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Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Tejada will talk about anything … except steroids

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Miguel Tejada flashed that golden smile for every cameraman in Florida on Tuesday. Seeing that smile, you never would have known this man had the Department of Justice, the House of Representatives and former Sen. George Mitchell on his tail. Not to mention Bud Selig.

"I'm happy to be the same Miguel Tejada I used to be," said the man who is now the new shortstop of the Houston Astros -- our legal system willing.

Great. We wish him luck with that.

You may have heard by now that Tejada wasn't talking much Tuesday. But that wouldn't be quite accurate.

If you asked him why he still plays winter ball after all these years, he had enough to say to fill up a whole documentary.

If you asked him why he was so offended by those doubters in Baltimore who thought he couldn't play shortstop anymore, his tone deepened and the emotion poured out of him.

And if you asked him whether he planned to communicate with his new double-play partner, Osaka's own Kaz Matsui, in English, Spanish or Japanese, Tejada hauled out his best Comedy Central delivery and deadpanned: "I think we're gonna go by signs."

But if you made the mistake of asking Miguel Tejada about the Mitchell report on Tuesday … uh-oh. The guy turned into a character on "Boston Legal." Right before your eyes.

"I can't really talk about that right now," he said, "because everything's under investigation."

No matter how many times the subject arose, the one-time AL MVP had his dodgeball moves working. Since it's our journalistic duty to capture the spirit of this magical dialogue, here comes a tantalizing sampling:

"Right now, I just want to concentrate on baseball." … "I'm just here to win and play baseball." … "I'm not worried about anything. Right now I'm just want to get my uniform on and go out and work hard."

And so on. There were about eight more no hablas where those came from. But we're assuming you get his drift.

Someday, Tejada promised, his lawyers will let him talk about those nasty steroids accusations in the Mitchell report. And about those allegations by that relentless Rep. Henry Waxman that Tejada may have lied about steroid use to federal investigators.

And when his lawyers do give him the old go-ahead, "I want to talk," Tejada said.

So fine. We'll reserve the same hour in front of the microphones for him that we got from Andy Pettitte on Monday and await further developments.

But in the meantime, the Astros are going to have a baseball season to play, whether Waxman, the Justice Department and the producers of "Law and Order" authorize it or not.

And the Astros are still planning to play it with Tejada as their shortstop and No. 3 hitter -- unless somebody slaps a temporary restraining order on them first.

Asked Tuesday if anyone had given him any reason to believe that Tejada won't be able to play this year, Astros general manager Ed Wade replied: "Nothing that's been fed our way. We're optimistic he'll be our everyday shortstop and fit in the middle of our lineup."

Spring training, of course, is a time when baseball men are legally required to use the word "optimistic" at least 11 times per interview. Except that usually, that optimism doesn't center around a fervent hope that the breaks fall this team's way in the attorney general's office.

Nevertheless, the workings of our fabled jurisprudence system are way out of the Astros' control. But what was under their control -- two months ago, at least -- was their decision to trade for Tejada even though they knew the Mitchell report was going to be released the next day.

Miguel Tejada
Miguel Tejada is expected to bat fifth in the Astros' batting order this season.
Under any circumstances, many people would have questioned why the Astros gave up five players -- including three of their best young arms -- for Tejada, especially after a season in which his slugging percentage had dipped below .450 and his OPS had dropped under .800 for the first time in eight years. But under these particular circumstances, the second-guessing is still flying.

Asked Tuesday about the timing of this trade, Wade replied: "That question assumes that we were the only team involved with trying to get him. And I have pretty firm information that there was at least one other club that was seriously interested. So you can't just assume that if you wait a day, that trade would still be there."

But there were other moving parts as well, Wade said. The Astros had to decide within 24 hours whether to tender a contract to their previous shortstop, Adam Everett. Plus, the names in the Tejada deal "continued to shift back and forth," he said, every time they talked to the Orioles.

And the big complication with that was the fact that the Astros were simultaneously working on a 3-for-1 trade with Arizona that eventually brought them closer Jose Valverde -- a deal the Astros felt they had to make in the wake of previously dealing closer Brad Lidge to the Phillies.

"So there were reasons to go ahead and make this deal, based on the baseball information that was available," Wade said. "Everybody could have assumed what was in the Mitchell report or what wasn't in the Mitchell report. But we didn't have advance knowledge of it. We sat in a conference room in Minute Maid Park and watched Sen. Mitchell on TV. And simultaneously, the actual report was being transmitted to the clubs on the computer."

But given the rampant speculation about Tejada's potential inclusion, wasn't there still a case to be made for waiting? Clearly, there was. But the Astros decided that this was a player they'd been pursuing for two years, as many of these same whispers hovered over him. So why would they change their minds now?

"Haven't there been other names mentioned in the Mitchell report who have signed as free agents in other places?" Wade asked, knowing full well there have. "Aren't there players who have been mentioned in the Mitchell report [who] are playing front-line, significant roles for other clubs this year? Haven't players mentioned in the Mitchell report been involved in trades or talked about in trades?

"The answer is yes," he said. "So we continue to try to do business from a baseball standpoint and do the right things for our club."

Those are reasonable answers, and defensible decisions. But even in these complicated times we live in, the way baseball works remains as basic as a takeout slide:

The Astros still need to live with the consequences of those decisions, on the field and off.

So we need to ask: Will people in Houston accept and embrace Miguel Tejada, a guy who at least loves to play baseball and plays, in Wade's words, "with tremendous charisma"?

Or have those people had enough of seeing their guys linked to performance-enhancing drugs, now that their once-beloved native sons, Pettitte and Roger Clemens, have been dragged through George Mitchell's quicksand pit?

We non-Houstonians don't have an easy feel for those answers. So we posed that question to a lifelong Houstonian, Astros first baseman Lance Berkman.

"You know what?" Berkman said. "I think all they care about is winning baseball games. … I don't really think that people care about all this stuff. I think they care that he plays hard, and he cares about winning baseball games. And if he makes us a better team, I think the fans in Houston will embrace him."

We should note here, by the way, that when Berkman says the media is overestimating how much people get worked up about the steroids mess, he isn't just another player voicing some half-baked opinion.

This, you might remember, is the same man who had the courage to say, after the Mitchell report's release, that baseball needs to seriously pursue blood tests that detect HGH. And that baseball would have been better off plowing the money it gave Mitchell into developing that blood test. And that anybody who wouldn't submit to blood testing must have "something to hide."

Miguel Tejada: Last 6 seasons

  2002-04 2005-07
BA .299 .311
HR 95 68
RBI 387 279
Won 2002 AL MVP with Oakland.
So obviously, Lance Berkman isn't your ordinary knucklehead. He isn't one of the many players looking around for the nearest sandbox to stick his head into. Clearly, he comprehends that this is an important issue for his sport.

He just believes the media cares about this topic way more than those millions of customers who keep buying tickets.

"I could be wrong about that," he said. "I don't know. I'm not out there on the streets taking a poll. But the people that I know, that I talk to about it, are sick of hearing it. They're like, 'Enough is enough.'"

And you wouldn't blame Berkman, or any of the guys in his locker room, if they felt the same way Tuesday. Here it was, the first day of spring training -- normally one of the best days of the year. And Berkman had just answered way more questions about Tejada, Clemens and Pettitte than he had about the state of the NL Central.

By our count, in fact, it was: 15 steroids-related questions to one pennant-race question. Sad.

At least, we told him, not too seriously, he never gets tired of answering those steroid questions.

"Oh no," he quipped. "It's fresh as the morning."

"Why don't we just watch 'Days of Our Lives'?" Berkman wondered. "Why don't we just make a reality series out of Major League Baseball?"

Good point. There are times, we admit, when baseball feels more like a reality series than a sport. Especially in these times. And extra especially this week, when many of us on the spring training trail find ourselves stuck in a veritable Mitchell Report Tour. From Andy Pettitte to Miguel Tejada to Paul Lo Duca. What a way to make a living, huh?

"One of these days," Berkman suggested hopefully, "there'll be another news story. I'm not sure what it will be. But surely, there'll be another story at some point."

Yeah. Surely. We can only hope. And pray.

But for now, we're all stuck with this story. And, in particular, the Houston Astros are stuck with this story. And just about nobody in the whole sport is stuck with this story more than Miguel Tejada is stuck with it.

So it was good he got a chance to work on dancing around those questions on day one of spring training -- because he'll be using those same dance moves all the way to October.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.