Ryan Flaherty was being peppered in his old Portland school cafeteria Thursday.
The eighth-graders at Lyman Moore Middle School were getting their first look at the famous alumnus, a baseball player for the Baltimore Orioles, and they were clamoring for insight.
The second question knocked Flaherty off his feet like a Mariano Rivera brushback pitch.
“How long did it take you to get your hair that poofy?” one student asked while his classmates giggled.
“Those are the questions I’ve been waiting for,” Flaherty said, chuckling himself.
Finally, he offered: “Longer than you think.”
Flaherty can be forgiven for not being impeccably groomed. He is back in Portland spending the holidays with his family, staying in his old room, and admitted later that he had been awoken by a 7:30 a.m. phone call from Principal Stephen Rogers to get him to his 9:15 a.m. speaking engagement at Lyman Moore.
It was the first time Flaherty, 27, had graced the hallways since his time as a student there, and he was surprised to note that nothing had seemed to change.
“Most of the teachers are still here; they all still look the same,” he said.
This is a pivotal offseason for Flaherty, who hit .224 with 10 home runs while playing every infield position for the Orioles in 2013. His primary home was second base, where he’s a terrific defender now in prime position to claim an everyday spot after veteran Brian Roberts signed with the Yankees.
Baltimore traded for Jemile Weeks from Oakland and has top prospect Jonathan Schoop also waiting to battle Flaherty for that spot.
Flaherty, a two-year utility player for the Orioles, bats left-handed and has yet to be given much of a chance to face left-handed pitching (only 23 of his 246 at-bats last season).
He knows that’s an area he must work on, and said Thursday he began his offseason hitting regimen even earlier this winter with an eye on bigger improvement,
“You never know what’s going to happen. I need to make sure I’m ready for whatever it is,” he said of the Orioles’ plans for him.
“They’re probably still up in the air with what’s going to happen in terms of signings.”
Flaherty was happy to take a break from that uncertainty to fly home to Portland, where he is reconnecting with his family and friends. He will return to Sarasota, Fla., for baseball work after the first of the year.
“The four or five close friends I have today all went to middle school here, and we talk all the time,” he told the Lyman Moore students.
“It’s really where you start to develop some of your fundamental skills socially, academically, that you take on for the rest of your life.”
Rogers said that, after the school’s Career Day offerings, students asked to hear from a professional athlete. Flaherty was happy to oblige, graciously answering 20 minutes worth of wide-ranging questions before signing dozens of autographs for the eighth-graders.
Among the questions Flaherty faced:
â€¢ His salary: “You can find it online, I’m sure. Not as much as a lot of my teammates.” (It was $493,000 last season).
â€¢ Favorite athlete as a child: Derek Jeter.
â€¢ Has he played as himself in the new MLB video game: “I haven’t, but I’ve had friends who do. I’m more of a Madden guy or â€˜Call of Duty.’ … We can play online sometime.”
â€¢ On his grades: “I did pretty well. I don’t know if the Spanish teacher’s in here or not. My mom and dad made a rule for me that if I got under a C in any of the subjects that I had to lose PlayStation for the whole semester. So I’m not sure who my Spanish teacher was, but she owes me one. Because I lost it a lot.”
â€¢ Most memorable MLB moment: “Playing in Fenway Park for the first time was pretty special. Playing in a playoff game in Yankee Stadium, that was pretty cool (Flaherty homered in that 2012 game). We’re from New England and obviously you’ve heard a lot about the Yankees and Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, so those were two cool things.”
â€¢ Favorite NBA player: “I’m a Celtics fan. You have to say (Rajon) Rondo. He’s the only guy that’s still there.”
That last response drew the loudest cheers of the morning from the students.
But Aidan Richman found the whole appearance inspiring.
“It’s nice having him in here,” the eighth-grader said. “It’s a good example of what it means to be successful coming from humble roots.”
Lini Ben dreams of playing in the NBA, and was surprised to learn that a professional athlete got his start at Lyman Moore.
“I had never heard of him,” Ben said. “I was really amazed that he came from here, and now he’s famous.”
Flaherty offered the students some perspective about what it means to be popular.
“Who says who’s popular? There’s no such thing as that in my mind,” Flaherty said. “Find your own niche. Find what you like to do and that’s what’s popular.”