse. That season featured Sidney Ponson's legal problems, a rift between Tejada and Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro's steroid suspension and the subsequent fallout that brought Tejada into the discussion and a collapse out of first place.

"Some things went on that year where it badly hurt people's trust," outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "Guys were going their own way. It was understandable. There was just a lot of tension going on. But in the last year and a half, it's gotten progressively better."

Millar, one of the leaders of the Boston Red Sox's 2004 world championship team, who was brought to Baltimore to play a similar role, noted to reporters last season that the clubhouse attitude still needed to improve.

"We're not here to collect paychecks and have rims and tires on our cars and dress [fancy]," Millar said last year. "We're here to win baseball games. We've got to challenge each other, help each other and do that. I don't think that goes on enough. ... That's the thing we lack. ... We've got too many sideshows. We've got too many guys worrying about what suit they're wearing."

His comments agitated several veterans, including Tejada and Melvin Mora.

"This is a whole different situation now," said Millar, who cleared the air with his teammates a day later. "We were playing bad baseball then. This is a great mix of baseball guys. We don't have any superstars. We're all just average guys."

Fun and games

Millar is generally viewed as the ringleader, the first player to make a joke or arrange a team outing. It started this spring when about eight Orioles lived in the same apartment building. They went out to dinner and hung out at the beach after the workouts or games.

On one occasion, most of the team's regulars had gotten the afternoon off and didn't have to make the three-hour trip from Fort Lauderdale to Viera to play the Washington Nationals. Aubrey Huff wasn't so lucky.

"We're all fat and out of shape, and we were hanging out with all the 18-year-old college kids," Gibbons said of the beach trip. "I was text-messaging Huff, sending him pictures of all the spring-break kids."

Said Millar of the get-togethers: "That didn't happen once last year, but it happened five or six times this spring. There were like 10 of us sometimes."

The night before Opening Day, 15 Orioles got together for dinner in Minnesota. The group included position players, starting pitchers and relievers.

"We've pretty much had big groups everywhere we have gone," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "It's certainly been the most fun team that I've been around. We literally stand up on the bus and say, 'Let's meet downstairs at 8, whoever wants to go.' I haven't been in other places, but I don't think that happens everywhere."

Millar gets ribbed about his physical condition and the blond highlights in his hair that prompted some teammates to call him Meg Ryan. Gibbons is chided about his thick mop of red hair, and Roberts gets needled about his diminutive stature and his heartthrob status in Baltimore. Huff and pitcher Jaret Wright's physiques are often scrutinized, and catcher Paul Bako - for unclear reasons - seems to be a frequent target.

"Usually, every team has one or two idiots that no one can really stand, but this team doesn't have that guy," Huff said. "It's a great group of guys. There are no cliques. Everybody hangs out with everybody."

Added Gibbons: "We don't discriminate. Our crew is everybody."

Winning attitude

Huff scoffed at the notion that clubhouse chemistry is overrated.

"That's [wrong]. If it's anything, it's underrated," Huff said. "I think if you have a team with good chemistry, it makes you play better baseball on the field. I've been on teams where guys couldn't stand each other and it was the most miserable season. I honestly believe that you can't win without it."

In the past, Orioles utility man Chris Gomez would have disagreed with Huff's statement. Gomez, 35, who is playing in his 15th major league season, said he has long felt camaraderie was overvalued. But he didn't feel that way after being in the dugout Monday when the team erased a six-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"I haven't seen excitement like that since I've been here," said Gomez, an Oriole since 2005. "Guys were pulling for each other. It was pure excitement over a game that we probably shouldn't have won. There was a lot of unselfishness between teammates. It probably does help."

Several times this season, Sam Perlozzo has walked out of the manager's office hours after a game only to find several players still hanging around and talking.

"Normally, there's not a soul in sight," Perlozzo said. "Those kinds of things mean something. Teams that have exceptional talent, it's not going to show up and be much of a factor until the very end or something. But for a team like us, who is trying to get over the hump, it's a plus. And I think if we just win, it will get better and better."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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