These days there are six members of my family: me and my wife, our three kids, and Baltimore Orioles left fielder B. J. Surhoff. I suppose we should count Mr. Surhoff as a member in absentia since he doesn't actually know we exist. But for the past three seasons, our older son, who is 8, has adopted B. J. as his favorite player, and over that time so much of our family conversation has revolved around the outfielder's batting and fielding accomplishments I now count him part of the brood.
Naomi, 5, is ready to see her brother move on to another topic of conversation, so weary is she of recitations of Surhoff's .404 lifetime batting average with the bases loaded. But for myself, I don't think Joshua could have picked a better hero (allowing for the fact that Surhoff is not a member of the New York Mets -- but the Mets-Orioles rift that divides our family is another and much sadder tale).
My son didn't pick the obvious Oriole heroes, like the legendary Cal Ripken and the charismatic Brady Anderson. Instead, he followed the first rule of hero-picking: Choose someone who needs your spiritual support. Surhoff is a talented player, but he is not such an extraordinarily talented player that a little upper deck well-wishing becomes superfluous. I've never understood people who pick a Ken Griffey or a Mark McGwire as their hero. It seems so unsolipsistic. With such superstars, you know that whatever sports prayers you send into the ether are unnecessary. But with Surhoff -- or with my pet projects, San Diego's Dave Magadan and Seattle's Butch Huskey -- you feel your support can somehow alter the cosmic correlation of forces slightly in their favor.
Surhoff came up through the Milwaukee Brewers organization as a catcher, and he has a strong arm. In fact, there are no glaring flaws in his game. He is a fine defensive player. He has average to slightly above-average speed, but in bursts of passion he can accelerate, so that when he hits into what should be a double play, he often manages to beat out the relay throw to first. His hitting has always been solid but not spectacular. His first year with the Brewers he hit .299 with 7 homers and 68 RBIs, and after a few spotty seasons he has developed into a reliable .290 hitter, with his power increasing as he ages. This year he is off to an outstanding start. He was leading the league in hits for a while, and his average is up around .330. I attribute no more than a third of his recent batting average surge to the supernatural effects of my son's fervent support.
But the real reason B. J. needs Joshua is his attitude. Surhoff's manner at the plate is that of one who is desperately trying to squeeze the most out of his abilities. In between pitches, his face is a medley of concentration, anxiety, frustration, concern, misery, and despair. He spends much of the time up there lecturing himself like some cruel law professor hectoring a hapless One L. If he fouls off a hittable pitch, he grimaces in self-reproach. If he swings and misses, he turns to the umpire and asks if the pitch was over the plate, and you pray that the umpire will answer affirmatively because you don't want to know what sort of self-lacerating talk Surhoff will give himself if he catches himself expanding the strike zone.
Then there is his relationship with his bat. B. J. talks to his bat. He stares at it often between pitches, but not with the accusing eye tennis players sometimes cast at their racquets after missed shots. Surhoff stares at it contemplatively, the way Hamlet stared at that skull, as if he were considering his own demise or at least a weak pop-up.
When Surhoff does manage a double, which is often these days, he stands on second expressionless. This blankness seems to signal relief, or at best, contentment. It is rare to see him smile. Last month a friend let us use his company's season tickets, and we were able to sit just behind the Orioles dugout. So close was my son to his idol that his positive energy had an extra-strong effect (Joshua was wearing his Surhoff shirt, as he does to all games). B. J. hit two home runs in an Orioles victory. But even then I don't recall a big grin from the left fielder.
Joshua was in raptures, of course. As the second home run cleared the fence, his expression was of unexpected joy, the same expression I saw on his face when Shamu splashed him at Sea World and when, at a recent little league game, he slid into home and discovered that he too can hit home runs.