Big picture for Surhoff a bit fuzzy

Versatile veteran unsure of role with changing O's

March 18, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- B.J. Surhoff has the most prime piece of real estate in the Orioles' spring training clubhouse, an oversized locker that sits on the far-left side of veterans row.

The spot has always been reserved for the team's most beloved player. Before Surhoff, it was Jeff Conine. And before Conine, it was Cal Ripken.

Surhoff, 39, has been a fan favorite at Camden Yards for years, but in some respects, he can't help but feel out of place this spring. He spent most of the offseason wondering if the Orioles even wanted him around any more.

"They knew I wanted to come back," Surhoff said yesterday. "I got held hostage a little bit."

Surhoff's biggest issue might be that he likes Baltimore too much. His wife, Polly, is a member of the Maryland Swimming Hall of Fame. The couple has a son who is treated for autism in a nationally recognized program at Johns Hopkins University, and the family is very active in local charities.

This is why Surhoff broke down and cried on July 31, 2000, when the Orioles traded him to the Atlanta Braves. This is why he came back with a minor-league deal last spring.

Surhoff's contract wasn't guaranteed unless he made the Opening Day roster, but he did, earning him $1 million. Then he earned about $400,000 more through incentives after batting .295 in 93 games.

When the season ended, Surhoff knew he wanted to come back. But he said he didn't hear from the team until Dec. 5.

"I was a little disappointed they took so long to talk to me," Surhoff said. "All I wanted them to do was tell me whether there was a possibility I might be in their plans or I might not be in their plans."

Surhoff said he would have signed with another team, but that certainly wasn't his first choice.

Facing a Dec. 7 deadline, the Orioles offered Surhoff salary arbitration with an understanding that he would reject it. Basically, it gave the sides another month to negotiate.

Orioles vice presidents Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan had a lot on their plates. They changed managers, replacing Mike Hargrove with Lee Mazzilli and orchestrated a free agent signing frenzy in which they spent $121.5 million on Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson.

"It takes time to put a puzzle together," Flanagan said. "There were a lot of pieces. B.J. was one of those pieces."

The Orioles were considered the favorites to sign free agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero until he signed with the Anaheim Angels on Jan. 10. Had the Orioles signed him, it certainly would have affected Surhoff's standing.

"I understood the situation," Surhoff said. "They were after some people, and you're not necessarily a priority, but I would have at least liked a phone call to say A, B, C or nothing. Then I could have pursued some things more vigorously or prepared for that."

The final deadline was Jan. 8. Just before it passed, Beattie and Surhoff's agent, Greg Clifton, hammered out a deal loaded with performance incentives.

Surhoff signed another minor-league deal, and he agreed to a pay cut. His new deal will pay him $800,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster, and he can make up to $1.15 million more in incentives.

He made two trips to the disabled list last year, but if he can stay on the active roster all season, he'll make an additional $650,000. The other $500,000 in incentives are based on plate appearances and games played.

First Surhoff has to make the team. Besides the offense he brings, he can play first base, left field and right field.

"I'm not sure they've quite figured out how I fit in," Surhoff said. "I know if I take care of myself, then my role will evolve. Things have a way of working out, and I will be playing."

Coming into camp, Surhoff appeared to be the top candidate to hold down regular designated hitter duties. But that was before the Orioles knew David Segui's surgically repaired wrist was healthy.

So there's still a logjam, and when second baseman Jerry Hairston comes off the disabled list from his broken finger -- likely the second or third week of the season -- the roster decision will be complicated. Barring a trade, the Orioles might have to pick a roster spot between Surhoff and 25-year-old slugger Jack Cust.

Yesterday, Cust crushed a ninth-inning homer over the right-field bleachers to give the Orioles a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros.

Surhoff did not play, but in 20 at-bats this spring, he is hitting .250 with one home run and six RBIs. Presumably, he is guaranteed a spot on the roster if he's healthy. Asked about the pending decision yesterday, Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said: "That's a loaded question right there. ... B.J.'s fine. B.J.'s fine."

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