Catching Up With ... former Oriole B.J. Surhoff
From time to time in The Toy Department, veteran sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called, 'Catching Up With ...'; Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of 'Catching Up With ...'
In eight years with the Orioles, did B.J. Surhoff ever crack a smile? Surely, he had cause. It was here, in mid-career, that Surhoff (1) found his home-run swing, (2) finally landed an All-Star berth and (3) twice led the Birds to the playoffs (1996-97), where they haven’t been since.
Through it all, Surhoff’s grim visage never changed. Hit a homer, jump for joy? Not him.
“I remember that one reporter said my expression was ‘dour,’ “ he said. “I had to look that one up.”
Fans accepted Surhoff’s demeanor as proof of his resolve. They embraced his old-school work ethic, clutch hitting and gritty play, knowing he sought perfection at every turn.
Former Orioles manager Ray Miller once said that Surhoff “could go 5-for-5 at the plate, then pop up a pitch and tear himself apart.”
Persistence remains his legacy, said Surhoff, 45, who retired in 2005.
“What am I proudest of? The fact that I played right, gave everything I had – and that nobody could question my effort,” the Cockeysville resident said. “I absolutely hated to strike out. I didn’t want to be deficient in any part of the game, and I had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror if I didn’t play 100 percent.”
Surhoff would plug any hole to get on the field. Over 19 seasons, he played every position except pitcher. Signed by the Orioles as a free agent in 1996, he spent his best years in Baltimore, batting .292 with 102 homers and 426 RBIs before being traded to Atlanta in July, 2000.
News of the swap stunned fans, who’d watched the left fielder carry the struggling club in 1999, when he made the All-Star team, led the Orioles in hits (207) and was chosen their Most Valuable Player.
At the press conference announcing his trade, from a losing team to a contender, Surhoff did something very un-Surhoff-like.
“No, I didn’t,” he said, in retrospect. “I had really bad allergies that day; they made my eyes water.”
In 2003, Surhoff returned to Baltimore, again as a free agent, to finish out his career. Two years later, in his last hurrah, Surhoff whacked a game-winning single. Afterward, entering the clubhouse, he found teammates wearing big grins and B.J. Surhoff T-shirts.
In 2007, he was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame. This year, he entered the College Baseball Hall of Fame. (At North Carolina, Surhoff held the school’s single-season record for hits until surpassed by Brian Roberts).
Retirement has not changed Surhoff’s mien.
“I’m not on Facebook,” he said. “Twitter, either.”
Intensely private, he lives in a quiet neighborhood with his wife of 20 years, the former Polly Winde, a onetime world class swimmer, and their four children. Austin, 19, swims for Texas and won a gold medal in this year’s NCAA championships. In the stands that day, his father egged him on. Without fanfare.
Nowadays, Surhoff works for Pathfinders for Autism, a non-profit support group based in Hunt Valley that he and his wife helped establish 10 years ago. Surhoff is president of the board. His son, Mason, 18, has autism and attends Kennedy Krieger High School.
An avid golfer, Surhoff participates in charity golf tournaments for other non-profits. He hasn’t gained more than two pounds in retirement.
The rest of his time is spent “getting in the way around the house, and agitating my two (teenage) daughters,” he said. “My kids are my hobby.
“Sometimes, I get on a roll where I read a lot – John Grisham, Tom Clancy, James Patterson and Robert Ludlum. I like fast-moving, intriguing novels.”
Rarely does he attend Orioles games as a fan. The first time he did, Surhoff got lost looking for the concession stand.
“I’d never been anywhere in that stadium but on the field,” he said.
Would he ever return to the game as a coach?
“The minor leagues is not where I’d want to be,” said Surhoff. “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to help the Orioles, in some capacity.”
Twice, he attended spring training as a guest instructor, and word is the Orioles will bring him back this season as a troubleshooter to help slumping players fix their game. The club has broached Surhoff, and he’s interested.
“I have a great affinity for the organization,” Surhoff said. “I want to see the team do well, and to hear fans talk the way they do about the Ravens.
“Has interest (in the Orioles) waned? Yeah. Do people wake up, reaching for The Sun or checking the Internet for the box score, the way they used to? That has ebbed a little. But I have no doubt the ship will get back on track. I don’t think the fix is as far off as people think.”
Baltimore Sun photos of B.J. Surhoff