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Unsung Orioles heroes: B.J. Surhoff

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Over eight seasons in Baltimore, Surhoff provided versatility in the field, a reliable lefty bat, and a steady presence on some of the best Orioles teams of the last decades.

American League Championship Series - Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Indians - Game One
Surhoff making a great catch in left during Game 1 of the 1997 ALCS.

As far as I can recall, my hardcore B.J. Surhoff fandom dates back to January 1997, at Orioles FanFest. A toothy, chubby-cheeked 11-year-old with pigtails and round blue Harry Potter glasses, I handed a baseball to one William James Surhoff, then quietly signing autographs in a loud patterned sweater. When you meet a ballplayer as a kid, they tend to tower in your mind forever.

But there’s still a decent chance that Surhoff would have become my favorite Oriole of those great teams of the late ‘90s anyway. For me, heroes on the diamond tend to be, if not underdogs, then the steady-as-they-come, day-in-day-out grinders who don’t usually make All-Star ballots, but do always seem to be delivering for their team. And who fits that description better than B.J. Surhoff?

A famously unselfish player, wrote the Sun in 2010, Surhoff “would plug any hole to get on the field.” Over his 19 professional seasons, he played every position except pitcher. He had a ton of what former Orioles manager Buck Showalter would call “want-to.” Ray Miller, whom Surhoff played for, recalled that he “could go 5-for-5 at the plate, then pop up a pitch and tear himself apart.”

Surhoff had a gifted, showy college ball career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The two-time All-American set a bunch of school records, including his .392 career average and 98 hits in a season (a record that, incidentally, was broken by Brian Roberts in 1997). Surhoff was also a member of a star-studded first U.S. Olympic baseball team in 1984 (along with this guy and this guy and this guy).

The #1 overall pick in the 1985 draft for Milwaukee, Surhoff started his lengthy MLB career a gifted young catcher who threw out 42 percent of opposing base stealers. That’s how the Brewers used him from 1987 until 1992, when they moved him to third base. There’s decent evidence that, after Surhoff put down the catcher’s mitt, his offense started to take off. In 1995, his final year with Milwaukee, he cracked double-digit home runs and wouldn’t dip under this bar until 2003, when his playing time was limited. His OPS+ was sub-100 in five of six years as a catcher; in 13 seasons as a third baseman and outfielder, he cracked 100 nine times. After being traded to Baltimore in 1996, Surhoff spent one season at the hot corner before getting moved again, to left field to make room for Mike Bordick. That’s pretty much where he would stay, although managers continued to plug him in all over the diamond, even at shortstop.

B.J. Surhoff was part of some great Orioles teams, especially the 1996 squad that bopped an MLB-leading 257 home runs and beat Cleveland in the ALDS, and the 1997 squad that featured five All-Stars (Cal Ripken, Robbie Alomar, Brady Anderson, and pitchers Mike Mussina and Randy Myers), finished first in the AL East at 98-64 and defeated Ken Griffey Jr.’s Mariners in the ALDS. Surhoff got his own trip to the All-Star Game in 1999 (and the Home Run Derby), his greatest season at the plate, when he hit .308 with 28 home runs and 107 RBI.

In 1998, the Orioles’ assistant GM described him as a “player that has probably always been underappreciated.” When you consider Surhoff’s career stats, it’s kind of shocking. The guy was good. In 19 seasons (and how many players have that longevity?), he racked up 2,326 career hits, 1,153 RBIs, a .282 average, and 34.4 WAR. In 1,001 games for the O’s (16th on the all-time franchise list), he knocked 1,072 hits (a team 13th-best) and 120 home runs (18th).

So why does Surhoff remain an “unsung” Oriole, below the ranks of guys like Brian Roberts or Brady Anderson or Melvin Mora or Mike Bordick? One possibility is because he played with bigger stars. Surhoff was there when Anderson hit 50 home runs in 1996. He was there when Mussina came two outs short of a perfect game in 1997. He was there when Rafael Palmeiro hit his 500th home run in 2003. He wasn’t there for 2,131, but he played alongside the Iron Man for the better part of five seasons.

Maybe it’s because his versatility hurt his luster a little bit? His high school coach once said, “[B.J.] could play a million positions”—all except pitcher—and the term “utility guy” definitely has a bit of a condescending nuance. Essentially, Surhoff was a super-utility guy who cracked the regular lineup for the better part of 15 seasons. That same O’s asst. GM explained, of Surhoff, “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.”

Was it because Surhoff didn’t have the personality to be a franchise player? He famously shunned the limelight: a Sun reporter once called his expression “dour,” and the paper later asked, in a retrospective, “In eight years with the Orioles, did B.J. Surhoff ever crack a smile?” Well, this was the same guy who, when he was traded to the Braves in the 2000 fire sale, teared up at the press conference, dabbed his eyes and quipped, “You probably didn’t think I had this in me.”

Since retiring, Surhoff helps out as an Orioles spring training coach, cheers on his very athletic kids and nephews, and serves as the President of the non-profit organization Pathfinders for Autism. And he still lives in Cockeysville, Maryland. As our Mark Brown wrote in 2014, “He got it done on the field and made Baltimore his home off the field—even years after his career has ended, he still lives here.”

Asked by a Sun reporter in 2010 what he was proudest of in his career as a ballplayer, Surhoff answered, “The fact that I played right, gave everything I had—and that nobody could question my effort.”