Hairston's first run is his last for while

Orioles second baseman breaks finger on slide, will miss 4 to 6 weeks

March 05, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The first inning of the first exhibition game seemed to unfold like a leadoff hitter's dream yesterday for Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston - single, stolen base, stolen base, run scored.

Hairston had almost single-handedly pronounced the Orioles' arrival into a new season, and he had done it against Florida Marlins ace Josh Beckett, the reigning World Series MVP. But the joy didn't even follow Hairston across home plate. When he stole third base with his second headfirst slide of the inning, he jammed his right ring finger against the foot of Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Hairston was taken for X-rays, which showed a fractured dislocation of the finger's second knuckle joint. The Orioles don't think he'll need surgery, but they expect him to miss four to six weeks, making him questionable, at best, for the season opener April 4.

"I feel for the kid, you know," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said after his team used a late-inning rally to defeat the Marlins, 6-5. "That's exactly what you're looking for: He gets on base, steals two bases, and something like this happens in the first game."

The Orioles were expected to go through spring training with Hairston battling Brian Roberts for the starting second base job, a situation that seemed destined to be resolved with a trade.

But Hairston's injury thrust Roberts back into the starting role, with the job of keeping the position warm, just as he did when Hairston missed more than three months last season with a broken bone in his right foot.

Roberts has been hobbled with back spasms for the past week, but Mazzilli expects him to return to the starting lineup today.

Second base is the one position where the Orioles have strong depth, but the injury still dampened the mood of an exhibition opener in which the team's big acquisitions shined. Rafael Palmeiro delivered a two-out single (scoring Hairston) in the first inning, and Miguel Tejada hit a home run off Beckett in the second inning to atone for a costly error.

"The last thing we want right now is to have a player get hurt," Tejada said. "[Hairston] played a great game. He got a base hit, and that's a triple. I don't want to see that happen, especially to him, he plays so hard."

Hairston, 27, came back from the doctor's office with a splint on the broken finger and a look of bewilderment on his face. Roberts saw Hairston, and immediately gave him a hug.

The two spent the offseason working out together in Scottsdale, Ariz., spitting on the concept that two people competing for the same job can't be friends.

Both Roberts and Hairston were hoping the Orioles would trade one or the other to another team that needed a starting second baseman this spring, so they could both have an everyday job in the big leagues.

Yesterday's news brought that possibility to a screeching halt.

"I guess that's why they didn't do anything [with trades] this winter," Roberts said. "It puts us in the same situation at the beginning of the season. I just feel for him, you know, shoot."

Hairston was on the verge of tears when he spoke to reporters.

"This hurts 10 times more than when I broke my foot," he said. "With the offseason I had, I worked so hard. ... But things happen. In this game, or this life, things happen. Unforeseen occurrences happen all the time."

Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said Hairston's finger was successfully put back into place after being dislocated. There is still a fracture above the knuckle, so he will spend the next 10 to 14 days in a splint before testing his range of motion and building himself back into playing shape.

Beattie didn't rule out surgery but said the team's medical staff didn't think Hairston would need it.

The injury left Hairston open to questions for deciding to use a headfirst slide instead of a feet-first slide. In the future, Hairston said, he may need to slide feet-first. But, he added, "I don't second-guess myself."

On the subject of headfirst slides, Beattie said, "I don't like them. You talk with players, some players don't feel comfortable doing the other slides, but they put themselves at risk when they do stuff like this, there's no doubt about it."

Mazzilli stood by Hairston's decision to go headfirst.

"I don't like it, but the guys, that's the way they run," Mazzilli said. "You going to tell Pete Rose not to slide headfirst? You can't fault [Hairston] at all on that."

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