Kids reward O's, when given a shot

July 05, 1999|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK -- The Orioles' season is in tatters, but at least they're finally giving some young players a chance.

Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson are pulling their weight in the starting rotation, and Jerry Hairston is giving a good impression of a major-league second baseman while standing in for Delino DeShields, who is out with a hamstring injury.

The Orioles haven't gambled on young players in years, especially since Peter G. Angelos bought the team and instituted a veterans- or-bust policy also known as the Norm Charlton Principle.

But they're finally giving it a shot, however grudgingly, and -- surprise -- it's adding a rare redeeming quality to their nightmarish season.

Johnson, 25, and Ponson, 22, matched the Yankees' David Cone and Orlando Hernandez pitch for pitch in losses Friday and Saturday, and Hairston, 23, handled eight chances flawlessly in yesterday's 7-3 win, which ended the Orioles' 10-game losing streak.

"Kid played a heck of a game," manager Ray Miller said of Hairston. "He's a live body out there. I like him. He can play."

He should keep playing when DeShields returns, even though he's hitting only .226 after going 0-for-4 yesterday.

DeShields won't be easy to trade -- not a single contender needs a second baseman, especially one in the first year of a three-year, $12.5 million contract -- but the Orioles need to find a way to make room for Hairston in the lineup.

Having failed to develop an everyday position player since Cal Ripken, they need to do it just to prove they can, for starters.

Goodness knows the organization could stand some success in that area, for a change.

They also have nothing to lose as they approach the All-Star break in last place in the American League East, going nowhere with a 33-47 record.

"Obviously, I'd love to stay up here," Hairston said yesterday. "I feel really comfortable."

It shows. When the veterans stole his clothes out of his locker after Saturday's loss and forced him to ride back to the hotel wearing a purple Ravens uniform, complete with a helmet and shoulder pads -- a typical hazing stunt -- he smiled and went along with the joke. Remember when Armando Benitez refused and almost quit the team? Hairston is more mature.

More importantly, he has a hustling, heads-up playing style, which the Orioles certainly could use. He's still developing as a hitter, but he's smart, he can handle a bat and his defense is superb. Few major-leaguers would have stopped Scott Brosius' wicked line drive in the second inning yesterday.

"At my age, I feel like I should be learning at the major-league level," Hairston said.

It wouldn't be a problem if the club hadn't signed DeShields last winter, layering over Hairston in a typical, shortsighted move.

"In defense of [general manager] Frank Wren and Bruce [Manno, assistant GM], they hadn't seen me play," Hairston said. "They didn't know what kind of player I was."

They do now. Hairston is exactly the kind who tends to bloom when given a chance.

Yes, the Orioles have refrained from taking such risks before, but if they aren't starting to realize the benefits now, they aren't paying attention.

It all started with Ponson, who has developed into one of the AL's best young starting pitchers, all because he was grudgingly given a chance a year ago.

He'd thrown only 74 2/3 innings at Double-A Bowie coming into the '98 season, but injuries to Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki left the Orioles desperate for starting pitching, and instead of following their usual course of patching in a marginal veteran, they threw Ponson into the rotation and left him alone to fail or succeed.

Now, he's set in the rotation for years to come, an invaluable asset.

The same thing could be happening with Johnson, who threw seven strong innings against the Yankees on Friday night, cleverly mixing three pitches and consistently challenging hitters on the inside half of the plate. Miller labeled the performance "just outstanding."

Don't be fooled by Johnson's stats, which aren't that impressive (1-3, 6.39 ERA). The Orioles like what they see.

It's hard to imagine what the Devil Rays were thinking when they gave up Johnson last spring in exchange for outfielder Danny Clyburn, a marginal major-league prospect at best. The Orioles usually are on the other end of such deals.

Give Wren credit for making a shrewd deal with little downside potential.

Watching the three young players thrive under pressure is one of the few pleasant sights the Orioles are offering these days, one of the few positive developments in an otherwise terrible season.

They don't have many other prospects ready for such a chance, of course. Calvin Pickering and Ryan Minor need more time in the minors, as does pitching phenom Matt Riley. Cutting through the Orioles' maze of long-term contracts and no-trade clauses and finding playing time for anyone is a challenge.

But after watching Ponson, Johnson and Hairston develop, the front office is crazy not to start taking more chances on young players from now on.

It's about time.

Pub Date: 7/05/99

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