B.J. Surhoff did not always view each at bat as a matter of life
or death. There was a time when he took the game much more
seriously. "I'd have a bad day, and I'd let it affect my entire
life," says Surhoff. "I've gotten a lot better in that way."
He's gotten better in almost every way. At 34, in his 13th big
league season, Surhoff is stronger, smarter and more confident
than he once was, and not quite as sullen. The Baltimore
Orioles' leftfielder still smiles about as often as teammate
Albert Belle sends a balloon-a-gram to the press box, but
Surhoff says he no longer allows the game's daily grind to wear
These days he steps into the batter's box without fear of
striking out or losing his job, an approach that has freed him
to enjoy his most productive season--and, as a result, to earn
his first trip to the All-Star Game. Batting third in the
Baltimore order, Surhoff entered the midseason break not only
with the second-most hits in the majors (123) and the
seventh-best average in the American League (.332) but also with
surprising power numbers. His 20 home runs and 71 RBIs were tops
on the woeful Orioles and put him on pace to shatter his career
highs of 22 and 92, respectively.
"The power has always been there; I just had to find a way to
tap it," says Surhoff. "Mostly it's a matter of learning to
relax at the plate. You don't worry about striking out and
looking bad as much as before."
In his first eight years in the majors, all with the Milwaukee
Brewers, Surhoff never hit more than seven home runs in a
season. "I used to play him to spray the ball to left or left
center," says Baltimore centerfielder Brady Anderson. "Now he's
got unbelievable power to center and right."
Surhoff started putting the game in perspective in 1995, his
ninth and last year with Milwaukee. He had been a free agent
after an injury-plagued '94 season but signed a minor league
contract with the Brewers despite having received two major
league offers. He stuck with the big club after spring training
but played six positions that season. Still fighting for job
security at 30, he had his best year at the plate: .320, 13
homers and 73 RBIs in just 117 games. Then the Orioles lured him
away with a three-year, $3.7 million free-agent deal. Last
December, Surhoff re-upped with Baltimore for three more years
and $14 million. "I never wanted to leave Milwaukee," he says,
"but this was just a perfect fit."
Finally, Surhoff could step up to the plate without one eye on
the rearview mirror. He was free to swing for the fences and
strike out. Last season he fanned a career-high 81 times, and
this year he has struck out 42 times. No big deal. He knows
he'll still have a job when he gets back to the dugout.
The Orioles didn't mess with Surhoff even after they signed
Belle, a career leftfielder, as a free agent following last
season; the new guy switched to right. The team's confidence in
Surhoff served to raise his faith in himself. "He's got a pretty
good idea of how to play this game now," says Baltimore hitting
coach Terry Crowley, "and a pretty good swing."
Indeed, while Surhoff has decent size (6'1", 200 pounds) and
strength, he relies on exceptional timing to generate power. His
home run stroke often looks like a gentle flick of the wrist
until the ball sails beyond the rightfield fence. "It's like
golf," he says. "Sometimes the best hits are the ones you can
barely feel off the bat."
And sometimes a player needs time to learn that by relaxing, he
can get a lot more of those hits.
Proven sluggers aren't the only ones teeing off in this year's
homerfest. Long-ball fever has trickled down to hitters with
average power. The following players, each of whom hit at least
10 home runs in a season before 1999, already had surpassed
their career highs by the midseason break.
PLAYER, TEAM PREVIOUS HIGH 1999
Fernando Tatis, Cardinals 11 18
David Bell, Mariners 10 15
Jermaine Dye, Royals 12 17
Magglio Ordonez, White Sox 14 18
Richie Sexson, Indians 11 15
Jay Bell, Diamondbacks 21 24
Brian Giles, Pirates 17 18
These players are well on their way to single-season bests.
PLAYER, TEAM CAREER HIGH 1999
David Nilsson, Brewers 20 19
Garret Anderson, Angels 16 14
Mike Lieberthal, Phillies 20 18
B.J. Surhoff, Orioles 22 20
Tony Batista, Blue Jays 18 15
Russ Davis, Mariners 20 17