The 2005 All-Star Game, like so many in the past, turned its eyes affectionately to a great player who deserved the additional attention of a national stage on a warm summer night. For years, many a July classic seemed to end up as a Willie Mays Production. Stan Musial hit six homers in these contests, two more than anybody else, while Ted Williams still owns the RBI record with 12. The last time the all-star game was here, in 1971, Frank Robinson was its most valuable player. The proper players shine the brightest, perhaps because they know this exhibition game was created expressly for that purpose.
This time, the game found Miguel Tejada, sought him out inning after inning, and found him waiting, arms wide, to collect the glory that has often escaped him in an eight-year career that may now place him at the very top of his sport.
"I'm never going to forget these two days," said Tejada afterward.
In the first inning, the Orioles shortstop lay on the infield dirt near second base after stopping a smash by Carlos Beltran that knocked him to one knee. Because Tejada devours the opportunity for self-expression and improvisation that baseball provides, he never considered a cautious play that might produce only one out. Instead, the 5-foot-9, 215-pounder flipped the ball backhand and hard to second baseman Brian Roberts to start a double play.
Once again, Tejada showed that a single human physique could accommodate the specialties of two apparently incompatible circus acts -- the acrobat and the strongman.
Ever since his impoverished youth in the Dominican Republic, where he was unable to afford a glove of his own until he was 19, Tejada has turned to baseball as his pallet, his inspiration, his source of a daily joy so undisguised that it dazzles every teammate with its open-handedness and intensity. On this night, the game smiled back with a warmth worthy of Miggy's best grin.
In the second inning, Tejada took the first pitch from John Smoltz, who might have a plaque himself in Cooperstown someday. The next offering, high enough in the strike zone to drive, must have looked like a glowing softball to the home run-starved Tejada. For Baltimore, he has gone without a homer since June 18, often pressing at the plate to compensate for injuries to teammates as his Orioles have slumped out of first place.
In an all-star game, however, Tejada's normal jubilance can have its full range of play. Last season, he won the annual Home Run Derby, at one point hitting 15 balls out of Houston's Minute Maid Park in 25 swings. That night, in one nationally televised event, may have brought him more attention than his entire 2002 season when, hidden in Oakland with the A's, he drove in 131 runs and was named American League most valuable player.
If that's what a batting practice stunt could do, what about the all-star game itself?
Tejada didn't just hit a homer for a 1-0 lead. He launched a 436-foot blast into the left field bleachers in Comerica Park, the ones that were considered so unreachable when the park was opened in 2000 that a new fence and bullpens were put in front of the original stands.
"I just make everybody around me proud of me," said Tejada, who brought 22 family members and friends to the game.
In the third inning, the game was back tapping on Tejada's shoulder, offering him a chance to hit with men at the corners and only one out. The AL already led 2-0 and was on its way to a 7-5 victory, including two runs singled home by Ichiro Suzuki against Livan Hernandez in the Nats pitcher's one shaky inning. Tejada's job was clear -- be a situational hitter. Manny Ramirez had just struck out swinging against Roy Oswalt. Tejada had to avoid the same result, lest the AL lose momentum.
Last year, when Tejada had 150 RBI, he led the league in sacrifice flies with 14. He knows when a tap is almost as good as a liner. This time a soft grounder to short on a tough 0-2 pitch gave Tejada his second RBI. By the fourth inning, it almost seemed a foregone conclusion that Tejada would be provided with another highlight possibility. This time he was the pivot man on a double play started by his Baltimore partner Roberts. Tejada's footwork was sloppy and his throw a trust-to-luck invocation of his rifle arm. A leaping catch and tag at first base saved him an error and made the twin killing look perfect -- in the box score.
Finally, in the fifth, this silliness of Tejada providing a different star turn in every inning came to an end. Roger Clemens, who must have sold the souls of several states to the devil to have a 1.48 ERA at age 42, got Tejada to ground out.
Perhaps that's just as well because, at 29, at what should be the prime of his career, it is easy to get carried away with Tejada and claim that he is the best all-around player in the sport. In fact, it is even tempting to say that Tejada in his two years as an Oriole has been as excellent and valuable a player as Cal Ripken at his best.
In fact, why not just say it.
Barry Bonds has yet to play this season. Albert Pujols, whose offensive statistics compare to Tejada's, is now a full-time first baseman after starting his career at third base, which is far more demanding. Perhaps only Alex Rodriguez, no longer a fine shortstop but a misplaced and mediocre third baseman, stands as tall as Tejada now. This year, A-Rod has 23 homers, 72 RBI and a .317 average. Tejada has 19 homers, 62 RBI and a .329 average. Two years ago, when A-Rod was still a shortstop who'd averaged 52 homers in the previous three years, he stood above Tejada. Now, the choice of one over the other for total value is probably a distinction without a difference.
Discussing Tejada vs. Ripken is a tougher and touchier subject, but one that is now appropriate. Tejada's career can't yet compare to Ripken's. We're stuck with a Tiger Woods vs. Jack Nicklaus analogy where only half of one career can be seen. Still, it's unlikely that many fans grasp how comfortable Tejada already looks when placed next to Ripken. Over the past five years, Tejada has averaged 121 RBI and is on a similar pace this season. Granted, offense has exploded in Tejada's time. But even if, as an "era adjustment," we added 20 RBI and several homers to Ripken's annual totals, he is not quite Miggy's equal.
Ripken's defense at shortstop, sometimes underrated but always exceptional, is considerably better than the scrambling Tejada, who already has 11 errors this season, more than Ripken sometimes made in a year. Both had superior arms and were sometimes spectacular on throws from the hole or relays to the plate. Ripken tracked popups and charged dribblers better than almost anyone and his footwork and precision choreography made him better at starting or turning double plays.
However, Ripken was a stolid, self-contained teammate -- a sharp contrast to the ebullient Tejada, who has gotten more unsolicited praise in the last year and a half than Ripken did in many seasons combined. Ripken was respected and emulated. Tejada is already loved. If the current Orioles ever win a pennant, Tejada will be at the core of their collective personality.
As for endurance, Ripken's Iron Man record has completely obscured Tejada's current consecutive games streak of 843 straight. Someday, though it seems remote now, the top three in the category may be Ripken, Lou Gehrig and Tejada.
At last year's all-star festivities, Miggy introduced himself to a broader public with his batting practice home runs on a Monday. This year, he saved his display for the main event on Tuesday. Tejada's recognition by millions of fans as one of the sport's true centerpiece players and personalities is overdue. But it has arrived.
This All-Star Game -- and Tejada's MVP award -- were simply another step in that belated process.