NEW YORK - Brady Anderson recalled times last season when Delino DeShields would get thrown out at third on the front end of a double steal.
"I don't know, man," DeShields would tell Anderson. "I can't run."
From a broken thumb to a stiff back, a strained hamstring to a thigh injury that required surgery, DeShields' first season with the Orioles was one long mess.
The difference now is obvious.
When healthy, DeShields is a sight to behold.
He was at it again yesterday. He hit his third home run to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning, then delivered a well-placed RBI single off Mariano Rivera to cut the New York Yankees' lead to 6-5 in the ninth.
Albert Belle was the bigger hero, lining a two-run, go-ahead single off Rivera with the Orioles one strike away from getting swept. Mike Timlin was the bigger story, pitching a scoreless ninth to preserve a stunning 7-6 victory.
But DeShields was the Orioles' best player all weekend at Yankee Stadium, finishing the series 7-for-13 with a homer, a stolen base, three doubles, six runs scored and four RBIs.
"He's fun to watch," Mike Bordick said.
"He's a force on the bases," B.J. Surhoff said.
"He has the tools to really affect a game," manager Mike Hargrove said.
DeShields, 31, is second in the American League with 12 stolen bases and sixth with a .360 batting average. His impact has been so significant, the Orioles must now reconsider their entire middle-infield equation.
Should they re-sign Bordick, a potential free agent who turns 34 in July? Should they move Triple-A second baseman Jerry Hairston back to shortstop? Should they trade Hairston? Should they trade DeShields?
The answers seemed clear last season, when DeShields made three trips to the disabled list and Hairston injected enthusiasm on a lifeless team. But, as one Orioles veteran noted, Hairston batted .269, not .369, and remains largely unproven.
Yesterday's hair-raising game was a perfect example of how things change in baseball - from pitch to pitch, inning to inning, day to day, season to season. DeShields, a native of Seaford, Del., still might find happiness playing close to home.
That happiness was elusive last season, and DeShields hasn't spoken with reporters since spring training. He apparently is still upset with certain members of the Baltimore media for advocating Hairston as his replacement.
Like Belle, he is entitled to his silence. But he should understand that the media and fan infatuation with Hairston was never personal, never even about him, really.
DeShields, 31, was booed last season not for who he was, but what he represented - the Orioles' devotion to high-priced free agents, even at the expense of talented homegrown players.
It wasn't DeShields' fault that the Orioles signed him to a three-year contract with Hairston so close to the majors. It wasn't his fault that he suffered one injury after another.
Likewise, it wasn't the fault of the fans or the media that the Orioles spent all winter trying to trade him, as if to concede that they made a mistake the off-season before.
Now it turns out that maybe DeShields wasn't such a mistake.
If anything, the Orioles need more players like him - and Hairston, for that matter.
Power is everything in today's game, but speed can be just as disruptive, and the Orioles are stuck with too many plodders. DeShields and Anderson are the team's only threats to steal, and Anderson is currently limited by a sore knee.
In the eighth inning Friday night, DeShields showed how he could impose his will on the opposition, not with arms that can drive a ball 450 feet, but with legs that can outrun most throws.
First, DeShields broke an 8-8 tie with a one-out RBI double off left-hander Mike Stanton - he is batting .469 off left-handers this season and .480 with runners in scoring position.
He then stole third, putting himself in position to score on a ground ball or sacrifice fly. And he raced home on a 250-foot fly ball by Surhoff that was caught in foul territory by Yankees left fielder Ricky Ledee.
Surhoff marveled at the sequence.
"Not many guys could have scored on that ball," he said. "And the stolen base. Anybody can steal third with two outs; he's doing it when everyone knows he's going to steal. That's a base stealer right there."
DeShields can be an adventure at second base. His previous team, St. Louis, wanted to move him to the outfield. But he made two plays to his right Friday night, and nearly threw out Bernie Williams at second yesterday after Williams hit a ball off first baseman Jeff Conine's glove into foul territory.
Those who know DeShields well describe him as decent, thoughtful and intelligent. His body language sometimes creates the impression of a player who doesn't care, but it's clear that nothing could be further from the truth.
He wasn't healthy last season. He never resembled the player who has stolen 405 bases, batted .289 or better five times and developed modest power late in his career.
"In spring, he talked about that," Bordick said. "He said he felt bad about [last season]. He was trying to get through injuries, and he wasn't the player he could be."
He is that player now.
"A star for us since the first day of spring training," Hargrove said.
A sight to behold.