Being a hometown favorite has been a great experience for Tucson Sidewinders outfielder Scott Hairston in many ways. But it's one he'd rather not repeat in 2007.
Hairston's on-field performance in 2006 shows he is more than ready to be a full-time contributor about an hour up Interstate 10 in Phoenix for the parent Arizona Diamondbacks.
The problem is, the Diamondbacks may not be ready for him.
Hairston, 26, had his best offensive season this year, hitting .323 with 26 home runs and 81 RBIs in 98 games for the Sidewinders. His .591 slugging percentage led the Pacific Coast League, while his .407 on-base percentage ranked fifth.
He missed a month while recovering from a shoulder injury suffered when he crashed into the outfield wall in his first game following a long-awaited Major League callup. Upon his return, Hairston was still the consistent spark in the lineup of perhaps the best team in the Minors this year.
He capped that somewhat abbreviated season by earning Most Valuable Player honors at the inaugural Bricktown Showdown in Oklahoma City, where he went 2-for-4 and drove in the first run in the Sidewinders' 5-2 win over International League champion Toledo.
Hairston returned to Arizona in September and batted .400 in limited action. Now he receives one more honor: MiLB.com's Triple-A Offensive Player of the Year.
Though he was the Diamondbacks' third-round pick in 2001 out of Central Arizona Junior College, he has been regarded as a promising prospect ever since and would be perfectly happy to spend his pro career in Arizona red and black. He also realizes that may not be in the cards.
Despite his glowing numbers, barring a trade or injury, the Diamondbacks appear to have their starting outfield somewhat set in Eric Byrnes in left, Chris Young in center and Carlos Quentin in right.
So where does that leave Hairston?
"I want to stay here in Arizona," he said. "My family's here, my wife's family is here. I love the city. Everything could be perfect. But if in their eyes I don't fit in, that kind of disappoints me. But I'll continue to work hard."
Hairston, a third-generation baseball legacy whose brother (Jerry Jr.), dad (Jerry Sr.) and grandfather (Sam) all played in the Majors, originally came up through the Diamondbacks' ranks as a second baseman.
In 2005, however, the club moved him to left field, ostensibly in anticipation of the eventual departure of popular veteran Luis Gonzalez.
Gonzalez did leave via free agency after the '06 season, but by that time Byrnes had played his way into a full-time job. And with one of the deepest crops of up-and-coming outfielders in the Minors, Hairston is sadly realistic about where he stands coming into the '07 campaign.
"When they told me I was moving to left field, they felt it would be the quickest way for me to get to the big leagues," he said. "Now, obviously, things aren't looking like I'd planned. It's not easy because I've worked really hard to get in the position I'm in right now and I feel I've done all I can to make myself a good outfielder."
Hairston's last two seasons could be summed up in two words: bad luck; make that three: stunningly bad luck.
With his crash outfield course coming along well, he was hitting .311 with 16 homers and 40 RBIs in 58 games when he stepped to the plate against the Sacramento RiverCats in July 2005.
In one of the strangest injuries in recent memory, he tried to get out of the way of an errant fastball and took the pitch on a pressure point in his back. In a reflex action, his shoulder shrugged up quickly and slid out of its socket, resulting in a torn labrum that ended his season.
"When they were making their plans for 2006, I think they had some doubts about how I'd come back, so I wanted to prove to them I was healthy," he said. "Every day I was in Tucson I wanted to let them know, 'Hey, I'm ready to play in the big leagues.'"
Hairston was hitting .340 with 18 homers and 55 RBI in mid-June when he got called up, only to crash into the wall in Pittsburgh in his first game and spend the next month on the DL again, this time with a torn rotator cuff.
"I guess timing is everything," he joked. "And I've had really bad timing."
Not surprisingly, 2006 was an emotional season for Hairston, who made sure to channel those emotions onto the field, a factor to which he attributes his outstanding season.
"On any given day, I had ups and downs, and I used these emotions to make myself better," explained Hairston, who lived with his parents in Tucson during the regular season. "If I was upset, I used that as fuel. I wanted to make an impression on everyone that was watching me because I know in this game there are scouts there every day -- ours and other teams' -- and I wanted to make them believe I could be part of their future."
And while Hairston would like nothing more than to be in the Majors -- with someone -- in 2007, he would not trade his 2006 experience with the amazing Sidewinders team for anything.
"The chemistry was so great. I don't think I've ever been a part of something like that before," he said. "Everybody got along. Every day was a joy. We were all pulling for each other and we never doubted ourselves."
With all of the individual statistics that Hairston piled up, there is no hesitation when he is asked the single highlight of his season: the moment the Sidewinders beat Round Rock to win the Pacific Coast League championship.
"I remember running in when the final out was made, I remember the joy I felt looking around as we all piled up," he said. "I was so happy and excited that I could hardly feel my legs, they were like Jell-o. ... Jumping up and down and being with all the guys, it's a moment you try to savor."
For now, as he waits for the beginning of the 2007 season, this baseball lifer knows how much is out of his control. He has to wait to see what moves the Diamondbacks make, if any, stay in shape and get ready for what the new year brings.
Meanwhile, he is savoring other moments, such as quality time with his wife, Jill, and watching his young son, Landon, take his first steps.
"Baseball is my job, it's how I provide for my family," Hairston said. "But family comes first."