FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In many ways, B. J. Surhoff has become the perfect Oriole.
He embraces the Ripken mind-set of playing every day. He has made himself into probably the American League's best defensive left fielder while increasing his run production for each of the past five seasons. And his love of Baltimore factored heavily in his decision to sign a three-year, $13 million contract as a free agent after the 1998 season.
Once considered a complementary player, Surhoff enters spring training not only as the club's incumbent Most Valuable Player, but also as a team pillar.
Fourth in tenure to Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson and Mike Mussina, Surhoff also stands as the latest to experience a warehouse winter of intrigue. Depending on who's talking, Surhoff nearly became the third consecutive Orioles MVP to open the season elsewhere or was merely a pawn within a media frenzy.
Speaking about the topic for the first (and possibly last) time since his name arose in December trade talks with the New York Mets, Surhoff said yesterday that he'd been irked by the swirl.
"I didn't sign back here [in 1998] to be traded," said Surhoff, who was wooed by the Mets as a free agent before accepting the Orioles' offer. "If I had wanted to go to New York, I would have gone the year before. It was a little unsettling, a little irritating."
Surhoff said he never spoke to vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift about the discussions, but emphasized yesterday that the talks "irritated" him and that he would have fought any consummated deal by filing a grievance against the club. Surhoff denied a rumored handshake agreement with majority owner Peter Angelos that the Orioles would not pursue trading him for the first two years of his contract but acknowledged having a discussion with Angelos this winter.
"I made a commitment to them, and I think they should honor theirs. There was a reason I asked for a limited no-trade provision," he said.
Surhoff, 35, loves playing in Baltimore, almost as much as he loves playing every day. Now certain of returning to Camden Yards, he carries the game's longest consecutive-game streak and an All-Star ring while dropping the tag of an underrated talent. All occurred last season.
"I'd love to extend it, but it's not the highest priority," said Surhoff, who inherited the distinction from teammate Albert Belle when the right fielder was benched in Atlanta last June. "The reason it came about is that I've been healthy enough to play and the managers think I've been playing well enough. The only thing it means is my health has been good enough and I've been able to play when I'm banged up."
Surhoff laughs at the absurdity of measuring his 324 games against Cal Ripken's untouchable run of 2,632 games. "It's not like you're going to challenge anybody's record. It's going to take, what, 16 years?"
Yet the fact represents more than trivia to a grinder whose contributions have long been underplayed. Surhoff endured injuries for much of his early career as a catcher with the Milwaukee Brewers and suffered hamstring, groin, ankle and knee pain with the Orioles in 1996 and 1997 before finally receiving 550 at-bats in a season for the second time in 1998, his 12th major-league campaign. Surhoff appeared in every game of Ray Miller's tenure as manager, contributing 50 home runs, 183 runs and 199 RBIs during the club's consecutive fourth-place finishes.
As reward for last year's career-high 28 home runs, 107 RBIs and 207 hits, Surhoff was a near-unanimous selection as the Orioles' MVP and earned his first selection to the All-Star Game.
"Since , I've been able to play," he said. "A lot of it comes from the mental aspect, knowing what you have to do to get ready; knowing when you have to pull back from overexerting before the game."
The Orioles' new manager doesn't sound in a hurry to stop the run. Mike Hargrove yesterday rattled off Surhoff's name as among those he intends to play "every day from the start."
"They're regulars for a reason. They're better than the guys who take their place," said Hargrove. "But I don't want to burn them during the season so they're tired in August and September when we need to make a push."
Aside from being the game's current iron man, Surhoff often plays a dual role as left fielder and clubhouse contrarian. He acknowledges some accomplishments, but adds "there wasn't a whole lot of satisfaction" in 1999.
Surhoff disputes the perception of last season's Orioles as too old with too many divergent agendas to resemble a winning clubhouse.
"I disagree with some of the things that were said and evaluations made of certain people," Surhoff said.
Asked what he considered to be the biggest misconception, he answered: "That we have a lot of problems. That we have some guys who believe certain things and have ways of doing things instead of just playing. That we have personality problems and that stuff."
While disputing the characterization of Belle as a distraction, Surhoff cited a need for the organization "to be on the same page. And I don't think we were last year. that includes ownership, management on down."
Organizational turmoil played a significant part in one of the winter's more embarrassing moments, when the club entertained trade talks for Surhoff without first investigating his contract, which included a partial no-trade clause.
Former general manager Frank Wren was familiar with the contract and its terms before his ouster last October. The regime that followed failed to open the deal before engaging the Mets in December trade talks. For several days, a Surhoff-to-New York deal crackled through the winter meetings until it was learned that the left fielder had never specified to which teams he would not approve a trade.
When Surhoff agreed to the three-year deal, he remembers "it was conveyed to me that they weren't signing me to trade me. They were signing me to stay here. And I was signing back here because I wanted to stay. If I wasn't happy here, I would have left then."
The most oft-heard refrain this spring hasn't been bat against ball, but Thrift's insistence that he never pursued any deal involving Surhoff. At various times, Thrift has classified trade talks with the Mets as media sensationalism and the result of inquiries made by Mets general manager Steve Phillips.
Thrift dismisses any suggestion that the Orioles were poised to make a deal until it was learned that the organization had failed to identify six no-trade teams.
"Will somebody please put to rest the idea that we were trying to trade B. J. Surhoff?" Thrift said as recently as Monday. "It isn't true."
The Surhoff family appreciates the thought. They have always maintained their residence where the head of the household has played. Asked about finishing his career in Baltimore, Surhoff said: "I don't necessarily have that in my control, but that's certainly what I'd like to be able to do.
"You know things might change down the line. But right now, I don't have a desire to play anywhere else."
Right now, the Orioles say they're in total agreement.