Blue-collar Surhoff shows true colors

Veteran, 38, has proved to Hargrove, Orioles that he can still get job done

Baseball

March 23, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The orange Orioles floppy hat was the right size for B.J. Surhoff, but it still seemed like an odd fit for one of baseball's most serious players.

As he sat at his locker before a recent exhibition game, his blond hair hidden beneath a silly-looking lid, a visitor asked if Surhoff was making some sort of fashion statement.

"I'm about the only one in here who hasn't," he said, "so I guess I should try."

Style points usually aren't important to Surhoff, 38, a blue-collar worker who churns out quality seasons as if they've been crafted on an assembly line. He will eat the post-game spread in the clubhouse, but it would seem more appropriate for his meals to come from a lunch pail.

Imagine the pride Surhoff had to swallow to accept the Orioles' offer of a minor-league contract. Time was running short, with position players reporting to spring training the next day. Nobody was giving him a guaranteed deal despite his impressive credentials, which included being named Most Valuable Oriole in 1999. He agreed to a contract that would pay $1 million for making the club, with another $1 million available in incentives.

That was Step 2 in Surhoff's return to the Orioles, who first had to be convinced that his rebuilt knee could handle the stress of a full season. Workouts at Camden Yards and examinations by the training staff removed most of the doubts, but Surhoff still had to remain healthy through drills at the spring complex and a succession of games played under a scorching sun. And he still had to carve a place on the 25-man roster, either as a bench player or part of a platoon system in left field.

With Opening Day only a week away, Surhoff would be justified in feeling that his goals have been achieved or exceeded.

Unlike the past two springs, which were spent with the Atlanta Braves after a July 2000 trade, Surhoff didn't need to have fluid drained from his knee. And despite a recent 0-for-11 slump, which he broke with a home run during Friday's game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, it appears he'll have a prominent role with the Orioles this season.

Manager Mike Hargrove already has indicated that Surhoff will be the lineup for the March 31 opener, even though the Cleveland Indians are scheduled to start left-hander C.C. Sabathia. And ever since David Segui was lost with a fractured thumb, Surhoff has been batting third in the order -- the same spot where he set career highs in hits, home runs, RBIs, runs scored and total bases four years ago.

So why isn't he as relaxed as the floppy hat would indicate? "I felt good coming in," Surhoff said, "but until the paperwork's done, nothing's official."

It's pretty close.

The Orioles traded Chris Richard, another left-handed hitting corner outfielder and first baseman who could have filled the same role as Surhoff. Left open to criticism that bringing Surhoff back was done only to improve public relations, they have been exonerated by his fast start.

The slump lowered Surhoff's average to .289 before yesterday, but he has had quality at-bats that didn't produce hits. His first home run, which doubled as his first extra-base hit, crashed into the bleachers in right-center field and gave him nine RBIs.

"The results haven't been as good for me lately, but I still feel good and that's the most important thing," he said. "I went through a stretch of seven or eight games in a row. I don't know if that was by design to see if I could endure the rigors of it."

Taking notice of the sweat beads on his forehead, Surhoff added, "And I don't know if the clubhouse being 1,000 degrees is another test."

He's been in good humor all spring, a noticeable change for an intense individual. It's as sure a sign as any that his right knee, which needed surgery in early May to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, will allow him to stay on the field after he was limited to 25 games last year and became jobless.

"This spring has proven that his knee is fine," said Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations. "It's never an easy travel schedule, and he's held up through that."

The injury occurred as Surhoff chased a ball in the corner, and he couldn't truly put the incident behind him until he had to do it again.

"There were a number of plays, and I don't know if people noticed, that have gotten me over some hurdles -- going into the corner probably being the biggest one," he said. "And also going back to the wall, certain little things I needed to be able to do without thinking about them."

The Orioles signed Surhoff in part because they wanted better protection against another Segui injury. Last year, Luis Garcia batted .214 in spring training but still made the Opening Day roster when Marty Cordova went on the disabled list. All he did was take up space on a thin bench.

"One of the reasons we brought B.J. in was for that flexibility," Flanagan said. "He can play first, he can play third, he can catch. He's a veteran who's familiar with Baltimore. He's one of those clubhouse presence guys. There are a lot of reasons."

"The bottom line," said Jeff Conine, "is he's a good baseball player."

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