Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Family roots keep Hairstons grounded

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The story is nearly eight years old now, yet no matter how many times Scott Hairston tells it, a warm smile washes over his face. It's like, if you can imagine this, he is telling the story for the very first time.

The story goes like this: Hairston, long before he pulled on a Padres jersey, was a Minor League player. It was 2002, he remembers that. He was in his second season of pro ball and he was still a second baseman in the D-backs organization.

"It was after BP [batting practice] when this older guy, a scout calls me over. He had to have been in his 70s," Hairston said. "He said I reminded him of a player he had played against once ... that player's name, he said, was Sam Hairston."

Cue the smile, every time.

Sam Hairston was Hairston's grandfather and the patriarch of a one of baseball's most prominent families, a family with roots that run in the game, dating all the way to Sam Hairston's days in the Negro Leagues.

"I told him he was my grandfather," Hairston said, his voice sounding full of pride. "He said, 'That doesn't surprise me. I didn't even have to look at the roster. I saw the way you swing the bat ... that's what reminded me of him.'

"I got a kick of out that. Just by him watching me take BP he said that I looked like my grandfather. That's amazing to me."

For obvious reasons, this story holds special meaning for Hairston, even more so these days as another branch of the baseball family tree has sprouted here in Peoria with the addition of free-agent utility man Jerry Hairston Jr., Scott's older brother.

The Hairston brothers are the sons of Jerry Hairston, a former outfielder who played 14 seasons in the Major Leagues. Jerry Hairston Jr., who won a World Series ring with the Yankees last fall, and his brother will be teammates for the first time this season.

The Hairstons consider themselves fortunate for this unique twist to their careers, lucky even. No longer will they be the equivalent of passing ships in the night with the chance to visit briefly -- if at all -- when their teams are playing each other in the regular season.

Instead, the Hairston brothers will be teammates, united by general manager Jed Hoyer who traded for one Hairston (Scott) and signed the other (Jerry Jr.) during a dizzying three-day stretch in January.

This union will also give the Hairston brothers a chance to continue what Jerry Hairston proudly describes as the "family business," one that began with Sam Hairston's desire to play baseball in the 1940s, even if it meant fibbing about his age.

"I think for us to follow in his footsteps ... we're very proud of that," Scott Hairston said. "... It's very interesting to me. I consider myself fortunate to having grown up in a family like ours. It has inspired me to work harder and pass it along to my sons.

"We don't take much for granted, that's for sure."

Sam Hairston certainly didn't.

Sam spent his formative years in Hooper City, Ala., which is located a long fly ball outside Birmingham. When he was 16, he lied about his age, saying he 18, to get a job and the opportunity to play baseball in the local industrial league.

The Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues eventually noticed him and signed him as a catcher in 1944.

Sam Hairston went on to win the Negro American League's Triple Crown in 1950, when he hit .424 with 17 home runs and 71 RBIs during a 70-game season. That got Hairston a chance at the Major Leagues. In 1951, he became the first African-American to play for the Chicago White Sox.

"He started a legacy," Jerry Hairston said. "I don't know if any family has as many years in the game. There have been a lot more families with a lot more success, the Boones and others, but coming from where we came from it's pretty unique."

Scott Hairston, who is starting his second tour with the Padres, is 29 and beginning his seventh Major League season. Jerry Hairston Jr. is 33 and the newest Padre. He signed a one-year deal to essentially be a super utility man. He's beginning his 13th Major League season.

The brothers Hairston grew up around the game, having watched their father play nearly his entire 14-year career with the Chicago White Sox. Aside from Sam Hairston, Jerry's brother, John, played three games for the Chicago Cubs in 1969.

Is it really any wonder Scott and Jerry Jr. found their way into baseball?

"It wasn't by accident," Scott said. "Being around the clubhouse growing up, being around guys like Carlton Fisk, Harold Baines, Ozzie Guillen, Ron Kittle ... all those guys that I grew up watching, made me want to be like them. And watching my dad play ... baseball was a no-brainer.

"This is something [playing baseball] that I always loved to do and I never shied away from it. I think what I'm doing now, is what I planned on doing as a kid."

It's probably no coincidence that the Hairston brothers have some characteristics of their father and grandfather, making the story that the old scout once told Scott much more plausible.

"That scout he hit it right on the head," Jerry Hairston said. "Scott has a lot of similarities as his grandfather. We have some films. I remember my dad loving that high fastball. The last year I saw him play, I was 7 years old and I can remember him at the plate and taking a hack at that high fastball.

"That's what Scott has. He can get on top of that high fastball and drive it. He's able to take that pitch that is sometimes not even a strike and hit it, sometimes even out of the ballpark."

Jerry Hairston, who is the hitting coach for the White Sox Class A team in Bristol, said Jerry Jr. has an entirely different kind of skill set.

"Jerry Jr. is a little more like me, has the same body," Jerry Hairston said. "He's a much better player than I ever was. I'm proud of the fact that they're better than me. Jerry Jr. is a different player than Scott. He's a more tenacious guy. He's always in position to make a play. He's a true over-the-top student of the game."

Now they'll be playing together with the Padres. In the interest of fairness, this won't be the first time these brothers have been teammates. They played for Mexico a year ago in the World Baseball Classic. Their mother, Esperanza, was born in Mexico.

Jerry and Esperanza live in Tucson, Ariz. Scott (Gilbert, Ariz.) and Jerry Jr. (Scottsdale, Ariz.) both live in the Phoenix area. The family will get together during the offseason, but such reunions in the season have always been difficult. Now, as Jerry Hairston points out, Esperanza will have an easier time planning trips to watch her sons play.

"When we were working in the past, we never really saw a lot of each other," Jerry Jr. said. "We would play against each other for three days or whatever. But now it's going to be fun to watch him as a teammate, watch him going about his business.

"It's going to be cool to see first-hand him getting those clutch hits and the team relying upon him."

Added Scott: "It's going to be nice being around him on an everyday basis ... doing what we both love to do."

There's no telling how long this brotherly union will last in San Diego. Jerry Jr. was signed to a one-year deal. Scott, who was dealt to Oakland last July only to be traded for this winter, figures to be in the Padres plans for a while.

Either way, the tradition rolls on. The family business has been, and continues to be, in very good hands.

"We're very proud of that," Jerry Jr. said. "We know how hard my grandfather worked and the things that he had to fight through, the same kind of things that Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had to fight through ... He had a tougher road than Scott and I did. We appreciate that."

Many bidders for Yanks' No. 5 battle

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Phil and Joba, Joba and Phil.

And Chad and Sergio and Alfredo, apparently.

Though something unexpected would have to happen for Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes not to win the Yankees' vacant fifth starter's job, manager Joe Girardi continues to insist that Chad Gaudin, Sergio Mitre and Alfredo Aceves are all legitimate candidates for the gig.

Call it motivation. Call it healthy competition. Either way, the three combined for six shutout innings in the Yankees' 6-3 victory over the Pirates on Wednesday.

"There seems to be so much talk about Hughes and Chamberlain, and the other guys are kind of under the radar a little bit, which is not a bad place to be," Girardi said. "We're going to do what we think is best for our club."

That almost certainly sets up a starting gig for either Hughes or Chamberlain, a bullpen role for Aceves and a sizable dose of uncertainty for Mitre and Gaudin. But as long as the Yankees are playing Grapefruit League games, every one of those pitchers has a chance.

They are aiming to make Girardi's decision difficult. In two innings Wednesday, Gaudin allowed nothing more than an infield single. Sinkerballer Mitre relieved him and fired two perfect innings with four groundouts, then Aceves -- with some help from his outfield defense -- pitched two perfect innings of his own.

Considering that the regulars for both teams played only half the game, and that pitchers are always more advanced than hitters this time of year, the early-March statistics don't mean much. But as the spring progresses, Girardi will need to make decisions on all three of those pitchers.

"The competition is there, but I'm not focusing on beating other guys out right now," Gaudin said. "I'm focusing on getting outs quick, keeping the team in the game and working on what I need to work on for the season."

In the main competition, Chamberlain and Hughes are scheduled to pitch on Friday. Between now and then, Girardi will have some time to absorb the results of Wednesday's undercard.

The Yankees could potentially make room for two of the three pitchers in the bullpen, assuming none of them wins the fifth starter's job. Aceves and Gaudin would appear to have the early edge based on their production last season, but Girardi has given Mitre, a former player of his with the Marlins, every chance to succeed in the past. There's no reason to think he won't do so again.

Right now, regardless, one round of the competition is complete without anyone gaining or losing a discernible edge.

But the spring is long. And the competition is open.

"I think we talk about it enough that they know," Girardi said. "We told them coming in that it was an open competition. Their nature is competitive, and they're going to go out and do the best that they can because they want to be on this team. They want to be the fifth starter. I don't think I need to remind them."

Harang gets Opening Day nod for Reds

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Unlike the past few years, there was more discussion and more than a hint of doubt over who would be the Reds' Opening Day starter and ace of the rotation.

But in the end, it will be the same pitcher who had done it the previous four times -- Aaron Harang. The right-hander will face the Cardinals on April 5 at Great American Ball Park.

Although the choice to go with Harang is tried and true, it's not the conventional decision this time around. He is coming off of back-to-back six-win seasons, while Bronson Arroyo has won 15 games each of the past two years.

"I know it probably won't be a popular decision," manager Dusty Baker said on Wednesday. "But talking to both of them, Harang seems to pitch better against top pitchers. After Day 1, it doesn't matter anyway."

Harang's fifth straight Opening Day assignment would tie the club record for most consecutive first-game starts held by Pete Donohue (1923-27) and Mario Soto, who did it from 1982-86. Soto holds the overall club record of six Opening Day starts.

Opening Day is considered sacred to Reds fans because of the club's lengthy tradition. Cincinnati is the oldest professional franchise in baseball, and that status has given it the privilege of getting to open at home with a day game each season.

"I'm excited about it," Harang said. "You definitely have to have a different approach on Opening Day because of all the hoopla and stuff that's going around the game."

Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price informed Harang of their decision on Tuesday after meeting with both Harang and Arroyo. The group talked about it together, and Harang and Arroyo also talked privately about it.

"I said, 'If it's out there, I want the ball. I want to be your guy,'" Harang said he told Baker. "[Bronson and I] both talked about it before we even went in there. I wasn't over there trying to make him feel different.

"Do I think Bronson deserves to start Opening Day? Yeah, definitely for what he's shown the past couple of years."

A couple of weeks ago, when camp first opened, Baker did not know who he'd give the ball to for the opener. The decision ultimately came down to the fact that, as much as Harang wanted the assignment, Arroyo also wasn't all that interested in being the Reds' No. 1 starter.

"If I had my choice, I'd rather pitch two or three," Arroyo said. "Cincinnati is one of the few places that Opening Day is really like a holiday. For that reason, it's probably a little tough to concentrate on that day. There's so much stuff going on. I'd rather enjoy that day, soak in all the festivities and pitch the next day or day after that."

"Nobody is more honest than Bronson," Baker said. "You might not like his answers. His answers will be honest. I love that. I ask a question, I want an honest answer. That's the reason you communicate and talk to your players."

Baker also set the top four spots of Cincinnati's rotation. After Harang will be Johnny Cueto, followed by Arroyo, Homer Bailey and the still-unnamed fifth starter.

There was reason behind the decision to split up Harang and Arroyo in the order.

"So you don't tax your bullpen," Baker said. "Harang, you know will give you innings. Cueto is not as consistent. Arroyo is consistent. Homer, you don't know. The fifth starter, you don't know. You want to break up those guys, because what if you had Arroyo and Harang back-to-back and the next three guys aren't pitching well? You're going to kill your bullpen. When you get back to Harang, you'll have to stick with him longer because your bullpen is already spent."

Harang won 16 games in both 2006 and '07 and was among National League leaders in wins, innings, starts and strikeouts. But struggles and injuries set him way back the past two seasons. In 2008-09, he was a combined 12-31 with a 4.52 ERA.

Last season was particularly trying, as Harang finished 6-14 with a 4.21 ERA in 162 1/3 innings with 142 K's. His year ended in August because he had his appendix removed. In 13 starts from May 30-Aug. 3, Harang endured a nine-game losing streak.

Over three of his past four seasons with the Reds, Arroyo has won at least 14 games. He posted a 15-13 record with a 3.84 ERA in 33 starts in 2009.

Arroyo also isn't a fan of pitching day games and has a better record when working at night. However, his first start on April 8 vs. St. Louis will be a day game.

"I told Dusty I'd pitch anywhere he wants me to pitch," Arroyo said. "It doesn't matter -- one through five -- it's fine by me. You can put a label on whatever you want -- I will take the ball 34 times. It doesn't matter."

League switch could be boon to Melky

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When the Braves traded Javier Vazquez to the Yankees in December, they quickly learned that many of their fans were not too excited about the fact that Melky Cabrera was the only Major Leaguer included in the return package.

Initial displeasure surrounding the deal was slightly diminished when some of those same fans came to understand the potential of 19-year-old right-hander Arodys Vizcaino, who could prove to be the most influential portion of the return provided by the Yankees.

But while Cabrera certainly isn't the power-hitting slugger that fans were hoping to receive in exchange for Vazquez, Atlanta is excited about the value he could bring while serving as a versatile outfielder whose offensive potential may yet to have been realized.

"His power is going to come," said Braves utility man Eric Hinske, who played with Cabrera last year with the Yankees. "I think he hit 13 homers last year, but he's got 20-plus capabilities."

While playing with the World Series champion Yankees last year, Cabrera hit .274 with the 13 homers, racking up 10 stolen bases and sporting a .752 OPS. With a quick evaluation of the numbers, Braves manager Bobby Cox believes it's easy to understand why the versatile 25-year-old outfielder found himself overshadowed by the likes of of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.

"When you hit .270 with 13 [homers] there, nobody talks about you," Cox said. "I like Melky. He's a solid outfielder, has a good arm, knows how to play the game and he's a great kid. He's a good leader, from what I've seen."

At first glance, it would be easy to look at the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Cabrera and mistake him for a catcher. But those who saw him patrol the Yankees' outfield the past four years certainly realize that he doesn't look anything like any of the Molina brothers once he starts racing toward fly balls.

"He was by far the best defensive outfielder we had," said Braves reliever Scott Proctor, who shared the Yankees clubhouse with Cabrera during the 2006 and '07 seasons. "When you're toeing the rubber, he's definitely a guy that you want to have behind you."

With Jason Heyward seemingly improving the odds that he'll begin the season as Atlanta's starting right fielder, it appears the switch-hitting Cabrera will likely begin the season sharing the left-field duties with Matt Diaz.

But with his versatility, the Braves envision Cabrera spending time at each of the outfield positions.

During the first two games of the Grapefruit League season, Cabrera has not had the opportunity to show whether he has the kind of power arm that Jeff Francoeur showed over the past couple of seasons in Atlanta.

But while batting leadoff and playing center field in Wednesday afternoon's 9-5 win over the Mets, Cabrera did display his speed while nearly beating out a first-inning grounder that was directed to the third-base side of the mound. Five innings later, he drew a walk to spark a four-run uprising.

"He's a guy that's going to put some good at-bats together," Proctor said. "He's going to hit to the situation and [be] a gap guy. He's just a good all-around hitter. It's going to be interesting to see how he fits in the National League. I think his talents are going to be better exposed in the National League than they were in the American League."

As a switch-hitter with strong defensive skills, Cabrera could certainly prove more valuable while being part of late-inning substitutions which are much more frequent in the NL. But at the same time, the Braves recognize that his background with the Yankees has given him a chance to be recognized as much more than simply a role player in Atlanta.

"He's just a gamer," Proctor said. "He just knows how to play the game the right way. He comes from a winning background, too, with the Yankees. So he knows how to play the game down the stretch. The pressure isn't going to get to him."

Timetable for Cards' Ryan up in the air

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A simple reading of the timetable for Brendan Ryan's rehabilitation timetable from right wrist surgery goes something like this: Ryan wants to hurry back as quickly as possible, while the Cardinals want him to be cautious. The simple reading is probably a bit too simple, but not much.

Ryan knows his own tendency to rush and to be, at times, overly enthusiastic. So he's trying to make sure he doesn't get ahead of himself.

"[I have to] make sure that I have a good understanding of what the big picture is, and remind myself of that not only daily, but hourly," he said.

Thus far, though, Ryan's rehab has gone very well. He didn't do any significant work on Wednesday, giving his wrist a chance to rest after two days of progress. But he expects to get right back to action Thursday. And within two weeks, he expects to be taking batting practice.

"Batting practice should be ... the Monday after next [March 15]," Ryan said, "and then playing, like, the 21st or 22nd -- assuming all goes well."

However well it goes, manager Tony La Russa wants to make sure Ryan doesn't risk his season in order to make an arbitrary deadline. As such, he's declined to answer whether he expects Ryan to play in any Grapefruit League games before the Cardinals break camp.

"I just think it's a bad question to answer," La Russa said. "If I say 'No,' he might push it to prove them wrong. If I say 'Yes,' and he's not ready, he's going to push it. The thing you want to do is just go day by day with him. If he has a setback, slow him down. If he's feeling good, speed it up a little bit."

So far, Ryan has had no setbacks. He even played second base and first base in the Cardinals' intrasquad game on Wednesday, though he didn't throw with his right hand. When he caught a ball, he flipped it with his glove hand.

He's still targeting Opening Day, even as he tries to make sure he doesn't get too far ahead of himself.

"It doesn't seem realistic to me," Ryan said of the possibility of missing the April 5 opener. "That one never seemed realistic to me. I never saw myself not ready for Opening Day, even to this last minute. I don't know. That's what I'm shooting for. That's my plan. But if there's any chance or risk, I'm not going to be stupid. Three games is not worth losing a season."

Wagner holds no hard feelings

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When Reggie Jackson explained why he had brought his star to the Yankees in 1977, he acknowledged money had been a critical factor but also noted that George Steinbrenner had "hustled me like a broad at the bar." Steinbrenner, the former football coach, loved pursuit.

Bobby Cox seldom has become involved in the Braves' pursuit of free agents over the years. Atlanta figured it would need a closer for 2010 though, and after Billy Wagner retired the first three Braves batters he faced -- Chipper Jones and Brian McCann included -- in his first game back with the Mets in September, the Braves knew they wanted him.

"They came after me like they were hunting," Wagner enjoyed saying. He preferred that analogy -- more appropriate for him. And he liked being the prey.

Steinbrenner wined and dined Reggie. The Waldorf, the Plaza. The Braves were wined and dined by Wagner. Who was pursuing whom? Down-home hospitality. Cox, general manager Frank Wren and pitching coach Roger McDowell flew from Atlanta to Virginia to be entertained by the reliever they hoped would entertain thoughts of pitching the ninth innings in Braves victories.

"I went to pick 'em up at the airport, right off the farm in my pickup, poop and mud all over it," Wagner said. "'This is who I am.'"

"And that's exactly what and who we wanted," Cox said Wednesday. "After we saw Billy throw against us in New York that night, we sent some scouts to follow him [after Wagner had been traded to the Red Sox]. We were serious about him right away. I don't know that I've ever gone to see a player before. Maybe I did. I don't recall. But if it meant we were gonna get Billy, then yeah, I'll go for a visit. Ya know, I'm a farm guy, too, like him."

The Mets had neither room nor role for Wagner. But the Braves, who often lacked a certified closer during their runs of division championships, had both as well as a need. So they brought in a 38-year-old left-handed pitcher who missed most of last season and the final two months of the 2008 season. They didn't consider signing him a risk. This was all about reward.

"He'll change the game for us," Cox said.

Wagner was at the park Wednesday when the Mets and Braves played each other for the second straight day. His locker had a No. 13 over it, western boots and hat in it. And tattered jeans as well. It's who he is. And he still has a gunslinger way about him, shooting from the hip.

He identified his brief tour with the Red Sox -- 15 games, 13 2/3 innings -- as "the best experience of my life." It followed a long -- though shorter than expected -- rehab from the elbow surgery he underwent in late summer 2008. And it refueled him. Four hundred saves -- he has 385 -- seemed closer. And John Franco's 424 saves, the most by a left-handed pitcher, didn't seem quite so distant. Thirty-nine saves in a season that ends when he's 39?

But Wagner figures the time he missed with the Mets will allow him to pitch later in life. He has no plan to retire if and when he passes Franco. But those saves will help the Mets, and some of them may work against them.

"I loved my time in New York," Wagner said. "It was everything it was supposed to be. They treated me well. Respectful. They told me if I came back and pitched well, they'd try to trade [rather than exercise the club option on his contract and not save $7 million]. They were helping themselves, but they were helping me, too. I have no problems with the New York Mets. That doesn't mean I wouldn't like saving 'bout 15 games against them."

Not that his time with the Braves won't have its challenges. Cox demands that his players wear slacks, no jeans, even for Spring Training games. It's who he's not.

Shields, Garza excited to get '10 started

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The Rays rolled out a pair of aces Wednesday afternoon, using James Shields and Matt Garza against the Orioles.

Tampa Bay's Nos. 1 and 2 starters got in their work, then retreated to the clubhouse, both eagerly anticipating the beginning of the 2010 campaign.

Shields started and pitched one inning, walking one and striking out another. Garza allowed one run on one hit and one walk while striking out one in two innings.

Not only is Shields the probable No. 1 starter, but he's also an innings eater and a perennial 200-plus-inning guy. Seeing him for just one frame is an anomaly, to say the least. But stints like Wednesday's must be performed in order to build up the endurance to tackle six-plus innings once the season begins.

Aside from the work that must be done this spring, Shields smiled when talking about being back on the bump, pumping fastballs.

"Yeah, it's exciting," Shields said. "It's exciting, and I think the first time out, I held my own for my one inning. It's great to be out here, have that baseball atmosphere experience -- just walking to the bullpen and hearing the crowd yelling my name."

Shields said he got anxious before the outing, but he doesn't get the same kind of adrenaline during a Grapefruit League game as he does during the regular season.

"I got a little bit of adrenaline today," Shields said. "Once the season starts, those are the games that count, and the volume turns up a little bit."

Most would say Garza has the best stuff on the staff and that the sky is the limit for the right-hander. Garza seemed to experience a similar vibe to what Shields felt being back on the field again.

"[I] had that nervousness kick in, and that's when you know you're alive," Garza said.

Garza confessed to feeling some nerves before his outing, noting, "It's good."

"Once those things are gone, you may as well pack up and go home," Garza said. "I was real nervous today; [it] felt good."

Garza threw all fastballs and a changeup while resisting the urge to throw a slider in a situation that called for him to throw the pitch.

"There was a situation where I could have thrown a slider, but we face the Orioles 18 times this year," Garza said. "No reason to show them anything right now. These numbers don't count, as long as I get my work in and I feel good about it."

Neither Shields nor Garza wants to look in the rearview mirror. Shields said he was pleased with the effort of last year's team, noting that the 11-game losing streak at the beginning of September was the "one thing we were disappointed in." Meanwhile, Garza pointed out that 2009 is over and the Rays are now in '10.

Both are now mature Major League pitchers who know what it's like to prepare for and take part in a 162-game season.

"I'm just going to keep on doing what I've been doing," Shields said. "{And I'm gong to] try to be an inning eater. My main goal every year is to stay healthy."

Garza feels that being another year older and having another year of experience under his belt will benefit him greatly.

"Last year, I thought I had a pretty good season, but it's not what I hoped for," Garza said. "And this year, [I want to] just try and improve on what I did bad -- maybe cut down on my walks and make these guys beat me and not beat myself. And that's going to let me go deeper into the games, which means more innings, which takes a lot of pressure off the bullpen. If we can get into that seventh, eighth and ninth every time out, they're going to be happy about it."