New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada was born and raised in Panama, the home of career saves leader Mariano Rivera. But the Yankees' closer is not the future Hall of Famer who summons Tejada's inner fan-boy. Ask him to identify his favorite player growing up, and Tejada mentions the man with 3,000 career hits and that trademark jump throw from deep in the hole.
"Derek Jeter," Tejada says. "Every Friday or Saturday the Yankees games would be on, so I would watch every game. That was my favorite thing when I was a little kid."
Tejada is also a devotee of Venezuela native and 11-time Gold Glove award winner Omar Vizquel. At this incipient stage of his career, it's a pipedream to think he could have the impact of Jeter or the longevity of Vizquel. But if the early raves from his teammates mean anything, the kid definitely belongs.
When Jose Reyes followed a $106 million trail of breadcrumbs to Miami in December, it cleared the way for the Mets to fill their shortstop void from within. Tejada got off to a shaky start in spring training when his arrival from Panama was delayed by visa problems, prompting manager Terry Collins to share his disappointment with the media. Never mind that Tejada was arriving on time rather than early; in this case, the manager's definition of punctuality was the only one that mattered.
Once Collins aired his displeasure and Tejada pulled into Port St. Lucie, Fla., the tone of the conversation quickly changed. If you do a Google search, you'll find that was the last negative sentiment anybody uttered about the kid in Mets-land.
Barely two weeks into the season, Tejada is winning converts and generating impact moments by the day. He banged out four hits against Atlanta in the third game of the season, and drove in three runs and scored the game-winner on a Buster Posey throwing error in a 5-4 victory over San Francisco on Saturday. Tejada shares the league lead with seven doubles, and he has shown admirable patience and a knack for making pitchers work.
Tejada is tied for 11th in the NL with an average of 4.18 pitches per plate appearance, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, he's third in the majors with 15 full counts this season. He's hitting .454 (5-for-11) with four walks when the count is 3-2. With his penchant for eyeballing pitches just off the corner, his approach is more reminiscent of, say, Edgardo Alfonzo than Jose Reyes.
Along with an evolving bat, Tejada has a steady glove and a steadier disposition. His demeanor is the same whether he's taking ground balls at 5 o'clock or fielding an in-between hop in the ninth inning with the tying run on third base and 40,000 people in the stands.
"The thing I've found so remarkable about Ruben is that he's completely comfortable in his own skin,'' says Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey. "That speaks volumes for his maturity. He doesn't care if you want him to be Jose Reyes or not. He's gonna be himself, and that's good enough. There's something really refreshing about that.
"He also has good aptitude. He listens to guys who are older than him. He takes counsel well. He doesn't think that he knows it all. He doesn't have an ego, or he has enough of one to play well yet be teachable. There's a fine line there. He's good. I think he's the real deal.''
The website Baseball-reference.com lists Tejada as one of 48 big leaguers born in Panama. The country has produced sluggers (Carlos Lee and Ben Oglivie), speedsters (Roberto Kelly and Omar Moreno), respected receivers (Manny Sanguillen and Carlos Ruiz) and a smattering of pitchers (Rivera, Juan Berenguer, Bruce Chen and Ramiro Mendoza being the most prominent), but the Panamanian middle infield ranks are a little sparse. Rennie Stennett, who amassed 1,239 hits in 11 seasons at second base with Pittsburgh and San Francisco, is the best of the bunch.
Tejada grew up in the Veraguas province, in Panama's western half. His father, Ruben, is a mechanic, and his mother, Donaji, works as a secretary. He has a brother, Ernie, age 9. The Mets signed Tejada as an international free agent in July 2006, and he made it to the Gulf Coast League at age 17 and played for Panama in the World Baseball Classic in 2009.
For years, scouts have been convinced that Tejada has the fundamentals, range and strong, accurate arm to be an exceptional big league defender. As one NL talent evaluator points out, he has a better "nose for the ball" than Reyes ever had.
Tejada's biggest improvement has come at the plate. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, he's strong enough to do some damage when pitchers try to knock the bat out of his hands with hard stuff on the inner half. Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who has the luxury of kneeling in the on-deck circle when Tejada works all those deep counts, has seen a significant change in the past year or two.
We always knew [Ruben] could defend and get on base. He showed that last year. Now he's starting to come into his own and drive the ball. He's really starting to understand who he is as a player.
”-- Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy
"We always knew he could defend and get on base," Murphy says. "He showed that last year. Now he's starting to come into his own and drive the ball. He's really starting to understand who he is as a player. The exciting part for me is that he's just going to get better."
Tejada lacks Reyes' personal cachet, raw speed and dynamic approach to the game, but his dependability and solid all-around play could wear well with Mets die-hards over the long haul. If he can make all the routine plays and come in slightly above his .270 batting average and .340 OBP in 451 minor league games, it could be the foundation for a successful run at Citi Field.
"He has big shoes to fill, but he's got the perfect temperament to do what he's doing right now," Mets third baseman David Wright says. "I've heard him say, 'Look, I'm not Jose Reyes. I'm not trying to be Jose Reyes.' But a lot of times, at the end of the day, the fans don't want to hear that. The fans want him to be able to fill the shoes that Jose did."
When Tejada made the big leagues out of spring training two years ago at 20 years, 5 months, he was the youngest player to crack the Mets' Opening Day roster since Tim Foli in 1971. At the time, Reyes was something of a mentor and a sounding board. Even though Reyes has departed for Miami, the two shortstops stay in touch.
"He was a great teammate," Tejada says. "He loves this game. He would say to me every day, 'Go out there and give it 100 percent. If you have a bad day, go out there the next day and keep your head up.' That was big for me. He helped me a lot."
Tejada is still grateful for the advice, but he's self-assured enough to avoid the trap of chasing organizational ghosts. In the end, it's a waste of time trying to make people forget Jose Reyes. He has enough on his plate trying to make them remember Ruben Tejada.