For Cubs' Hairston, playing in Windy City is a breeze

Ex-Oriole: Jerry Hairston doesn't mind playing for a team he rooted against while growing up in Chicago.

Baseball

April 01, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MESA, Ariz. -- Jerry Hairston knew last summer that he would probably be playing elsewhere this season. From the moment Brian Roberts returned from the injured list and Hairston was moved from second base to the outfield, Hairston figured that his days as an Oriole were numbered.

When he was finally traded in early February to the Chicago Cubs in the deal that sent Sammy Sosa to the Orioles, Hairston looked at it as a chance to play regularly in the city in which he grew up. It's one of baseball's oddities that Hairston is so comfortable putting on the uniform of a team he usually rooted against as a kid.

Asked last month if it seemed strange to him to be a Cub when he grew up a White Sox fan, Hairston smiled.

"No, it's not at all," he said while getting dressed to play an exhibition game at HoHoKam Park. "The great thing about it is that Chicago is fortunate to have two teams to cheer for. I'm going back to the city I grew up in, and we have to win if we stay healthy. I feel very fortunate."

Hairston's baseball roots in Chicago run deep, dating to when his grandfather, Sam, became the first African-American player signed by the White Sox in 1951. His father, Jerry Sr., played for the White Sox during a 14-year major league career, and his uncle, John, played for the Cubs for three games in that forgettable (for Cubs fans) summer of 1969.

"It's going to be really exciting. A lot of my friends are Cubs fans," said the younger Hairston, now 28. "It's going to be something I'm going to look forward to, but at the same time I have to really focus and concentrate on my job. That's first and foremost. It could become a distraction if you're not careful."

Hairston would like to reverse the trend of a seemingly star-crossed career, just by staying healthy. His injuries the past two seasons opened the door for Roberts to establish himself as the Orioles' second baseman, a position once held by Hairston.

"In 2003 I was leading the league in stolen bases and had a chance to go to the All-Star Game, and I got hurt," Hairston said. "Last year, I still felt like I had a good year, hit over .300 [.303 in 86 games], which was one of my goals. I really felt I improved. The injury bug kind of hit me, but I'm not going to let it affect me."

Though Hairston is recovered from the injuries that forced him out of the lineup for long stretches the past two seasons -- a broken bone in his right foot in 2003, a broken knuckle on his right hand and a broken left ankle last season -- his situation with the Cubs is similarly tenuous to what it was in Baltimore.

Hairston, who is batting .367 this spring, spent the bulk of spring training being shifted between second base, where Todd Walker seems to be holding on to the position he played last season, and the outfield, where the Cubs have a plethora of players but have also had a rash of injuries.

"They've been really giving me a good look, and I've thought I played pretty well," Hairston said. "That's the one thing about here. They give you the opportunity to excel. We have a great team, too. I'm hoping to be a part of it and have a great season."

Just as he didn't look at Roberts as competition -- the two remain close friends and are offseason neighbors in nearby Scottsdale -- Hairston doesn't see Walker or any of the outfielders as an obstacle to success.

"I never looked at it that way. My competition is the guy who has the ball on the mound," said Hairston, a career .261 hitter. "That's who I'm hitting against. I did everything I could [in Baltimore]. When I was healthy, I did my job. I have no problem with my performance. When you're teammates, you're teammates."

The Cubs seem happy to have Hairston, who is viewed as a player who can be an energizer at the top of the batting order and someone with the versatility and experience to help fill gaps when others are hurt.

Said outfielder Derrek Lee, "He's a player, it's as simple as that. He can hit, run, play defense, he can play just about any position. He brings a lot of energy to the table, he loves to play, he has fun playing and he's just a great player to have on your team."

It is also a matter of Hairston staying healthy enough to be available.

Does the player called "Junior" have to change his aggressive style, which contributed to his injuries, particularly the broken ankle he suffered crashing into an outfield wall while trying to chase down what turned out to be a home run? Or does he simply need to be a little luckier?

"I've always played the game the right way. I've played the game hard, and I don't want to change that," Hairston said. "Maybe I can tone it down, be a little bit more smarter, but I do like to play hard. That's the way I've always known how to do it. Maybe I can pull the reins in on certain occasions, but still play the game the right way."

As long as Hairston is playing, even in the outfield, he said he will feel as if he's making a contribution.

"I feel really comfortable, especially in center field," said Hairston, who played 15 games there last season. "I would prefer to play second. I feel I'm one of the better defensive second basemen in the league, but for the time being, I'll do whatever Dusty [Baker] wants me to do."

Baker, the Cubs' manager, understands that Hairston will likely not reach his potential if he continues to move around.

"At this point, we're going to get him in whenever and wherever we can fit in," Baker said. "It's hard to take away what Todd Walker's done, it's hard to take away what Holly [center fielder Todd Hollandsworth] did or what Jeromy Burnitz has done in his career, You can never have too many players."

Said Hairston: "I'm used to playing every day. I've always been an everyday player. That makes it easier, too. I don't know what's going to happen here. That's something that's out of my hands. All I can do is what I can do. Dusty is going to fill his lineup up, and I'm just going to be ready."

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