O's should let laid-back Bonilla stay at 3rd

March 09, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- No player can be judged off one inning in the seventh game of spring training, not when he's at a position he hasn't played in more than a year, on a field of less than major-league quality.

Still, it's slowly becoming evident that the Orioles should play Bobby Bonilla at third base and B. J. Surhoff in the outfield, for reasons that have nothing to do with the two errors Surhoff made yesterday.

Both players are below-average at third -- that's a given. The question is, which player is more capable of handling the inevitable difficulties he'll face at the position?

The more easygoing of the two.

The cheerful, unflappable Bonilla.

When you consider that Surhoff probably is a better outfielder, the decision becomes that much easier. The idea is to put the players in the positions where they can best succeed.

Surhoff is better off not worrying about third. The errors he made yesterday were mental, not physical. First, he hesitated on a chopper, and muffed the short hop. Then, he tried to tag a runner with two outs, and rushed his throw to first trying to retire the swift Marquis Grissom.

The run scored, and the Atlanta Braves scored four more times that inning off left-hander David Wells in their 11-3 victory over the Orioles. Surhoff entered the dugout frowning and apologizing. Wells put his arm around him, as if to say, who cares?

Not manager Davey Johnson, who wants Surhoff to get reacquainted at third, and not think every day is an audition. Of course, that's easier said than done for a player who spent his entire career in Milwaukee, and wants to impress his new team.

Surhoff recovered nicely yesterday, starting a bases-loaded double play the next inning, and later throwing out a runner after fielding a bouncer with his bare hand. But he's an intense, emotional player. Why not put him in a position where he can relax?

Orioles fans are going to love him -- Surhoff 's career statistics are nearly identical to Joe Orsulak's, except he drives in more runs. He's a gamer, "a foxhole guy," as Johnson put it. Let's not ask him to be the next Brooks Robinson.

He hasn't played third since 1994. Last season, he played left field, first base and catcher. Of the three, he was least comfortable catching part-time. And in a season when he hit .320, it's revealing that his average at that position was only .171.

Bonilla, on the other hand, has spent his entire career bouncing from position to position, never complaining, always trying his best. That's one of the things least appreciated about him. He knows he's limited defensively, but he works at it.

"Last year, when he was playing third base, we made some really good strides," shortstop Cal Ripken said before yesterday's game. "He's receptive to doing anything and everything to help. That became really obvious."

Bonilla's two months with the Orioles were typical of his career -- he started 38 games in right, 23 at third and even wound up in left late one night at Fenway Park, where a double bounced off his glove to ensure a 12th-inning defeat.

Through it all, he kept hitting, batting .333 in a new league, with 10 homers and 46 RBIs in only 237 at-bats. "Nothing fazes him," Jeffrey Hammonds said. But now Johnson wants him settled at one position, for Bonilla's own good, and the good of the team.

So, bring on the $23 million infield. Ripken, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro lead the majors in hits at their respective positions in the '90s, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Bonilla, with 890 hits at all positions combined, is two shy of Wade Boggs' major-leading total for third basemen.

A bopper at every position.

Wow.

Bonilla isn't going to win a Gold Glove -- each of the other three might -- but if he's good enough for Ripken, he should be good enough, period. He has taken grounders at third all spring. The moment Johnson asks, he'll be ready. And if Johnson doesn't ask, he'll just jog to right, and that will be that.

For now, the Surhoff experiment will continue, and that certainly is fair. Bonilla shouted to reporters, "It's spring training. That's what spring training is for." Overall, Johnson likes what he is seeing, and so does Sam Perlozzo, the coach working most closely with Surhoff.

Whoever winds up at third, Bill Ripken likely will be the late-inning replacement, and Manny Alexander could get an occasional start. Surhoff and Bonilla also figure to be part of the rotation at designated hitter. Johnson wants flexibility, above all.

Surhoff hardly sounded discouraged yesterday: "I just made some bad plays. I just made a couple of errors in judgment." The Orioles shouldn't be, either, not when one of their third-base candidates batted .320 last season, and the other .329. It's not like we're talking about Rick Schu and Craig Worthington.

Still, this is about trying to make the pieces fit best. Maybe Bonilla is a better third baseman than Surhoff, maybe he isn't. But at least he played the position last season. And at least he won't press to the point where he keeps forgetting the number of outs.

Bonilla at third, Surhoff in the outfield.

It should happen.

It will.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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