FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A degree of suspense entered the Orioles' clubhouse yesterday but checked any sense of tension at the door.
Jerry Hairston and Delino DeShields stepped inside to be greeted by a supposedly uncertain situation at second base. Hairston brandished youthful exuberance. DeShields spoke with a veteran's calm cut by last season's lingering hurt.
Beginning with today's first official workout by position players, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove begins sorting out a position that last year featured a mix of injury, bad feelings and discovery.
DeShields addressed his situation for the first time since early last season, when a crush of hand, back and leg injuries limited him to 96 games in the first season of a three-year, $12.5 million contract. Well aware of the club's efforts to trade him to make way for Hairston, DeShields referred to it as motivation.
"Probably my only goal this year is to play well enough to be mentioned in trade rumors in July," said DeShields, who last year labored to a .264 average, 11 steals and 46 runs while confronted by sundry injuries, a skeptical manager and an impatient public.
"If they're talking about trading me in July, I know I'm [playing well]. That's probably my only goal this year."
At 23, Hairston, a third-generation major-leaguer, said unflinchingly, "I think I need to make my improvements at the big-league level."
With little suspense to go around this camp, the DeShields-Hairston issue represents a rare source for debate. Neither player endorses the term "competition."
"It's not like going one-on-one on a basketball court," said Hairston. "Going head-to-head you really can't do that on a baseball field. I'm approaching it as getting ready for the season and playing 162 games. That's what spring training is all about."
Said DeShields: "This is my 11th year in the big leagues. I'll play someplace this year. Whether it's here or Milwaukee, it doesn't matter. I'm going to play somewhere. It's not me against Jerry Hairston."
Hargrove confirmed yesterday that DeShields wins all ties this spring. Pressed, the manager added that DeShields, 31, wins a close call as well.
"He gets the benefit of the doubt. And I think that's only fair," said Hargrove. "If Delino DeShields is healthy as I've been told that he is and he's ready to play as I've been told that he is. I think given what he's done in the past he's a very exciting player who can help us win. That's what it's all about. I think it's only fair to give the veteran incumbent the benefit of the doubt."
Added Hargrove: "I don't want any of these guys to be in the dark or in any gray area about what their situation is with this club."
Manager and player spoke briefly yesterday. More talk will follow. Yet DeShields' disposition as he left the clubhouse suggested a mental makeover from last season's forced march.
The protracted winter that followed season-ending surgery to free an entrapped nerve in his right thigh brightened DeShields' perspective. For much of '99, DeShields blamed himself for the Orioles' nightmarish fourth-place ride. He now knows the reasons were far more complex.
"I've got to say second base wasn't the reason we didn't win last year," DeShields said. "I've had a lot of time to think about that. I'm not going out there to prove anything. I'm going out there to play my game, and just try to play as many games as possible."
The 10-year veteran admittedly chafed at Camden Yards' embrace of Hairston that contrasted the ready disapproval hurled his way.
"Sometimes you can't do anything about it. It's frustrating, but if you play hard, you get hurt sometimes. The guys who don't get hurt probably don't play hard," DeShields said.
"And then to get booed on top of that, knowing I'm going out there at less than 100 percent for my teammates. That's the way I play."
DeShields sidestepped a question about the managerial turnover that transpired since he last played on Sept. 10 against the Seattle Mariners. Or did he? "I'm past that. I've played for probably the best manager in baseball, Felipe Alou, and I've played for maybe the worst one," said DeShields. "It doesn't matter who's the skipper. As a team we have to look at each other and get the job done."
A silent member of last season's clubhouse, he says he eventually stiff-armed the media because he thought the younger and older player were being pitted against one another.
"It was like [the press] was painting this picture of me against Jerry and I didn't really appreciate that," DeShields said. "Jerry's career is in front of him. He's a young brother, and it was like you were trying to pit me against him, so to speak, and I didn't appreciate it. So I wasn't going to talk."
Hairston's .269 average and 17 RBIs in 175 at-bats weren't as much a source for public endorsement as what he represents to a club that hasn't developed an everyday position player for itself since Cal Ripken. Hairston also handled 269 chances flawlessly and stole nine bases in 13 attempts. To a frustrated fan base, DeShields came to symbolize a free-agent buying spree gone awry.
"Everybody likes 'new.' Everybody likes 'new new.' Jerry's going to be fine. His future is in front of him. He has to stay humble. He has to remember that you can be on top one day, and the next day they can be booing you. I'm not worried about Jerry Hairston. He's going to be fine," DeShields said.
Yesterday the two infielders expressed a mutual admiration. Each stated a desire that both make the Opening Day roster, something Hargrove mentioned as a possibility.
"Delino's been in the big leagues for 10 years. I have nothing but respect for Delino DeShields," said Hairston. "He worked with me and helped me out last year. He was really supportive. And I really appreciate it because it could have been very awkward for him.
"It just goes to show what type of person he is, a class act. He was there to help me. I hope we can play together; I really do."
Less than three years removed from being the Orioles' 11th-round selection of the 1997 draft, Hairston is less than six weeks shy of an unknown destination.