Second helping tops menu of O's Hairston, Gibbons

No longer rookies, they need to produce

March 16, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston knows the honeymoon is finished.

Making the big leagues is no longer good enough. Now it's time to make it.

Hairston has already played a full season in the majors. His expectations are higher. His eyes aren't as wide.

Sometimes, Hairston talks about this with Jay Gibbons, a second-year player making a strong bid for the Orioles' everyday right-field job.

The Orioles need big seasons from both of these 25-year-olds, and Hairston willingly accepts that.

"Last year, a lot of guys were in their first full season," Hairston said. "And then when the veteran guys went down [with injuries] - David Segui, Pat Hentgen and Mike Bordick - it really spread us too thin.

"A lot of the young guys were thrown into the fire, so to speak. We took our lumps. But I'll tell you what, we're stronger because of it."

Hairston hit .233 last season and committed 19 errors at second base. Gibbons hit 15 home runs before breaking the hamate bone in his right hand, ending his rookie season after just 225 at-bats.

They were both impressionable, especially Gibbons, who had never before played above Double-A. Hairston had played parts of three previous seasons in the big leagues, but there were still cities and ballparks he hadn't seen.

The major leagues had welcomed Gibbons and Hairston with open arms, and in some ways they felt like visitors, just happy to be there.

"Every player has a period like that," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "But that period doesn't last very long. If you're happy to be here, that doesn't keep you here. I think everybody needs to recognize that. And these guys do. Certainly, with their work habits and their work ethic, it seems they've learned that."

This spring Hairston has thrived in the leadoff role, reaching base at a .500 clip after going 2-for-3 in last night's game against the New York Mets. Besides hitting well, Hairston has drawn six walks and been hit with a pitch three times, helping put him in position to steal four bases.

Gibbons, meanwhile, has emerged as a powerful left-handed bat in the middle of the Orioles' lineup. Against the Mets, in what could be an Opening Day preview, Hargrove slotted Gibbons fifth in the batting order, between the right-handed-hitting Jeff Conine and Marty Cordova.

"If they're going to play us," Gibbons said, "it's definitely time to perform. We want to be here a long time. We don't just want to be given a chance. We want to produce so we can sit in this locker room 10 years from now."

Only one of their current teammates has been with the club for seven years: Scott Erickson, who came over from Minnesota in 1995.

One year after Cal Ripken's retirement, this Orioles team has no superstars. Collectively, the players have made six appearances in the All-Star Game, including Bordick (one appearance), Conine (two) and Hentgen (three).

"For us to have success, a lot of things are going to have to fall into place," Bordick said. "For those two guys [Hairston and Gibbons], they're out there every day, and they've got to do the things they're capable of doing. I think the fact they got that full year under their belts is going to help them.

"Jay could hit 30, maybe 40, home runs the way he's swinging. And he's going to hit for average, too. And as a leadoff hitter this spring, Jerry's being more selective, getting on base. So he's got the potential to steal 40 bases."

The lofty expectations don't stop there.

Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations, said he sees things in Gibbons and Hairston that he once saw in a young Barry Bonds and a young Rickey Henderson.

"They want to be good," Thrift said. "Every player I've ever been around that became outstanding had those goals at the beginning. I had Bonds at the beginning. I had Rickey Henderson in the very beginning. All those guys had special goals. Bonds wanted to be a Hall of Fame player. He wanted to do a lot of positive things as a hitter and be a total player. Henderson wanted to set a record for total runs scored."

Thrift is careful not to call this a make-or-break season for any of his young players. But others have to wonder how patient this team will be with an established younger player such as Hairston or Sidney Ponson, another 25-year-old who is 14-23 over the past two seasons.

In Major League Baseball, prospects can quickly turn to suspects.

"As you're coming up," veteran Conine said, "you're always told it's tough to get to the big leagues. And tougher to stay. If you're a really good prospect, you can get away with having off-years and not producing for a while in the minor leagues. But once you get up here, you've got to do it. The writing is on the wall. They don't wait that long."

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