Saturday, August 6, 2005

The careers of Mark Teixeira and Rafael Palmeiro collided at a crossroads in Arlington, Texas, two years ago. It is safe to say their lives have taken markedly divergent paths since.

Teixeira, who grew up near Baltimore in Severna Park, Md., switched from third base to replace the popular and accomplished Palmeiro as the Texas Rangers’ regular first baseman in 2003. Some of the veterans didn’t like the rookie taking over, but that’s baseball. Last season Teixeira, with 38 home runs and 112 RBI, emerged as a prime slugger. Palmeiro, nearing the end of his career, had 23 homers and 88 RBI for the Orioles.

They shared the same field last week at Camden Yards. Playing before family and friends in Baltimore, Teixeira (pronounced Te-SHARE-a) hit a home run in one of the games. He also got to meet President Bush, who once owned the Rangers.

It also was a good weekend — perhaps the last — for Palmeiro, whose achievement of reaching 3,000 hits was hailed by a banner hanging on the B&O Warehouse beyond right field. But after this week’s news that Palmeiro had tested positive for steroids, the banner was taken down.

Meanwhile, Teixeira’s skies are totally sunny. He homered in last month’s All-Star Game and is near the top of the American League in home runs (29) and RBI (87). The 25-year-old switch-hitter is big, strong and smart, and people who know him say he is even better off the field. His future seems limitless.

“That’s what’s scary,” said Rangers manager Buck Showalter.

Showalter described Teixeira as “driven.” Teixeira would agree.

“I expect a lot out of myself,” he said. “It’s not enough just to get to the big leagues. Every goal you set for yourself, after you reach it, you set another goal. You continue to set goals for yourself because if you become satisfied, you’re gonna stop working and then your career is over.”

Teixeira was drafted fifth overall out of Georgia Tech in 2001. (Remarkably, Severna Park neighbor Gavin Floyd, a high school pitcher whose brother is one of Teixeira’s best friends, was picked fourth by Philadelphia.) He starred in college as a third baseman, but the Rangers already had Hank Blalock. So he changed positions without dissent and learned on the job.

“It took me a year to get comfortable,” he said. Today, he is a leading Gold Glove candidate.

“He could have taken moving to first base as an excuse to not be a good defender,” Showalter said. “He took it the other way. You would never think that he is not a first baseman.”

Teixeira’s game isn’t without holes. For example, he has only one home run batting right-handed, not counting the All-Star blast. That will change, Showalter said, as he better learns his swing. And he is learning to be more selective.

Teixeira, well aware of his shortcomings, avidly studies tape and works with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.

“A lot of the game is mental,” Teixeira said. “You can’t get by just on talent. What separates the best hitters in the game is their approach at the plate. A lot of guys, you watch batting practice and you say, ‘Look at his power, look at his hands, his swing is beautiful.’ But they get in games, they swing at pitches in the dirt, swing at pitches over their heads.”

Rangers outfielder David Dellucci was playing for the New York Yankees in 2003 when he met the Rangers rookie during a brief chat at first base.

“He seemed like a genuine guy,” Dellucci said. “He’s proved that correct.”

Teixeira “has a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the game,” said Dellucci. “He’s a student of the game. He respects where he is, and knows an awful lot about the history of baseball.”

Said Showalter: “He must have had a great upbringing. His mom and dad must be pretty special. He’s grounded, polished, but humble. He wants to be the best he can be for the right reasons, not selfish reasons. He knows a lot of people are gonna be dependent on him. … He’s the real deal. What you see is what you get.”

His parents are John (who, like Mark, answers to “Tex”) and Margy Teixeira. John graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and was a Navy pilot. At Hialeah (Fla.) High School, he was a friend and teammate of Bucky Dent, who played and managed in the majors and is best known for his home run that helped the Yankees beat Boston for the American League East title in a 1978 one-game playoff.

Baseball is in Teixeira’s blood. His father was an outstanding prep player and his uncle, Pete, played in the Braves’ organization. Margy’s dad and four of his brothers also played professionally. “He’s fulfilling their legacy,” she said.

No wonder that Margy said Mark at an early age announced he would be a major leaguer. When he was 3 and the family would go see the Orioles play at Memorial Stadium, he was the one toddler raptly watching the game.

“You know how kids are running around all the time?” Margy said. “He literally wouldn’t move.”

Mark was an uncommonly mature youngster, according to his mom, as was his sister, Elizabeth, who has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Margy noted that when her son was in eighth grade and wanted to attend the prestigious and pricey Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore, he was told he had to find a way to make it work. So he earned one of the few scholarships available.

“He was always very disciplined,” she said.

Teixeira also has been tempered by adversity, more than the type brought on by a broken ankle in college or an injured elbow during his first spring training. Margy is a 10-year breast cancer survivor, and John suffered a brain tumor in 2003. He lost the hearing in his left ear but is fine otherwise. But the biggest blow occurred when Mark’s best friend in high school was killed in a car crash.

Teixeira has said how the tragedy helped enable him to separate the game from real life, but he is uncomfortable discussing the subject. His mother, who is recovering from spinal fusion surgery, said it affected him deeply.

“That really changed his life,” she said. “It really did. At that age, you don’t know what your mortality is. To lose your best friend … Mark doesn’t talk a lot about it, even to me. He carries a lot inside him. I don’t know how to explain it. It just changed him. He realized how quickly life can be taken away. That whole time of his life was very traumatic.”

Teixeira endured.

“We have a lot of faith,” Margy Teixeira said. “A lot of faith, a lot of friends and a lot of support.”

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