Trade leaves Surhoff's world shaken

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HE WAS AN EMOTIONAL wreck before he sat down for the news conference, in tears long before anyone even asked a question.

In tears even though he was going from a losing team heading nowhere to a likely division winner possibly headed for the World Series.

In tears even though he was escaping a franchise in turmoil for the game's reigning model of stability and success.

In tears because, as hard as it might be for anyone outside the game's ropes to believe, sometimes there are more important things to a player.

"It's my career," B. J. Surhoff was saying, rubbing his eyes between thoughts as he tried to keep his composure, "but it gets much more complicated by things that are important to me. Very important to me."

Family. Children. Playing in the city where he lives. Playing in a city that loves baseball, even bad baseball.

Surhoff, 36, had it all until the Orioles abruptly traded him to the Atlanta Braves yesterday less than an hour before the waiver deadline.

He had it all, a life he couldn't have arranged any better, even with the Orioles lumbering toward their third straight losing season.

"I made the decision to come here almost five years ago, and it was the right decision for me and my family," he said with his head bowed.

Pause.

"I loved playing here," he whispered.

Had he survived the final hour before the deadline, he probably would have finished his career as an Oriole, for better or worse. At the end of the year, he would have received blanket protection from trades.

One hour away. And then his world turned upside down.

The deal sending Surhoff and pitcher Gabe Molina to the Braves for three players, including a top pitching prospect, was the last act of a stunning dismantling that saw the Orioles trade six veterans for 14 new players in less than three days.

The fans who were calling for the Orioles to get younger got way more than they bargained for, the departure of four regulars, a designated hitter and the closer, with little in return other than pieces of a future puzzle.

"The volume and suddenness is a little stunning," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove confessed before last night's game at Camden Yards.

But make no mistake, the Surhoff trade was an exception amid the unprecedented swirl of change. It was more than just another transaction, another piece of business. His departure was personal.

"I'm having trouble with it," he said as he battled his emotions for 15 minutes in front of reporters about 90 minutes before the game.

His wife is a Baltimore native who led several of the Orioles' charitable drives. Their four children are entrenched in local schools and sports leagues. One of their sons is thriving in a treatment program for autism, receiving a level of care unavailable in many cities.

The lines of Surhoff's life were perfect in that sense, an enviable blending of personal and professional needs. No, the Orioles weren't winning. But they're still drawing crowds, still the local secular religion.

Surhoff was one of the few Orioles who appreciated it, one of the few Orioles who grasped that the big stage this city affords is rare in a sport struggling for attention elsewhere.

"I just hope the players who come in here don't take for granted what they have," he said, "because I have played in empty ballparks, and it isn't fun."

He got it. That's all you can say. Surhoff was one of the few Orioles who understood that the fans, the tradition and the ballpark made playing in Baltimore something special, in spite of the front office shenanigans of recent years.

He was a throwback to the glory days, when the players bought homes and raised their families within a short drive of the ballpark - and played their hearts out every night.

"You probably didn't think I had this in me," he said with a smile as he dabbed his eyes during the news conference.

It was the timing of the deal that got him, he admitted. He knew the Orioles had been talking about trading him to the Yankees, but when he wasn't included in the three trades engineered over the weekend, he started thinking he'd survived the purge.

"I wasn't prepared for this," he said. "I got caught a little off guard."

He wasn't pulled into Hargrove's office until after the deadline had passed, after he'd dressed and started his usual pre-game preparations. Badly shaken, he broke the news to his son, who was with him, and took off his uniform for the last time.

"My son took it better than I did," Surhoff said.

It's a game that can make you crazy. Surhoff played his way into the city's heart with his all-out, no-quit style, and then suddenly, he was gone yesterday, traded for a hard-throwing promise of a pitcher named Luis Rivera. That's progress?

In the standings, it's a terrific deal for Surhoff, who has never played in a World Series and maybe will get his chance now.

"I know it's going to work out," he said. "It's a great situation. Atlanta is a great place to play. I'm really looking forward to it."

Pause.

You could see his mind spinning. A father forced to live away from his children. A perfect life, suddenly re-ordered.

He looked up. His eyes were red.

"I'll miss playing where I live," he said.

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