FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -It was during another monotonous fielding drill last week when first baseman Aubrey Huff's attention was diverted to the left side of the infield. There, Cesar Izturis stood with his back to home plate, effortlessly fielding balls from third base coach Juan Samuel.
"It was like he was getting so bored and it was so easy for him, he wanted to invent stuff out there so he started fielding balls behind him," Huff said. "It makes me jealous how somebody can be so good at fielding the baseball."
A similar scene has played out several times early in spring training as Orioles infielders find themselves stealing glances at their new shortstop, a soft-spoken Venezuelan with sure hands, quick feet, a strong arm and a Gold Glove on his resume.
"He's a wizard," said Orioles utility player Ryan Freel, who came up through the Toronto Blue Jays' organization with Izturis. "The best that I've seen."
Orioles manager Dave Trembley said yesterday that Izturis' mere presence at camp has made him "sleep a whole lot better," the latest indication of how much the team's shaky shortstop situation last year drained the club and its manager. The 2008 Orioles started six shortstops, and none of them is with the organization this year.
Luis Hernandez, who was anointed the starting shortstop after Miguel Tejada was traded, faltered badly, seemingly so nervous that he couldn't field a routine grounder last spring. Freddie Bynum, Alex Cintron, Brandon Fahey and Eider Torres gave the club little offensively or defensively. Juan Castro, acquired in a trade, was competent defensively but hit just .205 in 54 games.
That left finding an everyday shortstop as one of club president Andy MacPhail's main priorities. Izturis, at the top of the team's wish list, signed a two-year, $5 million deal in December, giving the organization much-needed stability at the position.
"It makes me smile that he's going to be out there," Trembley said. "That's far and away the biggest upgrade we have going into the season."
Over parts of eight major league seasons, Izturis, 29, has a .260 career batting average, a .299 on-base percentage and only 12 homers in 3,165 at-bats, but his offense is not the reason he made the National League All-Star team in 2005.
Izturis grew up emulating Omar Vizquel, Ozzie Guillen and Ozzie Smith. He keeps his Gold Glove trophy, won in 2004 when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, at his home in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and it's one of his goals every year to win another one.
"I wanted to be myself, but I also wanted to do it like those guys and play good defense," Izturis said. "Back home, every time I turned the TV on, there was a baseball game on. I watched the plays that Omar Vizquel was making, and it was unbelievable."
Izturis laughed when informed his new teammates are marveling at how easy he makes things look. He said he studies videotape of himself and acknowledges that he makes a tough play look routine at times, but he added "there's a lot of hard work on the little things" that goes into it.
The Orioles are Izturis' sixth major league team, a surprising number for a player of his age and reputation.
"I have no idea why that has happened. I was talking to B.J. Surhoff about that the other day," Orioles veteran infielder Chris Gomez said. "Every time that he's been traded and ended up somewhere, I've said, 'That's a really good deal for that team.' I've always felt like he's one of the best out there."
The Cardinals, whom the Orioles defeated, 11-3, yesterday, let Izturis go as a free agent after last season because they were looking for offense at shortstop. They acquired Khalil Greene in a trade with the San Diego Padres, but St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said that shouldn't be taken as a sign the club was disappointed with Izturis.
"He earned a ton of respect points with us last year," La Russa said. "He's a good teammate, and he is up there with the smartest [I've ever managed]. He'll be a contender for the Gold Glove. That's how good he is. He has wonderful range, real sure, smooth hands, a quick, strong arm. He makes the double play from the shortstop side as good as you're going to see, and he's a very smart player. I don't know what's left."
Freel was taking infield practice the other day, and after watching Izturis effortlessly pick up another ground ball, he turned to Samuel and asked: " 'How do I get like that? What do I have to do?' Juan goes, 'You're good. You're fine.' And I said: 'No, no, no. I want to be like that,' " Freel said.
"He doesn't get the recognition, maybe because of his hitting, but I think he's the best in the game at shortstop. He makes it look like it's nothing. I don't know how he does it. I just don't think you can teach a guy to play shortstop like that."