“He needed to have some sort of edge,” said Warren Suzuki, Kurt’s father.
Instantly, “we just fell in love with him,” Horton said. In three years, the little catcher from Maui had become the leader on the 2004 national champions. Three years later he was in the majors. He came to the Washington Nationals at the 2012 trade deadline, and he will begin the 2013 season as their starting catcher.
In less than a half a season, Suzuki became the nerve center for the Nationals’ pitching staff. He arrives at Space Coast Stadium daily at 6:30 a.m., the first one there, to work alone. He greets teammates with relentless positivity and cheerful prodding. He assists pitchers with detailed preparation. They say they have never seen him in a bad mood.
“He’s like the big brother role,” said Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who played with Suzuki in Oakland. “He’s a leader, man. If there’s a captain of the rotation, it’s always ’Zuk.”
A ‘rah-rah college guy’
A spring training clubhouse can be a quiet place in the morning. As players trickle in, Suzuki radiates energy. “Suzuki and Lombardozzi batting eight-nine!” he said one morning, striding by Steve Lombardozzi on the after he checked the lineup card. “Step your game up, Lombo!”
As a kid, Suzuki devoured Atlanta Braves games on TBS, usually the only baseball he could watch. He loved to play. A random connection — a Fullerton assistant coach played college ball with a high school coach on Maui — opened the door for him to play in college. In 2004, he won the Johnny Bench Award as the country’s best catcher and led Fullerton to a national title. The Oakland Athletics noticed and drafted the once unknown kid with the 67th overall pick.
Early in his minor league career, Suzuki called Horton with a problem. His professional coaches wanted him to curtail his exuberance, to not be a “rah-rah college guy.” Suzuki was taken aback.
“It was kind of a slap in the face to him,” said Horton, now the coach at Oregon.
Suzuki reached the majors with the A’s in 2007, backing up Jason Kendall. Suzuki admired the veteran, and Kendall told him, “If you can walk, you can play.” He made it a mantra.