Tar Heel Monthly: Catching Up B.J. Surhoff
Feb. 4, 2002
Tar Heel Monthly is a new monthly publication devoted to the stories and personalities behind UNC sports. For more information, visit www.tarheelmonthly.com.
The following is excerpted from the most recent issue of the magazine.
By Adam Lucas
As a high school senior, B.J. Surhoff was selected by the New York Yankees in the major league baseball draft. A lifelong Yankee fan, he considered the selection an honor. But he also considered college an attractive option. Exactly which college was still undecided.
Surhoff's family was familiar with legendary Archbishop Molloy basketball coach Jack Curran, who would later coach future Tar Heel point guard Kenny Smith. Curran called Dean Smith to advise him of a young New York baseball player who was interested in the Tar Heels. Smith called UNC baseball coach Mike Roberts, who quickly made plans for a recruiting trip to New York.
On that trip, he watched Surhoff on one field before moving over to an adjacent field to watch Walt Weiss play. Weiss later became a first-round pick of the Oakland Athletics in 1985 and the American League Rookie of the Year in 1987. He had company in the first round--Surhoff was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers. On one late-season recruiting trip, the Tar Heels picked up two future first-rounders. Not a bad use of time for Roberts, who had the Heels stocked with talent like pitcher Scott Bankhead, Matt Merullo, and Blaine Deabenderfer. Carolina had just come off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and appeared to be building a dynasty.
"When Coach Roberts saw me play he was actually out of scholarship money," Surhoff said. "But then someone transferred and there was room for me. I actually wasn't real familiar with Carolina before then. But it wasn't a tough sell for me once I went down there and saw the school."
Surhoff played a variety of positions at Carolina but made his reputation as a catcher. That reputation landed him slots on the 1983 Pan American Games team and the 1984 Olympic squad. That team, which included Mark McGwire and several other future major-leaguers, was so exclusive that at least four future major league players--Norm Charlton, Ken Caminiti, Drew Hall, and Greg Swindell--were cut from the 20-man roster. The Olympians won a silver medal at the Los Angeles Games.
The hectic summer schedule didn't slow down Surhoff's assault on the Carolina baseball record book. His .400 batting average in 1984 remains the third-best single-season mark in Tar Heel history, and his 98 base hits in 1985 were the school record for almost 15 years before being surpassed by Brian Roberts in 1997. His .392 career batting average is a Carolina record, and his career hit mark was surpassed only by a pair of four-year players, Chad Holbrook and Jarrett Shearin.
Surhoff played only three years, departing after the 1985 season to join the Brewers. Milwaukee assigned him to their single-A farm team in Beloit, Wisconsin. After a stellar first year in pro baseball, he skipped AA and moved directly to the AAA team in Vancouver.
"The minor leagues were such a different game," Surhoff said. "Everybody is trying to get to the next level, and everybody thinks they are ready. I was no different. I thought I was ready to go right away."
In 1987, the Brewers agreed with him, promoting him to the big-league roster. His rookie year went virtually flawlessly. Milwaukee won 13 straight games at the beginning of the season and stood 20-6 at one point. Surhoff hit .299 and drove in 68 runs while throwing out 35% of the baserunners attempting to steal. The only downer was that the Brewers endured a freefall, standing one game under .500 at the All-Star break.
The next year, his journey around the diamond began. He played a month at third base before shifting back behind the plate, a move the Brewers apparently remembered in 1993 when they played him at five different positions. He played five positions again in 1994 and six in 1995 before signing with Baltimore as a free agent. The Orioles gave him two benefits--a more-or-less steady slot in the field and his first two trips to the postseason.
"My first year things went so well for me," Surhoff said. "My second and third years were the biggest learning experiences. I had to learn some things both physically and mentally and make some adjustments."
Quickly developing a reputation as an effective and reliable player, Surhoff joined the Atlanta Braves in 2000, was traded back to the Orioles, and then rejoined the Braves prior to 2001.
After beginning his pro career at one of the most demanding positions on the diamond, catcher, his move from behind the plate allowed Surhoff to become a more consistent contributor. His 445-game consecutive game streak was the longest in the majors before it ended in 2000.
"One of the things I learned was that you don't get the opportunity to write the lineup, but you do have the ability to be ready to play every day," he said. "Ever since I came out from behind the plate, I've wanted to be prepared to play every single game."
Surhoff cemented his place in baseball in 1999. In the midst of a season that made him the only Oriole in team history other than Cal Ripken and Al Bumbry to reach 200 hits, Surhoff was selected to the All-Star roster and joined the American League squad at Fenway Park.
He played six innings in left field, but the more memorable feature of the game was a pre-game ceremony honoring former Red Sox great Ted Williams. Complete with a fighter jet flyover, the pre-game even overshadowed a legendary performance from pitcher Pedro Martinez, who tied a baseball record by striking out five consecutive batters.
"It's amazing how fast it all goes," Surhoff said. "In a way I got to experience everything, because I was also in the home run derby after someone else pulled out. It was in one of the parks I love to play in, Ted Williams was honored before the game, and Carl Yastrzemski was there. If there was one All-Star game I could've gone to, that would've been it. The game just goes by so fast."
To prepare for life after the game, Surhoff and wife Polly (a fellow UNC alum) began to get involved in a variety of causes, one of which was Carolina's Educational Foundation. Like many athletes, he had a vague idea of the Foundation's purposes while he was in school.
The Surhoff family endowed scholarships for swimming (where Polly competed for four years) and baseball, in addition to hosting Foundation events at Braves and Orioles games.
"Polly and I wanted to get involved and felt compelled to get involved because of the experience we had there and how fondly we think of the school," Surhoff said. "The Foundation is the reason UNC is able to support the amount of athletic programs that we do. It's one thing to get to the high level where we are now. But if we want to stay there, we have to work that much harder.
"We need to involve more and more people. Not everybody can endow a scholarship, but there's a level for everybody."
The generosity of the Surhoff family hasn't gone unnoticed by the Foundation, which is beginning a push to make former athletes feel more included in the organization.
"B.J. and Polly are perfect examples of former athletes who give back for their love of Carolina," Educational Foundation president John Montgomery said. "They are huge fans of Carolina basketball and football, and keep track of all Tar Heel teams wherever they go. Just as importantly, they promote Carolina and the Foundation whenever asked. We are very lucky to have the Surhoffs representing the University and the Educational Foundation."
For more information about the Educational Foundation and its membership drive, please visit here.