The cruelty of baseball, but the pure impartiality of its examinations, sometimes takes your breath away. The dignity of the work, we must remind ourselves, is in rising by craft, and 20 years of hard work, to a place so high, on a stage so visible, that you risk exposing your limits as well as your gifts.
Goats have stories, too. After you hear them, sometimes you realize that they are part of a larger sort of distinction, a kind that spans generations, sets examples and, since it is not built on vast talent, speaks to all of us.
In the second inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the third baseman who played for the Nationals this year before being traded to Milwaukee, made one of the most spectacular plays of his 14-season journeyman career, diving headfirst, parallel to the ground, to snare a line drive and steal a two-run single to left field.
On the next pitch, the very next pitch, the opposing pitcher slapped a routine grounder at Hairston that should have ended the inning with the Cardinals ahead just 1-0 and the game very much undecided. Instead, the ball scooted untouched between his legs — the unthinkable play of all our nightmares — and darted into left field as those two runs scored.
Brewers pitcher Zack Greinke, who badmouthed Chris Carpenter, the St. Louis Cardinals’ star pitcher, as “a phony” last week, added to Hairston’s indignity by showing up the veteran, spiking the ball in disgust near home plate.
St. Louis took control of the game, 3-0, and little drama remained as the Cards won, 7-1. Hairston, in shock for a second after his error, wandered around third base and was even called for interference on a St. Louis runner who would have been awarded home plate had he not scored anyway.
In the next half inning, naturally, Hairston, who was hitting .365 in what had been a spectacular postseason, came up with Brewers runners at the corners and one out — a perfect spot to atone. He struck out.
Sometimes, baseball’s sense of humor evades me. This was one such night. At the moment when Hairston made his diving catch, he was not simply a veteran utility player who was having the month of his life. In fact, he was having the month of his whole family’s life, including five Hairstons over three generations who have played in the major leagues — none famous, all playing a part, in 38 seasons. Neither his grandfather Sam (White Sox, 1951), nor his father Jerry Sr., who played 14 years in the majors, nor his uncle John nor his brother Scott, an eight-year big leaguer, had ever experienced more than a thimble full of postseason play.
So, Jerry Jr., was representing them all. This October, he was, suddenly, playing every day and hitting (15 for 41, with five extra base hits). At third base, where he filled in admirably for Ryan Zimmerman for two months in Washington, he could do no wrong.
On Thursday, he was in the interview room here explaining his heroics when his artful, graceful headfirst slide around Cards catcher Yadier Molina plated perhaps the most pivotal run of the Brewers’ 4-2 win in Game 4.
“I’m not the biggest guy out there, so usually running over a catcher is not an option, so I’d better learn how to slide,” he said. “It’s not that easy.”
Jerry’s trademark is that he always seems to have a smile on his face. Just like his father, who also played 14 years, he has had to learn to do everything — play almost every position, assume every role, be a cheerleader or confidante of rookies, a mentor or a mimic to break a glum mood.
The Hairston family is held in such high regard throughout the sport that even Cards Manager Tony La Russa was praising the whole family before Friday’s game, calling grandfather Sam “an institution in baseball” and “not just with the White Sox” where he held many positions.
“I remember when we brought up Jerry’s father and he lit us up as a pinch-hitter,” said LaRussa, who managed Jerry Sr. for four seasons. “He could just do anything, ready all the time — one of my favorite players. And then he had these two little kids, two little kids running into my office telling me to play their dad more than I’m playing him.
“I’d say, ‘Okay, maybe I should, but get out.’ I really enjoyed his family and his wife,” LaRussa said. “Yeah, makes you feel real old to see Jerry Jr. kicking our butt like he does. But I hope Sam is appreciating it.”
That’s how the story should end, right, with pride for the Hairstons whether the Brewers go to the World Series or not. But this isn’t a movie. And Hairston, a pure baseball archetype, seems destined to embody the journeyman’s fate. He can do some of everything. But he can’t do anything spectacularly well or do it flawlessly indefinitely. The game lets him have some leash, enjoy his hours, then, if you watched him for seven years as an Oriole or with the Nats, you know how it always jerks his chain.
Because he plays with emotion, a sense of fun and a flair that borders on being a hot dog, he sometimes rides too high for his own good. Perhaps, the next pitch after a great play is exactly the moment he was most vulnerable.
For most players, the game’s double edge, constantly trying to cut you, is simply the nature of a hard occupation. It gives you joy and self-expression, then humiliates you in a blink. Then, as you stand, stripped barren, baseball reveals what is perhaps its most defining and lifelike quality. The game says, “See you tomorrow. Want to try again?”
At least, for Hairston sake, there is a Game 6, back in Milwaukee, and perhaps a Game 7, too. Before this night was over, he would regain his confidence, to a degree, with a single and a walk. And, mercifully, as the Cards built their lead in the late innings, his bad moment receded a bit. But you can be sure a baseball family knows the turning point of this game.
Hairston will have to wait until Sunday for his next crack at the game he plays so well. But sometimes not quite well enough.
We can be sure of one thing. Like all those other Hairstons for more than 60 years, his uniform will fit perfectly, his smile will be intact, his shoulders will be back and, as baseball never stops demanding, he will show up.