Hairston handles tough play - sitting

Orioles: Displaced a year after replacing another, the second baseman goes with the pitch, for now.

July 02, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Jerry Hairston remembers being the young infielder, the creases in his skin from all those long bus rides in the minors barely faded, who took the second base job from an Orioles veteran.

He expected double plays to be turned, not the tables.

Hairston still qualifies as young at age 26, but he's no longer a starter. In fewer than two full seasons, he went from being Delino DeShields' successor to mostly a backup for Brian Roberts.

Recalled from Triple-A Rochester on May 21, Roberts has started 21 games at second base and six more as the designated hitter going into tonight's series opener in Anaheim. Leg cramps put him on the bench twice last week, but manager Mike Hargrove returned Roberts to the lineup Saturday after the last knot had loosened.

It wasn't like this for Hairston in Little League or high school. It wasn't like this at Southern Illinois, from which the Orioles drafted him in the 11th round in 1997, or during his rise through the farm system. The third generation in his family to reach the majors, Hairston always had played wherever he has been.

"I'm used to being the guy," he said, "so it's been a little awkward."

Hairston finds it challenging to define his role when he doesn't have one. He isn't chained to the bench or moved around like a utility infielder. He has made 47 starts in 79 games, compared with 27 by Roberts in six weeks.

"It's just one of those things where I get myself ready to play, and if I'm in there, I'm in there. And if I'm not, I'm not," he said. "I really don't look at it as any role. My goal when I come to the ballpark is to get better that day. That's my game plan."

It's been slow to evolve. Made the leadoff hitter out of spring training, Hairston batted .211 in April while tumbling to the bottom of the order. His average has improved to .241, compared with .252 for Roberts, and his suicide squeeze bunt in the seventh inning won Tuesday's game against New York.

Who's second best?

"When Brian got here, I gave him a lot of consecutive at-bats to get his feet on the ground and get something going," Hargrove said. "When I've put Jerry in games, he's given us good at-bats. Jerry's played very well, and I really respect the way he handled this. A lot of people wouldn't have handled it as well as Jerry did. ...

"Competition's always good for anybody. And I really think they do push each other. This is the first time Jerry's had somebody try to take his job. Jerry and Brian have always been the guys trying to take jobs from older players. The competition isn't a bad thing. It's bringing out the best in both of them."

But how long can this last? Though both began as shortstops, Hargrove views them as second basemen. Roberts, a supplemental pick in 1999 whose arm is better suited for the right side of the infield, had his name surface in trade talks with St. Louis last winter, and the Orioles are willing to move Hairston.

If it means a regular gig somewhere else, Hairston would welcome a deal.

"Everyday somewhere else, no question about it," he said. "I'm an everyday player. That's just how it is. It's something I can deal with right now. I haven't accepted it, but I deal with it. All I can do is stay positive and continue to support my team. I just keep telling myself it's not going to be for long."

Said shortstop Mike Bordick: "With young players, you have to make sure you take advantage of the opportunities. We've got a couple of real good, young second basemen. Whether they're both going to be playing with the Orioles for a long time or someone else for a long time, I think they're both going to be in the big leagues."

Syd Thrift, vice president for baseball operations, doesn't seem to be in any rush to make a decision, though the July 31 waiver deadline approaches.

"Sometimes if you let time be your ally, things always seem to work out," Thrift said. "There are a whole scenario of things that could happen. One of them could get much better than the other or if both become superior and one becomes available for a possible trade.

"I've seen Jerry take ground balls at shortstop. There are a lot of unknowns in this picture. And I like this picture."

Not taking the lead

Life would have been much easier for Hairston if he could have latched onto the leadoff spot with both hands - the same ones that enable him to make so many dazzling plays at second. He batted .315 with a .400 on-base percentage this spring, but fell into bad habits at the plate once the games began to count. He arrived in Anaheim yesterday with a .301 on-base percentage - compared with .305 last season, when he led the Orioles with 532 at-bats.

"You take a look at Gary Matthews. Here's a guy who struggled bad for a couple years, and finally the light came on," Hairston said, snapping his fingers. "You've just got to keep persevering and battling."

As for the positive attitude Hargrove spoke of, Hairston said he chooses not to worry about "stuff you can't control."

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