To put it bluntly, O's need Surhoff

March 05, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - This should be the making of a nice homecoming: B.J. Surhoff starting in left for the Orioles' March 31 opener at Camden Yards.

The former Oriole who shed some unexpected tears the day he was abruptly traded to Atlanta in the middle of 2000 is happy to be back, even if it's with a minor-league deal and even with manager Mike Hargrove calling Surhoff "no spring chicken."

"I don't think anyone expects me to be 22 years old," Surhoff said.

Then again, maybe some people do expect him to be 22 - or at least not on the verge of 39 with an arthroscopically repaired knee.

Unfazed by the strains of harsh sentiment against him, Surhoff offers a meaty, manly, veteran response to nagging queries about whether he thinks he's stealing a roster spot from an Orioles minor-leaguer on the verge of a major-league breakthrough. Legitimate question.

"Just because a guy is brought to the big leagues doesn't mean he's a big-league player," Surhoff said, his eyes surveying the rather, uh, youthful (read: talent-thin) Orioles spring clubhouse.

Legitimate answer.

"There's a lot of guys brought to the big leagues who have no business being here. It's a simple numbers game. They don't have anybody else. I'm not talking about anyone in particular."

God, we love veterans.

Larry Bigbie fans may believe the kid is getting a raw deal because the Orioles have brought Surhoff to camp. We don't want any stopgap measures, is one battle cry among talk-show callers.

Meanwhile, some of us think the older the better, providing they can still bring it, which Surhoff assures us he can.

"I missed games because I hurt my knee. It's not like my skills vanished into thin air the day it happened. My understanding is that they brought me here to play. The minor-league contract is a formality," he said.

Youth movements are good for rebuilding clubs, but there's something about the presence of at least one or two battle-tested veterans to keep the boat from capsizing, a la 2002.

Oldsters such as Surhoff tend to keep things honest. Oldsters can hurl out tips and advice to the young. They offer perspective and historical analysis to the media that recognize them as fountains of information.

"I have opinions," Surhoff said, teasing us with the prospect that if he indeed makes the club he'll be a clubhouse go-to guy.

Best of all, no class of athlete can deal deadly zingers better than the vets.

"The Orioles [fielded a youthful lineup] in the middle of 2000, and that went over well for about a month until everyone realized they had a minor-league team out there," Surhoff said.

Surhoff may have been a lesser luminary back when Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Mussina were starring for the once-mighty Orioles, but Surhoff has the requisite major-league pedigree, skill and experience for his presence and opinion to count for a lot this season.

No wonder Jeff Conine, another oldster, whose spring training locker is adjacent to Surhoff's, makes no bones about it: The Oriole are better off with Surhoff here.

Of course, they would have been even better off with Cliff Floyd, Hideki Matsui or Ivan Rodriguez, but what's the point of crying over missed opportunities?

No doubt diehard fans eager to see signs of the club's turnaround view Surhoff' as an example of what's still wrong with the Orioles. The club's free-agent market trolling yielded no front-line position players and, so far, with a dire need to restock the barren farm system, co-general managers Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie have not been able to package any of their more alluring players - and we use that term lightly - to bring back minor-league prospects.

We suspect that the Orioles will cut some of these deals - unless Flanagan and Beattie are such incredible perfectionists looking for great value in their first big score that they won't pull the trigger on any deal unless it is absolutely flawless.

In the meantime, what are you going to do? Blame Surhoff because the Orioles are, three seasons after they traded all those veterans and commenced a rebuilding project, still rebuilding?

"As a fan, I know I want to see people who can play," Surhoff said. "If you're rebuilding, stick to it, but there are a lot things you can do to make the atmosphere competitive while you're trying to fix it."

Fact is, it has been a good year for oldsters. Michael Jordan is working to preserve his NBA best-ever scoring average while trying to lead the dysfunctional Wizards to the playoffs. Martina Navratilova just won a record (for anyone) 168th doubles title to go with her 167 singles titles. Super Mario Lemieux is still a magician on the ice. Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Curt Schilling are still the best in the big leagues.

Likewise, even a solid player such as Surhoff - a career .281 hitter who was coveted by contenders Atlanta and Seattle back in 2000 - brings something to an organization like the Orioles, who are, regrettably, still in the middle of a big, fat muddle.

"I think they're looking for people [minor-leaguers] to do a little bit more before saying they're ready for the big leagues," Surhoff said.

"And now, the market the way it is, they can get a guy who's a pretty good player for a decent dollar amount and still fix what they're trying to do. There's a lot more pieces to the puzzle than the average person thinks about.

"They said this team was tired at the end of last season [when the Orioles went 4-32 after Aug. 23]. A tired team? I'll bet you there were 30 teams that were tired last September. ... Some of us older guys take care of ourselves better than some of these people and can get through a season."

Tough talk from not a spring chicken, who wouldn't mind a good fight for a starting job.

We like it.

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