Tragedy, struggles don't stop Astros' Tejada

Tim Brown

LOS ANGELES – Miguel Tejada angled from the team bus to Cecil Cooper's office Friday afternoon, slowing only to locate his locker and drop a Louis Vuitton shopping bag inside.

He politely asked two reporters to clear out so he could have a moment alone with his manager and closed the door behind him. Tejada and Cooper were laughing when the door opened a couple minutes later.

Tejada, growing suspicious that Cooper was considering resting him one of these games, was in the lineup Friday night. He'll almost surely be in it Saturday, and the next day, and the day after that.

Tejada had won again.

"I'm trying to negotiate a day," Cooper said, smiling, feigning exasperation.

Maybe the day game in San Francisco on Thursday? The interleague series in Texas next week, when Tejada could serve a night as the designated hitter?

Cooper's eyes widened.

"Maybe that's something I can negotiate," he said. "A little compromise."

Loose from the drudgery and disappointment of Baltimore, holding to his career-long workaday ethic, and, uh, clearly not getting any younger, Tejada refuses to miss a game, an inning, an at-bat. Besides, he's enjoying this, his first season for the Houston Astros, too much to miss a minute. Tejada arrived in Los Angeles in the midst of a six-week revival in the batters' box, where he is above his career averages in batting, slugging and on-base percentage, and at shortstop, where he appears to have regained the range that abandoned him a season ago.

After batting practice, breathing deep in an unusual Southern California chill, Tejada dropped his bats into their bins in the visitors' dugout, peeled off his batting gloves and explained his battle to leave the days off for another day.

"I like to play," he said. "And, you know, the day I take off might be the best day of my career."

Backed into a corner in recent years by steroid suspicions, a budding FBI investigation into whether he lied to federal officials about his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs, accusations in the Mitchell Report he'd purchased steroids and human growth hormone, and revelations he lied about his age when he signed with the Oakland Athletics 15 years ago, Tejada seems to fear only the game not played.

He will be challenged eventually by what are likely self-inflicted steroids issues, by the feds or in the final accounting of his career, perhaps both. He nodded silently at the accounting of a winter uncomfortably spent, and of the humiliating waylay by ESPN last month. His older brother, Freddy, died in a mid-January motorcycle accident.

And yet, he was batting .336, .351 with runners in scoring position, .406 with men on base for the Astros, who have ridden the bats of Tejada and Lance Berkman to unexpected competence in the National League Central. Among major league shortstops, Tejada ranks first in RBIs and third in batting, OPS and home runs. He's committed only two errors.

"I fight it," Tejada said of the federal, media and fan intrusions, along with the death of his brother. "I fight it every day. The team needs me. The team needs me 100 percent every day."

He raised his hands to his head, held them cupped around his eyes, and groped for the word.

"Blinders," he finally said. "Like the horses."

When the Astros and new general manager Ed Wade traded five players to the Baltimore Orioles for Tejada last offseason, the consensus among scouts was that the Astros were getting a declining hitter and shortstop, one who could no longer bat in the middle of the order or, indeed, play shortstop. Most assumed he would of course start opening day for the Astros, but at third base.

"It looked like work for him last season," an American League scout said of Tejada's fourth year in Baltimore. "He was always an energy guy and he had a great way about him. That 'way' wasn't there last year."

With a laugh, the scout added, "He's using the experience he gained in the offseason to his advantage."

Yes, Tejada is 33, not 31. In the meantime, every night, they line the field and turn on the lights and Tejada wishes for nothing more than to stand out between those lines and under those lights, to play the game not yet played.

For that reason, he is known in his native Dominican Republic – and some parts of this Astros clubhouse – as La Gua Gua, or The Bus. As in, Tejada drives that bus, steers the offense, navigates the game. Every game.

"The same thing I've always seen in him," said teammate Darin Erstad, who knows a fellow gamer when he sees one. "Just a phenomenal player. Great clutch hitter. Plays every day. What's amazing is his love for the game. He has so much fun out there, it's refreshing."

After four losing seasons in Baltimore, dulled by the vacant promises to rebuild a once competitive franchise, Tejada knew it was time to go. He was no longer the player Erstad described, the player Cooper relies on. The trade made him him again.

"They told me they were going to make it a good team and they didn't," Tejada said of the Orioles. "I don't play for the 15th and 30th of the month, when the paychecks come. I play to be a champion every day. I was getting tired of seeing it. It was time."

He gestured toward teammates who stomped down stairs that led to the clubhouse.

"This means a lot," he said. "At this time in my career, it's not about numbers or money. It's about pride. This is much better. You can see everybody wants to win here. I'm here to win."

First, though, he's got to play.

"I'm OK," he told Cooper a couple hours earlier. "I'm going to play."

The day off? The game not played?

"Unh-unh," Cooper said, smiling. "That ain't happening."