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This battery is the best

Scott Bankhead and B.J. Surhoff put the charge in No. 3 Carolina

People who typecast baseball players have a problem when they encounter junior pitcher Scott Bankhead and sophomore catcher B.J. Surhoff of North Carolina. At 5'10", Bankhead is too short to be an overpowering pitcher. With a single-season school-record 32 stolen bases, Surhoff, whose given name is William James, is too fast to be behind the plate. But the pair has defied convention to lead the Tar Heels to a 42-9 record, a No. 3 ranking and high expectations' for the upcoming College World Series.

Bankhead, 20, hasn't lost a game in the last two years and, if scouts can overcome a tendency to dismiss a flamethrower of modest height as a contradiction in terms, he will go in the first round of the amateur draft next month.

Surhoff, 19, is hitting .416 with 11 homers and 50 RBIs. A lefthanded hitting catcher with a strong arm as well as all that speed, he could be the first player taken in next year's draft.

It isn't surprising that North Carolina fans have embraced the two. After all, they're the best collegiate battery in the country. But the Tar Heels, who won their third straight ACC title last month, have made a name for themselves in other unconventional ways, employing, for instance, tricky plays like delayed double steals and suicide squeezes with power hitters at the plate.

Bankhead and Surhoff could become the first batterymates ever named first-team All-America in the same year. They could also become Olympic teammates: Both are on the 44-man demonstration-team roster that will be cut to 25 by June 1 and to 20 by July 15. Just now, however, leading Carolina to its first title is goal No. 1.

Surhoff, who hit .429 on the bronze medal-winning '83 Pan Am team, says, "Scott's as good or better than all the pitchers I played with last year." Bank-head says of Surhoff, "A couple of years down the road it might be scary what he'll be able to do."

As for their working relationship, Bankhead says, "Early on, B.J. can sense what's going to be your best pitch. Nine out of 10 times he flashes the pitch I want to throw."

Three years ago the Tar Heels lost the ACC title in their final game of the tournament for the second straight season. Coach Mike Roberts decided he needed more help on the mound and signed seven pitchers. The last one was Bankhead, who had played for a mediocre team at Reidsville (N.C.) High School.

Bankhead was 4-3 as a freshman, but after developing a slider he zoomed to 9-0. This year he has added a split-fingered change to a fastball that is consistently clocked at 87 to 88 mph. He's 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA. In 81 innings he has struck out 107 and given up 53 hits and 24 walks. His strongest performance came against Maryland on April 20, when he tied an ACC tournament record with 14 Ks in a rain-shortened six-inning stint.

Bankhead has gone from 16th to ninth in Baseball America's list of collegiate draft prospects this year. At the press conference in which Michael Jordan announced that next season he would be playing for NBA green rather than North Carolina blue, Dean Smith (formerly the Air Force Academy baseball coach, by the way) attempted to deflect criticism by saying, "Pretty soon the baseball team is going to lose a great player in Scott Bank-head, who's also a junior, and no one will say anything."

Well, there may be a few alleluias around the ACC. A youthful countenance, complete with braces and a mustache that needs some filling out, belies a steely competitor. Indeed, Bankhead is so admired by other Tar Heel pitchers that they've borrowed from his motion and mannerisms. "I modeled my windup after his," says sophomore Roger Williams, who's 9-1. Freshman Doug Torborg also patterned part of his windup after Bankhead's. "He's like a father out there," says Torborg. This is high praise, because Torborg's father, Jeff, is the New York Yankee pitching coach. (Another notable second-generation player on the team is pitcher Bill Robinson Jr., the son of the Mets' hitting coach.)

Bankhead's poise is exemplary. His expression and his approach remain unchanged by bad calls, errors and home runs. He doesn't pout about things he can't change, including his height. "I think height is overrated. How the ball gets there is important," says Bankhead. "What it does getting there is important. What you're made of is important."

If scouts have a doubt about Surhoff, it's that no one is sure where he should be playing. He routinely takes four or five gloves with him on the road. In his two years at Carolina he has played every position but pitcher and shortstop—ironically, his principal positions in high school. He favors catcher or centerfield, where the whole game is laid out in front of him.

Surhoff, 6'1" and 180 pounds, is seemingly a bottomless reservoir of athletic talent. He was an all-state basketball player at Rye (N.Y.) High and a second-team all-state defensive back. He came to Roberts' attention when Jack Curran, the basketball and baseball coach at Archbishop Molloy High in Queens, told Dean Smith that UNC should consider Surhoff as a baseball player. Smith passed the word to Roberts, who says, "He's the best athlete we've had, and he could possibly be the best athlete we'll ever have."

Good at everything, Surhoff may be best at throwing. He has thrown out 15 of 38 would-be base stealers this season. The real eye-catcher, though, was Surhoff's 300-foot, shoulder-high rope from left center that nailed a Citadel base runner at the plate.

Strong arms run in the family. B.J.'s brother, Rick, pitches for the Phillies' Class AA team in Reading, Pa. His father, Dick (who played three years in the NBA during the early '50s), pitched in 10 world softball tournaments and was named all-world in 1956. Although Surhoff isn't all-world yet, Brewer scout Julio Blanco and Padre scout Chico Carrasquel both said he was the best prospect at the Pan Am games.

Last Thursday, Bankhead, Surhoff and the other Tar Heels were dipping into the surf at Wrightsville Beach on the North Carolina coast and soaking up sun in what looked to be their last unhurried afternoon for some time. With exams over and exhibition games approaching, the Tar Heels had come to the southeast corner of the state for two days of practice and sunshine.

The season officially resumes this week with a three-game series against top-ranked Arizona State, followed by next week's NCAA regionals. As for the world series, only one ACC team, Wake Forest in 1955, has ever won. But the Tar Heels have shown lately they're very adept at bucking the book.


Brace yourself: Bankhead (10-0) and Surhoff (.416) may be All-Americas and Olympians.