Versatility has served Hairston well

VIERA, Fla. - Today, center field. Tomorrow, maybe shortstop. Down the road? Jerry Hairston Jr. doesn’t much care where he plays, so long as his manager keeps penning his name on the lineup card.

Since Nationals manager Jim Riggleman envisions getting Hairston 400 to 500 at-bats in 2011, and since Hairston doesn’t have a regular position, that versatility is a bonus. The 13-year major league veteran, who came up in the Baltimore Orioles’ system as a second baseman, didn’t always embrace the utility role, but it’s helped him prolong a successful career.

“Anything can happen, you’re never bored,” said Hairston, who was signed as a free agent Jan. 19. “It’s an interesting job I have. You never know where you’re going to be. It does keep it fresh, it keeps it interesting.”

Guys like Hairston, pinch hitter deluxe Matt Stairs and infielder Alex Cora represent an upgrade over Nationals’ benches of seasons past. That was something both Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo made an offseason priority. The veterans know their roles, and willingly help out the younger players on the roster.

“Guys like Ian Desmond and Espy (Danny Espinosa), guys that are up and coming, they really keep it fresh for me,” Hairston explained. “I remember being in their shoes. Their energy really rubs off on the older guys.”

The Orioles moved Hairston to center field to get him in the lineup because second base was occupied by Brian Roberts. Hairston didn’t really like the positional switch, but went along with it because it provided playing time he otherwise wouldn’t have received.

“Sometimes, you have things not go your way,” Hairston said. “It’s a matter of how you react to them.”

Now, almost a decade later, he realizes the move helped establish him as a major leaguer when sitting on the bench may have prematurely ended his career. Hairston is a third-generation major leaguer: His grandfather, Sam Hairston (1951), and father, Jerry Hairston (1973-89), both played for the White Sox. Brother Scott Hairston has played in the bigs since 2004; last year, the siblings were San Diego Padres teammates.

“The way the game is geared now, gone are the guys who can hit 50, 60 home runs,” Hairston said. “You need guys that are very versatile, who can do a lot of different things. Who knew back then that it would benefit me these last few years? It’s been fun.”

Oddly, Hairston only uses two gloves: one for the infield, one for the outfield. Some utility guys use so many that they should buy stock in glove manufacturers. The sheer weight of their equipment bags is practically an invitation to the disabled list with back soreness.

“The game’s hard enough as it is,” he said. “Why not keep it simple?”