This spring, Hairston's fancy is turning to trade theories

March 01, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - How does Jerry Hairston know it's spring? Easy.

"It seems like Brian and I have been battling for second base for like 15 years now. That's what it seems like anyway," Hairston said.

Good thing Hairston and Brian Roberts are such good friends. Hairston jokes about their being connected at the hip and says they'll be friends longer than they'll be ballplayers, but there's a look in his eye that makes you realize he wouldn't mind moving out of this orbit, especially considering the possibilities.

Like, what if Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter understood the best way to quell the inevitable chatter about his being inferior to Alex Rodriguez was to get a guy at second he can rely on?

Hairston's range, especially to the left, is what the scouts call better than average. He has a quick first step. He has polish and desire, stuff that means something to Captain Jeter.

What if Jeter's clout with the Yankees is the kind that makes George Steinbrenner listen?

What if Steinbrenner "owes" Jeter for the A-Rod trade, which will put relentless heat on Jeter to play the best defense of his career?

Maybe Jeter now demands a second baseman who's not Enrique Wilson or Miguel Cairo and who's an upgrade over the departed Alfonso Soriano.

What if Jeter and Hairston shared the same agent, which they do in Casey Close?

What if Hairston and Jeter have shared a few dinners?

What if Jeter has done what any shortstop would do when dining with a second baseman? It's only natural. You wonder what it would be like, turning two together, hitting next to each other in the order.

Heck, Roberts and Hairston used to do it all the time, when Roberts was a shortstop and Hairston was the Orioles' primary second base prospect.

"We talked about how we'd be running all over the field," Hairston said. "That's what we had envisioned, not that we'd be competing against each other all the time. But this is just how it is."

Now the Orioles have Miguel Tejada, as well they should. Now any talk about Roberts at shortstop is over. Hairston and Roberts might have liked the idea of turning double plays at Camden Yards, but they're not a tandem that can generate the pop and power of anyone paired with Tejada.

The plans, in other words, are set for a new direction.

Orioles vice president Jim Beattie has already said trading with the Yankees is not out of the realm of possibility. So what that Yankees general manager Brian Cashman "doesn't anticipate" any deals for second basemen right now? They didn't anticipate any deals for third, either.

So now, what if you were Hairston and you knew the Yankees really might consider a deal for a second baseman? It might behoove you to begin to accept the idea of being traded.

More to the point, if you were Hairston, a 27-year-old leadoff hitter entering the prime of your career and you swear you do not try to hit home runs, you even might start to anticipate a move.

Having commenced yet another spring of competing with Roberts, you might even find yourself wondering when, not if, it's going to happen.

Why?

The Evil Empire may be evil to the Red Sox and any baseball franchise that wants to say it can't win a World Series because Steinbrenner has thrown competitive balance out of whack.

But for an eager second baseman who sees his current club stocked with second basemen such as Roberts and minor league prospect Mike Fontenot, the mind starts to wander - and wonder.

"There's this rumor going around that the Yankees need a second baseman," Hairston said.

The Yankees lost Soriano to the Rangers in the Rodriguez trade. They've penciled in Wilson at the position for now. But the Yankees being the Yankees, who traded Nick Johnson to the Expos for pitcher Javier Vazquez, there's reasonable speculation Steinbrenner will tell Cashman to make a run at Expos second baseman Jose Vidro.

What Hairston would not want to see happen is for the Yankees to get Vidro and the Orioles to work a deal with the Expos. Of course, the Expos would probably like Roberts, if only because his salary is just over the league minimum while Hairston's is $1.65 million.

In any case, the Yankees may be unwilling to settle for a .230 hitter like Wilson and could look to the Orioles.

"That's all I've been hearing, but that's something I have no control over. All I can do is prepare myself to play 162 games. I hope it's here in Baltimore, and at the same time, I do realize it's a business, too," Hairston said.

The Yankees' lineup doesn't require them to have an offensive impact player at second. Then again, the loss of Soriano in the leadoff spot and now the loss of Bernie Williams to an emergency appendectomy eliminates a left fielder/designated hitter option for Joe Torre - at least at the start of the season.

Because the Yankees are gluttonous, how could they not at least ponder a lineup that kicks off with Kenny Lofton or Hairston, or Hairston gets the nine hole, with Lofton and Hairston giving speed on the base paths ahead of the big hitters such as Jeter, Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada?

Hairston had a .387 on-base percentage and American League-leading 14 stolen bases before his May 20 broken foot. Now his foot has healed.

"Like nothing ever happened to it," Hairston said.

Which means the annual competition with Roberts is back on. Or is it?

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