- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Jerry Hairston found himself scuffling when the Baltimore Orioles' six-game road swing reached Texas last July in the team's last series before the All-Star break.
Hairston, hitting just .235 and struggling to keep his second base job and a batting spot other than ninth, needed a jolt. And sure enough, he started putting good wood on the ball. At day's end on July7, Hairston had gone only 1-for-6 against the Rangers, but it was one of his best days in terms of swinging well. And then he kept it going.
"Every ball I hit, I scorched," Hairston said. "I felt good. I went up there and I dictated the pace. I could look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I did what I could do.' After that, I was smoking the ball."
Hairston had an outstanding second half, leading the club in batting (.291) and on-base percentage (.355) after the All-Star break. He raised his batting average 34 points (to .268) and his on-base percentage 37 points (to .329), and solidified his position as the Orioles' leadoff man and regular second baseman entering spring training. They're his jobs to lose which manager Mike Hargrove made known yesterday and that doesn't seem likely given his progress last season.
"Second base is Jerry's job. For Jerry to get beat out, somebody's going to have to have a great spring and Jerry's going to have to be abysmal," Hargrove said. "And even then, we're going to look at it."
Why is Hargrove so sold on Hairston as the team's second baseman and leadoff hitter? Hairston's performance in the final 12 weeks of 2002, when he became comfortable with his approach at the plate, trying to take more pitches while retaining his trademark aggressiveness and dictating the pace of the at-bat, convinced his manager.
Early on, Hairston found himself taking too many pitches and being forced to hit from behind in the count. He made things easier for himself by taking his cuts earlier in the count, meaning he saw more breaking balls early and could work the count more effectively.
Hairston points to how the best leadoff men in the game approach things. Boston's Johnny Damon, the New York Yankees' Alfonso Soriano and Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki aren't shy about regularly swinging from their heels, and often early in the count. Hairston has taken the same approach throughout his career, even if though he denies it he has taken some big cuts instead of focusing more on putting the ball in play.
For some time, it looked like Hairston's aggressive approach wouldn't jibe with the Orioles' desires. As late as May, Hairston was playing behind Brian Roberts, who will still push him for playing time this season. And most days, Hargrove used utility man Melvin Mora to lead off.
Hairston didn't waver. He kept his approach the same, and his solid play forced Hargrove to bat him leadoff by the end of September. Center fielder Gary Matthews should provide the main competition for Hairston for the leadoff spot this spring.
"I was trying to be the perfect leadoff hitter, and you can't be perfect," Hairston said. "That's the one thing in this game: You can't be perfect. You're going to fly out, you're going to strike out. Hey, you have to go out there and attack and let the chips fall where they may, and I found that to be very beneficial in the second half."
Though he didn't see results until later, Hairston's second-half surge might have resulted from a talk with hitting coach Terry Crowley before last season. Crowley gave Hairston some things to work on in the offseason: shorten his swing and keep the ball out of the air. Crowley said his pupil has followed his suggestions.
"He's picking up right now where he left off," Crowley said.
Hairston also benefits from being one of the best-conditioned Orioles. While visiting Boston in his rookie season in 1999, Hairston saw a piece on TV about an intensive offseason training program in Arizona called Athletes Performance that Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra had attended.
This winter, for the fourth consecutive offseason, Hairston spent several weeks in Arizona training at Athletes Performance. In a six-week session, Hairston joined, among others, Garciaparra; Philadelphia's Pat Burrell; and Hairston's younger brother Scott, a top Diamondbacks prospect, in Tempe for rigorous baseball-based training. Two times a day, six days a week, Hairston took part in strength training and speed, agility and endurance work, and his offseason regimen has him in Fort Lauderdale at a healthy and trim 185 pounds.
"It's really a way to work on your endurance, strength, and you come into camp fresh," Hairston said. "You feel that you really train and work hard, and that's something, when you step into the box, that's a good feeling to have that you're ready, that you're prepared."
Prepared, that is, to set the table for the Orioles' lineup.


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