By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; D05
BALTIMORE -- Miguel Tejada had grown mighty comfortable at the epicenter of the infield. As a shortstop for the first 13 years of his big league career, he had no other choice.
The countless hard-hit balls zooming toward his head never compelled a second thought. Base runners aggressively trying to take him out didn't matter. Those potential hazards simply were requisite to the job.
These days, Tejada isn't in the fray nearly as much. In his second stint with the Baltimore Orioles and nearing the end of his career, Tejada has moved roughly 40 paces to his right for the first time in his professional life.
Though it's not a substantial distance, the way Tejada approaches his work has changed dramatically since the shift to third base.
"It is a big adjustment," Tejada, the AL MVP with Oakland in 2002 and a six-time all-star, said in the Orioles' clubhouse the other day before a game against Kansas City, "because [at third base] you've got to think about the ball most of the time going down the line. It's different. At shortstop you've got to think about the double play. Third base, you've really just got to worry about the ball."
Tejada, whose Orioles begin a three-game series in Washington on Friday, is hardly the first notable major leaguer to make the switch. Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. was among the most high-profile players to do so, and like Tejada, he had to learn a new position late in his career. Ripken played shortstop for the Orioles from 1983-96 before moving to third base at age 36.
Tejada turns 36 on Tuesday but unlike Ripken had not played third base in the majors before switching. When Ripken broke into the big leagues in 1981, he played six games at third. The following season, Ripken played 71 games at the hot corner, thus the modification years later wasn't completely foreign.
Ripken did, however, take one full season essentially to re-learn the position before playing it became routine. Ripken's fielding percentage in 1997, his first full season at third, was .949. In 1998, it was just below .980.
Through 37 games this season, Tejada's fielding percentage is .946. He has six errors, the second most in the majors, but Orioles Manager Dave Trembley isn't about to panic.
"I think he's been fine, I really do," Trembley said when asked how Tejada is handling the adjustment. "I think he's been very good at it, made a lot of nice plays, shows a strong, accurate arm. Tejada is where he's at in his career because he has a lot of pride, and in order to get that pride, you work. You work at it, and he did that in spring training, and he continues to do that each and every day."
Tejada also has been leaning on Alex Rodriguez for guidance. The three-time AL most valuable player moved to third base upon joining the New York Yankees in 2004 to accommodate incumbent shortstop Derek Jeter. Rodriguez won two of his MVP awards after the switch, although he was significantly younger than Tejada.
"I just talked to A-Rod the other day," Tejada said. "He gives me good advice. I think to see all those superstars do what they did, for me it's like a mirror from them to me. I say if they can do it, why can't I do it?"
Rodriguez agreed to move to third base more or less out of desperation to leave a losing culture with the Texas Rangers, who did not make the playoffs once during his three seasons with the club.
Tejada's switch evolved more out of necessity and survival than anything else. During the 2007 season, the Orioles initially made overtures regarding a possible move to third, but Tejada said he felt he still had it in him to play shortstop.
Thus he left Baltimore following that season to join Houston, with assurances he would remain at shortstop. Tejada, who has led the AL in assists five times, was an all-star at the position twice in a row with the Astros before becoming a free agent at the end of last season.
Tejada's most attractive option then was the Orioles, who were offering $6 million for one year. But the stipulation was he would have to move to third base because César Izturis had settled into shortstop.
"At that time, I still could play short, and now I still can play short," Tejada said. "It's a situation that has come up that people want me to play third. I think if they want me playing third, it's because they see me and think I can do a better job. For me to move positions, I think it can make my career a bit longer. Now it's like I'm starting a new career."
During his two seasons with the Astros, Tejada continued to be a factor at the plate as well. After batting .283 with 179 hits, 13 home runs and 66 RBI in 2008, Tejada bumped those numbers to .313, 199, 14 and 86 the ensuing season.
Although his offensive punch no longer matched that of his prime from 2000-06, when he had no fewer than 24 homers and 98 RBI in a season, Tejada made enough of an impression in the National League to warrant offers from several clubs.
But coming back to Baltimore just made sense on so many levels, not the least of which was a sense of familiarity with his surroundings. If he had to change positions, at least he'd be doing so in a place he calls home.
"Coming back here is pretty easy because I know every player, and I know everybody in the front office," Tejada said. "And I think that's one of the reasons I came back. I feel like I never left."