Johnson pumps up 'heartbeat' Surhoff O's quiet contributor overlooked, boss says

March 17, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Orioles manager Davey Johnson decided yesterday that one of his players has not been getting the recognition he deserves, and sought to correct the situation.

"B. J. Surhoff is the most overlooked player on our ballclub for what he does for a team," Johnson said before yesterday's 6-5 exhibition victory over the Minnesota Twins at Hammond Stadium. "This guy just might have been the heartbeat of our team last year."

Surhoff has always been a quiet contributor. He doesn't seek out either attention or credit, but he tends to be somewhere around when things are going well. Maybe not always prominent, but usually productive.

Johnson just wanted to make sure that wasn't going unnoticed.

"Once he puts on the uniform, he doesn't want to talk to you, me or anybody else he's got work to do," Johnson said, "but last year B. J. was one of our most important guys because of what he brings to the team -- versatility, clutch hitting, the way he plays."

He's also important for what he doesn't do. He doesn't complain. He doesn't cause problems in the clubhouse. He doesn't play to the television cameras. He is one of those "foxhole" guys that Johnson likes to talk about the ones you can depend on when you're under fire.

"It doesn't bother me not to be what people consider high-profile," Surhoff said. "What's more important is to have the respect of your peers and your coaching staff. Everybody likes for the fans to love them and cheer for them, but sometimes they aren't able to see what a person is really about. They only get to see the surface."

There were guys with bigger run production numbers, but Surhoff opened the season at third base, willingly switched to the outfield when Bobby Bonilla asked out of the designated hitter role, and still put together the most productive season of his career. He batted .292 with career highs in home runs (21) and RBIs (82), all the while playing through a knee injury that required surgery at the end of the season.

"I think if you asked [Milwaukee Brewers manager] Phil Garner who he misses not having on that club, he'd say Surhoff," Johnson said. "He might have been the most important signing we made before last year."

Of course, Surhoff took the string of compliments in his usual self-deprecating manner, even after he went 3-for-5 yesterday to raise his exhibition average to a respectable .316.

"I'm not sure what prompted that," he said of Johnson's praise. "It sure wasn't my play this spring. I appreciate his confidence, but there are a lot of great players on this team. The great thing about this team is that no one has to carry the whole burden.

When you have Rafael Palmeiro, who had 142 RBIs last year, and Cal [Ripken] and Robbie [Alomar] and Brady [Anderson], it's hard to single out one player."

That's why Johnson was doing it, because Ripken and the other high-profile players on the Orioles' roster already get their share of headlines. And, perhaps, to give an emotional boost to a player who has a tendency to be too hard on himself and too easy on the manager.

"B.J. is the kind of guy that if you have a problem at second base, he can go out there for you," Johnson said, "and he had more clutch hits last year than Bobby Bonilla did."

Surhoff is set to be the Opening Day left fielder, but his versatility could become a curse if Johnson tries to get regular playing time for four outfielders.

Brady Anderson figures to play 150 games in center field, but Surhoff could be moved into the DH role on occasions when Johnson wants a Jeffrey Hammonds or a Tony Tarasco in the lineup.

Johnson sees that flexibility as an advantage -- perhaps even an opportunity to keep Surhoff strong all year -- but he knows that Surhoff prefers to be slotted into a single position.

"He wants to know his role," Johnson said. "I told him this winter he was my left fielder, but I wouldn't hesitate to move him to the infield if that's what we needed.

"I wouldn't want to overdo the DH with him, because of the way he plugs himself into the game. I have to figure out how much outfield and how much DH is acceptable in his mind. I don't want him feeling like I'm using him as a utility man."

Smash opening

B. J. Surhoff established career highs in five offensive categories in his first year with the Orioles in 1996:

Category .. 1996 .. Prev.

Homers . .. . 21 .. ... 13

RBIs ... .. . 82 .. ... 79

Runs ... .. . 74 .. ... 72

Hits ... ... 157 .. .. 151

Triples . .. . 6 .. .. . 4

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Fort Myers, Fla.

TTC Time: 1: 05 p.m.

I= Starters: Orioles' Jimmy Key vs. Red Sox's Tim Wakefield

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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