With relaxed perspective, Surhoff can see stars

Outfielder frets less, hits more, may achieve club's best offensive year

Inside the Orioles

July 11, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Splitting time between an intermediate level crossword and a request for introspection, B. J. Surhoff handles both with ease. Approached for the turning point of a season that has been nothing short of remarkable, the Orioles left fielder ponders only briefly.

If the reply were a crossword, he would answer in ink.

Surhoff remembers May 29. A Saturday afternoon in Oakland when he did not start because of an 0-for-12 slump and the presence of starter Gil Heredia.

A lifetime ago -- or, say, just last season -- Surhoff would've plopped heavily on the bench, grinding his teeth, perhaps obsessing over his recent string of failed at-bats and wondering how he could reverse a three-day slump sitting beside the water cooler. But on this night, Surhoff waited patiently, even as slow-working Orioles starting pitcher Jason Johnson fell behind 5-0 by the third inning.

The Orioles closed to 5-3 in the seventh inning. With two outs in the eighth, Will Clark and Albert Belle singled, Harold Baines homered and reliever T. J. Mathews was rushed into the game. Surhoff was inserted as a pinch hitter, something he had done 68 times in his career without as much as one RBI.

"I just remember being real comfortable and not even thinking about the last few at-bats," Surhoff said. "I was focused on the situation, but it wasn't like I was uptight."

Surhoff homered. The Orioles won the game. And another notch appeared in a first half that, if duplicated, would leave the Orioles' previously unsung left fielder with the most prolific offensive season in franchise history.

More than a pinch-hit home run, Surhoff's 2-month-old at-bat illustrated a telling change in perspective. "I used to carry bad at-bats around with me," he said. "I've tried to move beyond that, and I think I've been pretty successful. [Poor at-bats] don't stay with me as long. I think I'm better at looking ahead instead of dwelling on what's already happened."

For three days in Boston this week Surhoff will be allowed, even encouraged, to reflect. Little more than a half-season has given him time enough to hit 20 home runs and produce 70 RBIs, 41 extra-base hits and three hitting streaks of 12 games or more.

As the Orioles began this weekend's series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Surhoff had hit safely in 35 of his past 37 and 50 of his past 55 games. The left fielder was also on pace for 233 hits, which would smash Cal Ripken's franchise record of 211 set during his 1983 MVP season. Surhoff's projected .339 average would eclipse Ken Singleton's 22-year-old club record of .328.

Teammate Mike Mussina describes Surhoff's first half as "an MVP-type season." As frequently occurs, Surhoff's offensive exploits have thrown light on his defense, which includes nine outfield assists without an error.

"There are a lot of things in this game you can't control, but one of them is your effort," Surhoff said. "Since defense is all about effort, it is one of the things you can bring to the park every day."

In three previous years, Surhoff has never led the Orioles in hitting, home runs or RBIs. Indeed, he has never hit .300 in a full season. Now, he is on pace to accomplish all three, becoming the first player to win the team Triple Crown since Rafael Palmeiro in 1995. Gus Triandos, Jim Gentile, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Ripken, Mike Devereaux and Palmeiro are the members of the club. Only Gentile (1961) and Robinson (1966, his Triple Crown year) did so while hitting .300 with at least 40 home runs and 120 RBIs.

Surhoff hardly lifts the shade covering his success except to cite his mental adjustment. Manager Ray Miller cites the contributions of hitting coach Terry Crowley and Surhoff's presence in the lineup in front of Belle. They're all likely factors; none has been in place before this season.

Surhoff's first half is doubly remarkable for its timing. A month shy of 35 and in his 13th major-league season, he has broken out at a time when most position players have crested, almost five years after a player's supposed power peak. Surhoff didn't manage 10 home runs until 1995 and last year established his career high, 22. If he exceeds last year's 92 RBIs, Surhoff would have improved upon his previous season's total for a fifth consecutive year.

Projections do little for Surhoff, whose creed is to "take the game as it comes." The present offers enough challenges without trying to guess the future.

Questions regarding his possible All-Star selection were deflected until New York Yankees manager Joe Torre made it official on Wednesday. (Surhoff made an irrefutable case with 11 RBIs in last weekend's four-game series at Yankee Stadium.) Only then did Surhoff let down his guard to embrace the distinction of becoming the American League's oldest first-time All-Star since Doyle Alexander in 1988. Surhoff no longer stands as the active player with the most career RBIs and second-most career hits never to make the game.

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