FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - From the day he first arrived, Jerry Hairston has represented a jolt of caffeine within the Orioles' clubhouse.
He can do without the stir.
First there was the challenge for a veteran's second base job, then a roster crunch that sent him back to Rochester and eventually to a surgeon's office with whispers of a trade request tossed in for flavor. And, oh, the game's premier second baseman supposedly told Hairston last April to play his own rather than a copycat's game. All that before his 25th birthday and first full major-league season.
No wonder Hairston freely admits, "I'm never, ever relaxed."
Hairston always seems upbeat and in a hurry, probably because he is. He needed barely two years to become the first member of the Orioles' 1997 draft class to reach the major leagues, and even then the ride was too long. Beginning in June 1999, the third-generation major-leaguer battled for the second-base job held by injured veteran Delino DeShields like it was his own.
Hairston's obvious zest for playing proved infectious to a fan base during an otherwise disappointing 1999 season. Hairston likes to talk, which is good because he offers uncommon insight for a player his age. He contrasted with a team eventually seen by its own front office as too cool, too aloof and too creaky.
While DeShields suffered the most frustrating season of his career in 1999, Hairston enjoyed his coming out. A disenchanted public's negative reaction toward a veteran player never able to fully show his abilities created what Hairston now concedes was "a real awkward situation."
Problems never arose between the youngster and the veteran. Today DeShields' baseball card sits atop Hairston's locker as a sign of respect. DeShields said last spring he hoped there was a way both he and Hairston could play at the same time, a wish eventually granted in August when DeShields embraced a move to left field and Hairston inherited second base.
"Delino DeShields was our best player last year, bar none. Everybody knows that," Hairston said of last season's overwhelming choice as Most Valuable Oriole.
For the first time since Hairston's arrival, neither player needs to look over his shoulder.
Pursuing a ground ball to either side, Hairston is a blur of legs always ready to attempt an acrobatic play. The trait has earned him the reputation of a flashy player, a description he despises. A misreported meeting between him and Cleveland Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar only galvanized what Hairston considers an unfair rap.
Alomar, the former Orioles All-Star, met on-field with Hairston during last season's opening series at Camden Yards. What Hairston remembers as confidence-building encouragement from Alomar was conveyed by others as an admonition from Alomar not to mimic his peerless style.
"A lot of people had been trying to put me in the mold of the next Robbie Alomar. He didn't want me to put that pressure on myself. It was never about anything else," recalls Hairston. "I have tremendous respect for him and after that conversation, I felt more confident in my own abilities. Robbie made it sound like, 'You're a great player in your own right.' He said I can do things a lot of people can't do and not to fit into somebody else's mold."
At the time, Hairston was less than a month removed from having his contract renewed by the club, was nursing a sore left shoulder and awaited an imminent option to Triple-A Rochester. Speculation swirled that the club might try to return him to shortstop after an 18-month hiatus. A player looked upon as the feel-good story of 1999 felt anything but good about the start to 2000.
"Robbie wanted me to play every day," Hairston said. "He said, 'You should not go back to Triple-A. You should not be switching between second base and shortstop.' He reminded me he was in a similar situation with San Diego. They wanted him to go back to shortstop and he wouldn't. So he got traded to Toronto."
Some thought Hairston would follow the same script.
Reports surfaced that he had requested a trade rather than receive a demotion to Rochester. Hairston doggedly denies his disappointment reached those depths.
"I never asked to be traded. I never made a request and my agent never called for them to make a trade. I just wanted them to know I was ready to play no matter what," Hairston said. "All I said was there are 29 other teams out there. You're just not playing for the Orioles. I repeatedly said that. If the Orioles at that point wanted to sign Delino DeShields for five or six years at second base, I had no problem with that. But there were other teams asking about me."
His option to Rochester was closely followed by his seeking arthroscopic shoulder surgery to repair a tear of his left labrum, a condition that left the area weak and caused the shoulder to tremble even when he took his batting stance.
Hairston returned to bat .256 last season despite suffering a hitless week in September. His fielding percentage would have ranked fifth among American League second baseman had he received enough chances to qualify.
As for changing his seat-of-the-pants reputation, that will take time.
"I have fun when I play and I do a lot of things for a reason," Hairston said. "If I dive or make a rolling stop, it's because I needed to do that to get an out. One thing that really bothers me is when people recognize me for flashy plays but don't remember that in '99 I didn't make one error. I don't want to be known just for flash. I want to be known like Mike Bordick. If you hit it to me, you're out."
Two years since his arrival - more like an eternity to him - Hairston is finally in.