Thursday, March 10, 2011, 12:44 p.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
Jerry Hairston remembers his early days with the Orioles, back when he was a rookie second baseman poised to become a member of Baltimore's everyday lineup for a decade. He'd bounce around Fort Lauderdale Stadium with the energy of a 3-month-old terrier pup, asking veteran teammates Cal Ripken and Mike Bordick why they were so tired at the end of a spring training workout.
Last month, Hairston was on one of the practice fields outside Space Coast Stadium, looking a bit worn down, when rookie teammate Danny Espinosa (full of energy himself) asked why he was so tired.
"Unreal," Hairston said with a laugh as he recalled the scene. "It's just how it is. You get a little older, you've really got to pace yourself and realize you're not 23 anymore."
No, Hairston's not 23 anymore. And he's not the starting second baseman in Baltimore. That plan never really came to fruition, as injuries and the emergence of Brian Roberts pushed Hairston out of the Orioles' lineup and eventually out of town.
Not that Hairston complains about the way things worked out. If anything, his inability to hold down a starting job in Baltimore opened the door for perhaps a more enriching career as a utilityman. Since becoming a jack-of-all trades in 2004, he's become a valuable bench player for six different organizations, including the Washington Nationals franchise that signed him this winter.
Coming to grips with the fact he was never going to be an everyday player wasn't easy for Hairston, a third-generation major-leaguer. In hindsight, it was the best thing he ever did in baseball.
"It was tough, but we had a guy in Brian Roberts who was talented," he said. "It would be tougher if they put a guy there that I didn't think could play. But it made us better. ... Looking back, I'm really glad I did that. Because it's really helped my career."
Now 34, Hairston can do just about anything anywhere on the diamond. He's played seven different positions in the big leagues, everything except for catcher and pitcher. And he's proven adept at all of them, as comfortable in center field as he is at third base.
That versatility, not to mention his positive clubhouse reputation, made Hairston a top target of the Nationals over the winter. They wound up signing him for 2 million, a fairly hefty price for a bench player.
"I've been in the other dugout in many games that Jerry's been involved in," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I love the way he plays. ...
"He's got the foot speed to play the outfield. He's got an arm. He gives you quality at-bats. It's just a niche he's kind of found for himself in the game that every club in baseball is always looking for those people. We're fortunate that he was available to us."
Hairston may not hold down a regular spot in the lineup these days, but that doesn't mean he rots away on the bench, either. He's compiled more than 400 plate appearances each of the last two seasons, making multiple starts per week at a multiple positions. He actually wound up starting 107 games last year for the San Diego Padres, 53 of them at shortstop after Everth Cabrera struggled to hold down the job.
The uncertainty that comes with a utility role can be difficult for many players to handle. Some need to come to the ballpark on a given day knowing whether they're going to be in the lineup and where in the field they're going to be positioned.
Hairston has come to understand how to prepare himself for whatever is asked on a daily basis.
"The biggest thing is always approach whatever you're given in a positive way," he said. "Nobody's going to feel sorry for you for pouting. Whatever role you're given, be the best you can be. Because you never know, on any given day someone may go down and they might ask you to play there for the next month. If you're not mentally ready, you're going to fail."
Hairston credits his old Orioles teammates like Ripken and Bordick and Brady Anderson for teaching him how to be prepared for anything that may happen on the field or in the clubhouse.
"They never got rattled," he said. "They always were focused on their job, and that's part of being a pro."
A decade later, Hairston has ascended to that role. He's now the veteran showing his younger teammates how things are done.
He may not bounce around the practice fields at spring training the way he did when he was 23. But as he's come to realize at 34, sometimes the lessons learned during 13 big-league seasons are more valuable than an extra bounce in your step.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.