As a coach in Milwaukee 10 years ago, Andy Etchebarren remembers a rookie catcher for the Brewers who was so unforgiving of himself, he expected to get a hit every time he stood at the plate, expected to throw out every runner who tried to steal. And if he failed, he seethed.
"He's still a grinder," Etchebarren, now the Orioles' bench coach, said this week. "But he's better about stuff like that than he was then."
Not that B. J. Surhoff has gone soft.
In his second season with the Orioles, Surhoff is many things: starting left fielder, occasional DH, fill-in at three infield positions, producer of line drives and RBIs. But he's about as soft as month-old bread.
You want intensity? Surhoff oozes the stuff.
"He's not an outgoing guy. He keeps a lot of things in," Etchebarren said.
"It depends on the situation, and whether I feel comfortable," Surhoff said. "As far as intensity, that's always been a part of me, what I need to have. But learning to taper it, that's all part of maturing.
"You always have a good time at the ballpark. And it makes it a lot easier to enjoy yourself when you're winning."
Maybe so, but check out the sparring sessions, wrestling matches and other high jinks that occur in the Orioles' clubhouse, and Surhoff usually is a casual observer. That is, if he's there at all. More likely, he's holed up in the cage hitting off a tee.
Surhoff is prone to slumps just like everyone else -- he began this year in a 5-for-29 funk and didn't drive in his first run until the 10th game -- but the devotion he shows in getting out of them is more of a rarity.
"A lot of guys get down on themselves when things aren't going well," Etchebarren said. "He tries to work it, probably too much. If he gets in a bad rut, he'll hit until all the coaches' arms fall off. Or Ricky [Down] spends three hours on the tee with him in the cage. There aren't a whole lot of those guys. He's got to be that way. That's what makes him go."
Down, the Orioles' hitting coach, credits all that the Bronx native accomplishes to his work habits.
"What you try to do, coaches or parents or whatever, is try to teach confidence, and that's nothing more than going out and preparing yourself," Down said. "Every day, he's on the tee. He prepares himself so that once he steps into the batter's box, he can keep it simple, just see the ball and swing the bat. Building a swing is nothing more than being able to repeat the same swing every time, all the time. He's a very confident player, but that confidence is earned. He has a right to trust his mechanics, trust his swing, because he puts in a lot of quality time beforehand."
The curvature in Surhoff's career is bending upward. He set personal highs last year in home runs (21), runs (74), hits (157), triples (six) and RBIs (82). And he'll bring a team-leading .324 average to go with nine homers and 43 RBIs into Toronto tonight, the beginning of a six-game road trip that concludes with a stop in Milwaukee.
The first player selected in the June 1985 draft, Surhoff posted his highest average in '95 (.320), his final season in Milwaukee, before pumping up his power numbers last year.
"My first year went real well," said Surhoff, who batted .299 as a rookie. "The next two, I tried to do too much and I had to go through some learning periods. I had to learn a lot about the game, and myself. Some of it is learning to let things pass, knowing when to push buttons and when to relax a little bit. When to work on things, when to back off a little bit. Figuring out what you can do and can't do."
As for the increase in home runs, Surhoff said, "I used to worry about striking out too much. I didn't always take good swings at balls. And a lot of it becomes confidence, learning how to relax and letting things happen, instead of forcing it."
To fully appreciate Surhoff's ability as a hitter, you have to catch him at the right time, like with two strikes and a runner in scoring position. Watch how he shortens his swing, cuts down on the movement and puts the ball in play.
Surhoff is batting .400 with runners in scoring position, second on the team to Brady Anderson (.417). With less than two outs, the average jumps to .500.
"I've always felt good in that situation, always very comfortable," he said. "That was always part of my game because I didn't hit many home runs, so I needed to drive in runners when I got the chance."
"When the pressure's on," Etchebarren said, "he's there."
He usually was in trouble when facing left-handers, batting .222 lifetime. But before going 0-for-3 against Montreal's Carlos Perez on Wednesday, Surhoff was raking lefties at a .297 clip this year.
And if the bases are loaded, Surhoff is lethal, hitting .444 over his career with four grand slams.
"He's just a good hitter, a good player and a good teammate," Anderson said.
"I don't know about him not being too outgoing, though. If you ask his teammates, they find him very talkative. We can't shut him up."
Opposing pitchers gladly would settle for being able to shut him down.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Mike Mussina (8-1, 3.56) vs. Blue Jays' Pat Hentgen (7-3, 2.81)
Pub Date: 6/20/97