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Unsung Orioles heroes: Jerry Hairston Jr.

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As the team declined and saw an icon in Cal Ripken Jr. enter his final years, Hairston provided a dose of excitement and a fun young player to watch.

Tino Martinez of the New York Yankees (C) is calle Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

The 1990s became fun if you were an Orioles fan. Unfortunately, the decade, and those fun times, came to an end pretty abruptly.

The 1997 team that went to a second straight ALCS and looked for much of the year like the best team in baseball did not have much staying power. One year later, the team was out of the playoffs. The next year, many of the stars — the Roberto Alomars, the Rafael Palmeiros, the Eric Davises — were gone. The team was in a rebuild. Mike Mussina would leave too, and soon after, the franchise would lose its face as Cal Ripken Jr. would bid farewell.

Lean years were coming. It was time for new players to emerge.

One of the players that stepped onto the stage and gave Orioles fans a reason to keep watching was Jerry Hairston Jr.

Hairston wasn’t anywhere near the player the aforementioned names were, but what he was was a dose of fun and energy on what had been a team of aging veterans. He was a scrappy and solid fielder at second base and a good double play partner with Mike Bordick, and a good contact hitter at both the top of the lineup and in the turn-the-lineup-over No. 9 spot. He batted .262 for his Orioles career, and saw his average climb each season from 2001 to 2004, when he batted .303.

What made him stand out from an entertainment factor, though, was his ability on the basepaths. Stolen bases had sort of fallen by the wayside in Baltimore as the Orioles became one of the league’s best slugging teams, but Hairston helped infuse the team with a small-ball dynamic. He wasn’t a burner, but he stole 29 bases in 2001 as he played 159 games with 532 at-bats, and then added 21 on 27 attempts in 2002 when he played 122 games.

From the perspective of a young Orioles fan — I was 12 when Hairston began to make an impact with the big club in 1999 — he provided a breath of fresh air on what, looking back, were some depressing Orioles rosters. Cast-offs and has-beens were all over the place, players like Will Clark and David Segui and Marty Cordova and Pat Hentgen. For a fan getting ready for a new Orioles era, Hairston was seemingly an example of a player who was going to be part of the team’s fabric for the next several years.

Hairston was sort of the Jonathan Villar of those early 2000s Orioles teams. He was a sparkplug who could make things happen on a poor team with little fanfare or excitement value elsewhere to offer. Hairston was no star, but you could see there was something to look forward to.

His stay in Baltimore had an earlier ending than some may have thought, however. In 2003, with injuries adding up, he was passed on the second base depth chart by Brian Roberts, who had Hairston’s game but raised a few notches. Roberts was a better base-stealer, he had a better ability to hit for extra bases, and he was a better fielder. Hairston hit .303 with a revamped Orioles offense in 2004, but Roberts hit 50 doubles and seized the job, making Hairston expendable. In 2005, he was part of the package traded to Chicago for Sammy Sosa.

He was never a player on par with Roberts or Villar, but Hairston did his part to bridge the gap between Orioles contenders with engaging play on some dull teams. He was a change of pace, and just enough of a difference-maker to make an impact on teams that needed players to step up during the start of the franchise’s historic dry spell.

He won’t be going to the Orioles Hall of Fame. But Hairston helped continue the theme of fun-to-watch infield play that started before he arrived and would continue after he was gone.