Yankees' Hairston right at home at game's end

By Dave Sheinin
Monday, October 19, 2009

NEW YORK -- After sitting on the New York Yankees' bench for the better part of five hours Saturday night, breaking the tedium and the tension -- not to mention the deep chill -- by ducking into the tunnel for some warmth and some hacks in the indoor batting cage, Jerry Hairston Jr. received word during the top of the 13th inning that he would be leading off the following half-inning. His mind and his body sprung into action.

As he warmed up furiously, Hairston, a third-generation big leaguer, thought of his grandfather, Sam, a former Negro leaguer who got seven big league at-bats in 1951, and his father, Jerry Sr., who played in only two postseason games in 14 years. He thought of his own career trajectory -- from a young second baseman considered a future star, to a lowly utility man forced to carry four gloves to every game -- and the 12 big league seasons he played without sniffing the postseason, until this year.

"I told myself I've been waiting my whole career for this," Hairston, 33, said. "My grandfather never got the opportunities I did. I told myself, 'What would he say to me right now?' . . . 'Just hit the ball hard somewhere.' That at-bat was for him."

Minutes later, Hairston, in his first career postseason at-bat, was lining a single up the middle to lead off the bottom of the 13th inning of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, and minutes after that -- at 1:07 a.m., to be precise, 5 hours 10 minutes after the game's first pitch -- he was crossing home plate with the winning run to give the Yankees a commanding 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the best-of-seven series, with Game 3 on Monday in Anaheim, Calif.

"Just to be a part of this team, coming here [in a trade] in late July, and being able to contribute to a win," Hairston said, "is a great feeling."

The marathon game's winning run was produced not out of heroism but out of acute failure -- somewhat tarnishing what was otherwise a tight, taut game full of dramatic turns. With runners on first and second and one out in the 13th, Angels second baseman Maicer Izturis made a poor decision on a sharp grounder from Melky Cabrera -- choosing a risky throw to second when the proper play was to first -- and compounded it by throwing wildly.

Hairston, the runner at second, blew through a stop sign at third, and might have been thrown out at the plate had Angels third baseman Chone Figgins, who was backing up Izturis's throw, scooped it up cleanly. Instead, Figgins bobbled the ball, and Hairston was safe without a play, sliding home then bracing himself for his onrushing teammates, who mobbed him near the plate.

Thus did a classic game -- full of nearly flawless relief pitching, a manufactured run by the Angels in the top of the 11th on a Figgins single, and a game-tying home run by Alex Rodriguez on an 0-2 pitch in the bottom half of the inning -- end on a play that involved four mistakes: Izturis's decision, Izturis's throw, Hairston's base running error and Figgins's bobble.

Hairston was the 21st player to enter the game for the Yankees in Game 2 -- only the team's three remaining starting pitchers and the third catcher were left -- but being an afterthought was nothing new for him. Until being traded from Cincinnati to the Yankees this July, he had played in 984 big league games without ever playing on a winning team, let alone a World Series contender.

Long ago, Hairston looked like a future all-star. He won the Baltimore Orioles' starting second base job in 2001 at the age of 24, and Cal Ripken Jr., then in his final season, told Hairston he was the best defensive second baseman he had ever played with -- and Ripken had played with Roberto Alomar.

Brash and cocky, Hairston once predicted he would win a Gold Glove and a batting title. His emotional, expressive style often rubbed umpires and opponents the wrong way, and Yankees ace Roger Clemens used to fire fastballs at Hairston's back for no reason other than the fact he didn't like him, until Hairston's Orioles teammate Pat Hentgen intervened on his behalf.

"He's a good guy," Hentgen told Clemens, according to Hairston. "If you ever got to play with him, you'd love him."

Clemens and Hairston never played together -- Hairston eventually lost the Orioles' second base job to Brian Roberts, and his career slowly devolved into that of a journeyman who plays anywhere on the field except pitcher and catcher.

But all these years later, Hairston now wears those storied pinstripes, and in the wee hours of Sunday morning, with one wild trip around the bases, he finally earned a spot alongside Clemens and all the Yankees' many other October heroes. It was a long time coming, both by time-of-game and length-of-career, and -- for Hairston at least -- the ending was worth it.

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