Blast from past

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles billed the December trade of shortstop Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros for five players as the first move in the organization's rebuilding project.

But to All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts, the process started four years earlier when Tejada, a coveted free agent and former American League Most Valuable Player, signed a six-year, $72 million deal with the Orioles, giving a struggling franchise a star player to build around.

"I think when people look back on it, they'll realize that he was probably the first big piece of this puzzle that will hopefully get this organization back where it wants to be," Roberts said. "I look at him signing here as the first step. He was a marquee free agent at the time, and then a couple of years later to bring back what he brought back in a trade, I think those are two big points to this whole process."

Tejada makes his much-anticipated return tonight to Camden Yards for the start of a three-game series against the Orioles. He has done what the Astros had hoped, hitting .300 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs, showing improved range defensively and providing energy and leadership. It is no fault of his that Houston is four games under .500, has lost five a row and is a half game out of last place in the National League Central.

Meanwhile, the Orioles are at .500 - an elusive mark during Tejada's four-year tenure - despite the trades of Tejada and ace pitcher Erik Bedard. When he traded Tejada, club president Andy MacPhail sold it as a chance to help Houston in the present and the Orioles in the future. But the deal has also paid immediate dividends for the Orioles.

Outfielder Luke Scott is hitting .281 with 11 home runs and has quickly become a Camden Yards favorite. The addition of relievers Dennis Sarfate (4-1, 3.38 ERA) and Matt Albers (3-2, 2.91) has given the Orioles one of the better bullpens in the AL. Pitching prospect Troy Patton, who will miss the season after having shoulder surgery, and Triple-A third baseman Mike Costanzo remain in the club's future plans.

"As it turns out through about 70 games, we probably got more help in the immediate future than we anticipated," MacPhail said.

The Orioles still haven't found a full-time replacement for Tejada, giving starts to five shortstops, and his absence has affected the way teams have pitched to Nick Markakis. But the Orioles have five players with at least 10 home runs, and they've relied on a leadership-by-committee approach.

"Some of the guys were quiet and moody at times last year, but I started seeing a difference in spring training," Orioles third base coach Juan Samuel said. "I think when you have guys like Tejada on the club, guys had a tendency not to go over him and deservedly so. But this year, there's been a lot of guys taking charge, not just one."

Tejada, with an infectious smile and a powerful bat, immediately became the face of the Orioles' franchise after signing with the club in December 2003. He hit .311 with 34 home runs and a mind-boggling 150 RBIs in 2004.

But after helping the Orioles into first place early in 2005 and winning the All-Star Game MVP, Tejada hit some hard times. Teammate Rafael Palmeiro told an arbitration panel that he tested positive for steroids after receiving a vial of liquid vitamin B-12 from Tejada, who was eventually cleared of wrongdoing.

After the 2005 season, Tejada, unhappy with the team's losing ways, publicly asked for a trade. He ultimately rescinded the request, but his energy level - plus his power and range defensively - dropped significantly in his final two seasons with the club.

With Tejada due $26 million over two seasons and not interested in changing positions or playing on a rebuilding team, a parting of ways was inevitable.

"Was it necessary? I don't know," Roberts said. "I don't have to make those decisions, but I think our front office did what it felt like it needed to ... and we certainly got some very good pieces in return."

Tejada's popularity took a hit in his final two seasons in Baltimore as a result of his trade demand, what some fans perceived as a lack of hustle and his name being mentioned in the steroid controversy. It remains to be seen what kind of reception Tejada will receive the next three days.

"For me, it was hard to hear sometimes, the criticism from the media and the fans," said Roberts, who remains close friends with Tejada. "I thought that they gave him a harder time than he deserved. He liked being here, loved the team, loved the city. He just didn't like losing. I would think fans would appreciate that."

Controversy has followed Tejada to Houston. A day after the trade, his name figured prominently in the Mitchell Report. A month later, it was announced that the FBI was looking into whether Tejada lied to federal investigators in 2005 during the Palmeiro fallout. Tejada has also since admitted that he's 33, two years older than what was believed.

Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said that none of that should matter tonight.

"This guy was a tremendous teammate, a tremendous human being," Millar said. "This town should not think of him any other way. We all have faults in our life. We all made mistakes. That has nothing to do with how Miggi was as an Oriole. This guy should get a standing ovation."

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