No numbers do justice to Surhoff value

May 10, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He was drafted ahead of Will Clar and Barry Larkin, ahead of Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro, ahead of Walt Weiss, Gregg Jefferies and Joey Cora.

Those seven first-round picks from the 1985 amateur draft have combined for 12 Gold Gloves, 27 All-Star selections and four Most Valuable Player awards.

B. J. Surhoff has not earned any of those honors.

And yet, the longer the Orioles left fielder plays, the more he justifies his selection as the first overall pick in '85.

Surhoff, 33, might not be as accomplished as some of the players chosen behind him, but he's a player's player, a coach's favorite, a manager's dream.

The former Brewer is batting .294 after going 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly in last night's 7-0 victory over Tampa Bay, and is second on the club with 25 RBIs.

"Everyone had their opinion about who should have been taken first," Surhoff said. "I'm content with where I ended up, how it ended up."

This is his 12th season. He started as a catcher who once threw out 42 percent of opposing base stealers. He has since played all three outfield positions, first base and third, and been a DH.

His lifetime average is .277. He has batted .300 only once, hit 20 homers only once, never driven in more than 90 runs. And yet, his value is impossible to deny.

"He's a player that has probably always been underappreciated," Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone said.

"He's versatile. He can do a little bit of everything to help you win games. He might not be in that superstar category, but he's in the category just below that."

Looking back, the Brewers had a legitimate reason for drafting Surhoff No. 1. At North Carolina, Surhoff was a left-handed-hitting catcher who could run. Try naming a current major-leaguer who fits that description.

"We were looking for a catcher at that time," said Brewers scouting director Ken Califano, then the area scout assigned to Surhoff. "He was a unique player who could run, do a lot of things that normally you don't associate with a catcher."

Walter Youse, then the Brewers' East Coast scouting supervisor, said the Brewers debated among choosing Surhoff, Bobby Witt and Pete Incaviglia with the first pick.

Clark went second, Witt third, Larkin fourth, Bonds sixth and Incaviglia eighth. Most scouts consider the '85 draft one of the Surhoff best in major-league history. Surhoff was thought to be the most complete player of all.

"Surhoff doesn't have the power of a Clark or Incaviglia, but he's better balanced," Brewers GM Harry Dalton said then. "Incaviglia has a good bat and good power, but he doesn't have the defensive tools Surhoff has."

Surhoff skipped Double-A and spent only two seasons in the minors, batting .299 as a rookie for the Brewers in 1987.

Clark, a first baseman, made an even more rapid ascent, joining the Giants in '86.

"I heard it a little bit in Milwaukee," Surhoff said. "Some people understood that it was just a different position. Catching is a totally different animal."

Surhoff became a solid, dependable player in Milwaukee, but he has hit for more power since joining the Orioles in '96, benefiting from the switch from County Stadium to Camden Yards.

His next home run will be the 100th of his career. The first 57 came in his nine seasons with the Brewers. The last 42 have come in his two-plus seasons with the Orioles.

"That's probably the biggest disappointment for me in terms of my hitting in the big leagues -- my power numbers didn't start to come until '93," Surhoff said.

"When I say power, I mean extra-base hits. I look back and say it's ridiculous that I hit five or six homers in a year. One year going into August, I didn't have any."

That's typical Surhoff, forever unsatisfied. Remember the Brewers' 12-0 victory over the Orioles on Opening Day 1988? Surhoff, taking over as the Brewers' No. 3 hitter, still talks about grounding into a double play on a 2-0 changeup that day.

This, from a player who is 53-for-118 lifetime with the bases loaded, a Murray-esque .449 average.

Orioles manager Ray Miller said that Surhoff can go 5-for-5, then "pop up a pitch and tear himself apart." Surhoff even blamed himself for his throw -- after a sprawling catch -- that glanced off Shawon Dunston's foot Tuesday in Cleveland, allowing a run to score.

The Orioles signed him to play third base, then moved him to left after acquiring Todd Zeile for the stretch drive in '96.

Surhoff became such an accomplished left fielder, Miller resisted the idea of moving him to right this season to accommodate Joe Carter.

"You can't think of anything negative about him," Miller said. "The only thing you can say is that he works too hard. But that might be why he's as good as he is."

Surhoff didn't become a star like Ken Griffey, the first overall pick in 1987, or Alex Rodriguez, the top choice in '93. But he certainly turned out better than noted busts Steve Chilcott ('66), Danny Goodwin ('75) and Shawn Abner ('84).

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