On July 28, Miguel Tejada was a baseball geriatric suffering through his worst offensive season in a decade who could not be trusted to play shortstop for a team 33½ games out of first place. On July 29, for reasons many could not comprehend, he was a wanted man. And on July 30, after being traded by the Orioles, he started at shortstop for the first-place Padres, batted cleanup behind Adrian Gonzalez and did something he hadn't done in six years: played a meaningful game.
Tejada, 36, does not simply crave the spotlight, he pretends to manufacture it, lifting a hand over his head after big hits, as if to illuminate himself with his palm. The Padres wondered what he could accomplish if the spotlight were real. When Tejada left Baltimore, he was batting .269 with a .670 OPS, playing out the string on his season, his 13th in the big leagues, and perhaps his career. Through 21 games in San Diego, he was batting .276 with a .735 OPS and showing range at shortstop that hasn't been seen since Moneyball first made the best-seller list.
"I don't think it can last," says one National League scout—but then again, that's what everybody has said about the Padres all summer. When Tejada arrived, they were clinging to a 3½-game lead on the Giants in the NL West, with the Dodgers and the Rockies looming. Through Sunday, they led the Giants by six, with the Dodgers and the Rockies in the dust. Pitching remains the Padres' hallmark, but with Tejada and outfielder Ryan Ludwick acquired at the trading deadline, they no longer need shutouts to win.
The pennant race clearly agrees with Tejada, though he might have forgotten how it feels. After leading the A's to four straight playoff berths from 2000 to '03, he signed a six-year contract with the Orioles, which guaranteed him $72 million and almost that many losses. In four seasons with the Orioles, he finished an average of 24½ games out of first; in two seasons with the Astros, to whom he was traded before the 2008 season, the average was 14 games out. "We thought there was a good chance we could energize him," says Padres general manager Jed Hoyer.
G.M.'s often talk about newly acquired players benefiting from a change of scenery; this was more about a change in standings. "I'm a better player in this kind of situation," says Tejada, who returned to Baltimore last winter on a one-year, $6 million free-agent deal. "Every ball, every walk, every hit is so important. I didn't know if it would happen for me again. Being here is the best thing that's happened to me in a long time."
The Padres have employed many players who have treated San Diego as a retirement home, which helps explain some of the eye rolls that initially greeted Tejada, who was so limited at shortstop last season that the Orioles used him only at third base this year. Ludwick, who arrived from the Cardinals two days after Tejada and took over the cleanup spot, was billed as San Diego's big trade-deadline prize. But Tejada did not view San Diego as a place to start retirement so much as a place to fend it off. Since the spring he had been working with a personal trainer every day to stay lean in hopes that a contender would need a shortstop.
Although San Diego was reluctant to compromise its sterling defense, shortstop Everth Cabrera was batting .199 at the time of the trade and backup Jerry Hairston Jr. had moved to second base with David Eckstein nursing a strained calf. The plan was to start Tejada at short only until Eckstein returned and then deploy him as a utilityman. But Tejada has essentially won the job, the latest in a litany of unexpected developments at Petco Park. It's hard to say what is more surprising: the notion of the Padres in the playoffs, or the notion of Tejada starting at shortstop for the Padres in the playoffs. The spotlight, dark for so long, has settled on both of them.