Brandon Fahey was so scrawny when the Orioles took him in the 12th round of the 2002 draft that it was hard to envision him being anything more than an "organizational player" - a guy who would play hard on minor league teams from Bluefield to Bowie, but probably never make the majors.
Fahey surpassed those expectations when the Orioles called him up early this season.
Once he made it, no one, not even Fahey, expected him to last longer than two weeks, but he has surpassed those expectations, too, becoming so valuable as a do-anything rookie that it is increasingly rare for Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo not to write him into the lineup.
Fahey, it would seem, is in the majors to stay.
"He is finding a way to keep himself in the big leagues for a long time," Perlozzo said yesterday. "The way he goes about his business, with the effort he puts into it and his seriousness, that is going to make him a big leaguer."
So, what challenge still lies in front of a player who has continually surpassed expectations? Maybe the biggest challenge of all - proving he can be an everyday major leaguer, not just a utility guy.
"I think I could, yeah. I don't see why not," Fahey, 25, said last night. "Not now, with the players we have here. They're so good. But at some point in time, yeah, I think I could."
Perlozzo was more circumspect, saying "the jury is still out" because Fahey needs to hit left-handed pitchers better - he was hitting .233 against lefties and .286 against righties before last night - and also get a tad bigger to enhance his durability.
But after watching Fahey eternally surpass expectations, the Orioles manager wasn't about to discount the chances of him becoming a regular one day.
"It wouldn't surprise me in the least," Perlozzo said.
Understand, Fahey isn't thinking that way now; a major leaguer's son (his father Bill hit .241 during an 11-year career as a catcher), he's still happy just to be in the majors, and concerned about proving he belongs.
"This is what I've wanted to do my whole life," he said. "Anything I can do to keep me here, I'll do."
He routinely contributes by getting bunts down, moving runners along and playing solid defense wherever Perlozzo puts him. (He's played five positions so far.) His veteran teammates love his old-school savvy.
"My dad taught me that. He's old-fashioned," Fahey said. "He believed in playing good defense, bunting guys over, making sure you get runners in from third. He was never that big on power or things like that. Just score more runs than the other team. And when the manager asks you to get a bunt down, get it down. I guess that thinking got down to me."
But the minors are full of smart, little guys who never reach the majors because they can't hit. Fahey had that look for a long time (he hit a combined .248 in his first three-plus seasons in the minors through May 2005), but he is the rare player whose offense is improving as he faces tougher pitching. He batted .325 at Bowie after June 4 last season, and he is hitting .267 for the Orioles.
He shrugged when asked to explain.
"I've learned a lot as I've gone through the organization from level to level, and I'm still learning," he said. "Every time I walk on a baseball field, I learn something new. The minute you think you know it all, you're pretty much done."
Last night, Fahey made his 19th start of the season in left field, a position he hadn't played since his days at the University of Texas. But he's out there because he is athletic and versatile, and Perlozzo was looking for a way to get him in the lineup.
His natural position - the only one he played in the Orioles' system before this year - is shortstop. Miguel Tejada has a lock on that now, but Tejada is constantly mentioned in trade rumors (this week, Angels) and it's not unthinkable that he could be dispatched.
If that ever happened, the next man up at shortstop would be, yes, the skinny kid who has far exceeded what the Orioles ever thought he could do.
Fahey could never replace Tejada offensively, but he would represent a defensive upgrade (one member of the Orioles' front office said Fahey played a "superb" shortstop) at a position that is perhaps the game's most important defensively. The Orioles could do worse.
But could Fahey handle the job day after day? Just listen to Perlozzo.
"He's one of those guys who you only have to tell something once," the manager said, "and everything you ask him to do, he gets it done. Guys like that can play every day."