- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2000

BALTIMORE B.J. Surhoff cried yesterday when he learned he had been traded to the Atlanta Braves.

He cried because of the pain he felt leaving his family behind. He cried because of the friends he would miss. He cried because, even with all of the chaos that has engulfed this once-proud franchise, Baltimore is still a great place to play.

But his tears might as well have been those of Orioles fans mourning what could have been.

And what could have been? In Surhoff's first two seasons with the Orioles the team made it to the American League Championship Series twice.

They had the management Pat Gillick, Kevin Malone and Davey Johnson and personnel in place to sustain a winning team for years to come. Those tears could have been of joy, ones that flowed after Baltimore won championships.

Instead, in his past two seasons, Surhoff has watched as those granted the stewardship of this team by the fans who buy tickets the Angelos family have torn it apart through pettiness and stubbornness until all that was left was to watch it burn.

And that is what the Orioles did the past four days by conducting a fire sale, though the man with the matches, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, scoffed at the description.

"Someone is going to able to sit up here three years from now and say how smart they are," Thrift said at a news conference.

That's good because the guy who was sitting up there yesterday looked pretty stupid.

The Orioles traded Surhoff to the Braves for a journeyman 34-year-old outfielder named Trenidad Hubbard, a 23-year-old backup minor league catcher named Fernando Lunar and a supposedly promising 22-year-old right-handed pitcher named Luis Rivera.

The first two players are meaningless. The key player, according to Thrift, was Rivera, who is 0-2 with an 8.06 ERA in eight appearances with Class AAA Richmond.

"The Atlanta Braves would not give up Rivera," Thrift said. "He was untouchable in the Denny Neagle trade."

Thrift may have misunderstood. Rivera may have been considered untouchable because every time someone touched him, he got hurt. He missed the first two months of this year with a right shoulder strain. Last season he missed a month because of a blister on his right index finger. The year before he missed six weeks with back spasms.

This guy is the Latin version of Will Clark who, by the way, also was traded yesterday to the St. Louis Cardinals for minor league third baseman Jose Leon, though no one shed any tears over that. The Orioles, after paying the Cardinals half of Clark's remaining $2 million this season to take him, wound up paying Clark $1 million for every five RBI he had as an Oriole the past two seasons.

Those are the kind of foolish mistakes (replacing Rafael Palmeiro with Clark) that should have Orioles fans in tears. It's hard to think of the future without being tortured by the past.

The Orioles don't want you to think about the past. The smokescreen they have created is an illusion of hope for the future prospects. They are the lottery tickets of baseball. Until the drawing, you have a chance to be a winner. In a general manager's case, until they have enough time to succeed or fail, their jobs are often secure.

You want to see prospects? Come out tonight to watch the Minnesota Twins. They have been putting prospects out there for the past eight seasons with a record of 563-753 to show for it.

In the past four days, the Orioles traded three of the kind of players you need to win Mike Bordick, Charles Johnson and Surhoff. And they traded all of them while they were still productive perhaps at the height of their careers. Yet they are stuck with the one player they need to get rid of: Albert Belle, with his $13 million a year contract that runs through 2003.

Surhoff, who is hitting .292 with 13 home runs and 57 RBI this year, hit .291 with 89 home runs and 369 RBI in his previous four seasons with Baltimore. No one played with more intensity, and yesterday he brought that same intensity in tears to his news conference to say goodbye. It was like watching the end of Old Yeller over and over again.

"I'll miss playing where I live," Surhoff said, battling back the tears.

Surhoff, 35, is a devoted family man whose sons, Austin and Mason, were often seen around the clubhouse. His wife, Polly, grew up in Ellicott City, and they loved living here. His children, including his two daughters, have made their roots here in school, and Mason, who is autistic, has particularly benefited from programs in Baltimore. Surhoff had been the subject of trade talks, but after the 4 p.m. trading deadline passed, he thought he was home free. But just before the deadline, Thrift made the deal with Atlanta.

"I was caught a little off guard," Surhoff said, using a tissue to wipe his eyes. "I know I am going to a good situation in Atlanta. I know it will work out. I just thought I would play here."

There is no here anymore. This time, it is Baltimore, not Atlanta, that is in flames.

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