For O's, an Unusual Position
Hairston's Return, Roberts's Excellence Raise Questions Again
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page D05
BALTIMORE, May 10 -- The young second baseman is off to a fast start, an all-star-caliber start. He is getting on base at an impressive clip, playing marvelous defense, leading the league in stolen bases, propelling the Baltimore Orioles' offense from the leadoff spot in the order. That was Jerry Hairston in May 2003, before he got hurt. That is Brian Roberts in May 2004, on the eve of Hairston's return.
Everything changes for the Orioles on Tuesday, when Hairston joins them in Chicago as they open a series against the White Sox. Their tranquil, intrigue-free, comfortably above-.500 (16-12) existence -- in which their biggest problem is merely keeping their bullpen fresh in the absence of starting pitchers capable of going deep in games -- is about to be jolted.
The Orioles dodged the Second-Base Problem in March and April, thanks to the broken and dislocated finger Hairston suffered in the first inning of the first exhibition game, while diving headfirst into third base on an attempted steal (he was safe).
But the problem will be hard to avoid now, with Roberts and Hairston -- good friends who live less than a mile apart in Scottsdale, Ariz., in the offseason -- both staking a claim, with cases that are fully supported by their performances and various issues of fairness, to the Orioles' second base job six weeks into the season.
As long as Hairston and Roberts remain teammates in good health, the questions concerning which player has the truest claim to the job will persist.
The temporary solution was simple: Roberts will retain the everyday second base and leadoff roles, given his .315 batting average, .377 on-base percentage and league-leading 15 stolen bases. In what amounts to a full season on the job since last May 20, when Hairston fractured his foot on an awkward swing in Anaheim, Roberts has hit .279 in 584 at-bats, with 38 stolen bases and a .346 on-base percentage. Hairston will serve mostly as designated hitter, batting mostly ninth.
Hairston's skills -- speed, bat control, etc. -- make him an unusual DH, but the Orioles feel they have ample power elsewhere in their lineup and can stand to benefit from the addition of a supplemental leadoff man at the bottom of the order.
"I don't know that the prototypical DH [has to be] a [number] 3, 4 or 5 hitter, that power-type guy," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "With our lineup and the way I like to run our guys, [Hairston at DH] fits in with our style of play."
On the surface, this temporary solution has been accepted by all parties. Although Hairston said less than two weeks ago that he "would like to think" the second base job would be returned to him when he comes back -- after all, he held the job from 2001 through last May, and was developing into one of the top leadoff men in the game when he broke his foot -- his tone Sunday was humble and conciliatory.
"Brian's the second baseman," he said. "I don't want Brian to look over his shoulder at all. That wouldn't be good. And I hope he doesn't feel that way. He's playing great, and I don't want to disrupt that at all."
Said Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie: "In the end, when you're in a situation like this [with two players at the same position], and you're losing, you'd probably have unhappy ballplayers. But if you're in a situation like this, and the team is winning, it changes things."
The quick action by Mazzilli and the front office to ensure Roberts he will retain the job averted the threat of a clubhouse uprising, as opinion within the ranks was virtually unanimous in favor of the status quo. Apparently the unwritten baseball rule that says a player cannot lose his job because of injury comes with a statute of limitations -- in this case, one year.
"You can't overlook what Jerry has done over last few years, and you can't overlook what Brian is doing now," said left-hander Matt Riley. "Hopefully, we can find a way to fit them both in. They're both great players. The way Brian's playing, he's the sparkplug of this team. It'd be hard to take him out right now."
"I don't know how you can move that guy [Roberts] off the field," said Orioles television analyst and Mazzilli confidant Buck Martinez, a former big league manager in Toronto. "He's playing as well as anyone in the league right now, in my mind. He's playing so well, I don't think you could risk losing what he has developed."
However, few in the organization believe the temporary solution -- with Roberts at second, Hairston at DH -- can work long term. Hairston, like Roberts, has Gold Glove potential at the position. (Privately, Hairston is proud of the fact Cal Ripken once told him he is the best second baseman Ripken ever played with.)
Second base happens to be the position most in need by contending teams at present, with the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals among those getting by with temporary solutions. If Hairston goes to the Orioles in the coming weeks and asks for a trade -- something many in the organization expect him to do, one team official acknowledged Sunday -- there would be no shortage of potential destinations.
Hairston, who asked the Orioles for a trade four years ago because he was stuck in the minors behind Delino DeShields (he retracted that request after meeting with team officials), hinted at a trade scenario Sunday.
"I feel," he said ominously, "like something's going to happen pretty quick."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Jerry Hairston, returning from a broken and dislocated finger, will mostly DH.
(Joel Page - AP)
_____From The Post_____
Miguel Tejada provides the key hits Sunday in Baltimore's 12-11 victory over Cleveland.
_____Orioles at White Sox_____
• Where: U.S. Cellular Field.
• When: Tonight and Wednesday at 8:05 p.m., Thursday at 2:05 p.m.
• TV: All games on Comcast SportsNet.
• Radio: WTEM-980, WBAL-1090, WAGE-1200, WNAV-1430.
• Pitchers: Tonight, Orioles RHP Sidney Ponson (2-2, 6.25 ERA) vs. White Sox LHP Mark Buehrle (1-1, 5.27). Wednesday, Orioles LHP Erik Bedard (0-0, 4.32) vs. White Sox RHP Jon Garland (2-1, 4.43). Thursday, Orioles RHP Kurt Ainsworth (0-1, 7.36) vs. White Sox LHP Scott Schoeneweis (3-1, 3.49).