VIERA, Fla. — George Horton ran a college baseball powerhouse at Cal State-Fullerton, the kind of program that had no place for someone like Kurt Suzuki. Horton had never seen or heard of Suzuki before a scout pal mentioned the high schooler in Hawaii. “We didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about him,” Horton said. “We heard from our network of friends that this little catcher from Maui wanted to come and walk on at Fullerton.”
On an island with 160,000 permanent residents, Suzuki played against five or six high schools. Few scouts noticed. But Fullerton needed a catcher, and there was no risk, so Horton let Suzuki join the team. Suzuki took the leap from Hawaii to major college baseball as a challenge. With no experience against elite peers, Suzuki began competing with kids who had attended higher-profile California high schools and earned scholarships.
“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 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.
“If you prepare and you take care of yourself and you want to play every day, people feed off of that,” Suzuki said. “Pitchers see how much you want to fight to get in there, and they respect you. I don’t like to get my respect off other stuff. That’s the way I get my respect — wanting to play every day, preparing to play every day.”
He established himself first as the starter, and then a driving force within the A’s. As a minor leaguer, Gonzalez received occasional text messages from Suzuki: How’s your mechanics? How do you feel? Keep it up down there.
Last season provided challenges. He played through injuries, and his batting average plummeted to barely above .200. Oakland called up Derek Norris, a former Nationals farmhand, and Suzuki’s playing time dissipated. He grinded away, and the rigors of the season chipped away at his joy for the game until early August.
The Nationals had the best record in baseball and a catcher, Jesus Flores, slumping at the plate and sulking behind it. They sent minor league catcher David Freitas to Oakland and removed Suzuki from the only organization he has ever known. The deal stunned Suzuki, but it also revitalized him. The edge came back.
“Sometimes, you lose that feeling,” Suzuki said. “I came here, and I got that feeling again. It let me step back and kind of realize the enjoyment of the game. It got me back to just having fun and enjoying everything about it.”
The first thing Suzuki told Nationals coaches was, “You don’t have to ask me I want to play or not. You know I want to play.”
Suzuki made it a priority to learn his new pitchers and dedicated himself to the task. “He’s spending time with the pitching staff, in their ear,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “Where he could be being selfish, going in the cage.”
Each day during the season, Suzuki spends 45 minutes to an hour studying opposing lineups and how they will fit the strengths and weakness of each Nationals pitcher. He uses a computer to gauge a hitter’s tendencies, emphasizing the past 10 games. He memorizes “heat maps” — plots that show how a hitter fares against specific pitch locations. He watches video to crosscheck the numbers.
“If I catch a shutout and win the game and I got 0-for, I’m really happy,” Suzuki said. “To me, catching a shutdown is the best feeling.”
Suzuki wore neon tape on his fingernails so pitchers could see signs more easily – “nubs,” Jordan Zimmermann jokingly calls his short fingers. Before one game this spring, even though he was in the starting lineup later that day, he volunteered to catch one of Dan Haren’s bullpen sessions, wanting to learn more about his style.
“Even on a random spring training bullpen, he’s fired up, he’s excited,” reliever Drew Storen said. “He’s excited for you. It’s cool. He wants us to succeed not for his own good, but for us.”
As he became more familiar with the Nationals’ pitching staff, the hitting slump he endured in Oakland disappeared. The A’s employed three different hitting coaches during his time, and they had three different plans. In Oakland, Suzuki had focused on hitting to the opposite field, letting pitches travel deep into the zone.
Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein had coached him in an international tournament in 2006. He reversed Suzuki’s thinking. Eckstein told him to feel natural, to attack the ball and tap into his natural power pulling the ball.
“Once that got into my mind, I just never thought anymore,” Suzuki said. “I just went up there and looked for that pitch and hit.”
In his last final 29 games of the regular season, Suzuki batted .309 with a .362 on-base percentage and a .500 slugging percentage with five homers. At one point, he started 11 of 12 games. If he could walk, he played.
“He’s a gamer,” Desmond said. “He plays banged up. There’s nothing better than a foul ball going off his arm, and he just bounces up and says, ‘Here.’ He tells the umpire to get back behind the plate. Let’s go.”
Suzuki does not like to complain. In 2007, doctors found cancer in Warren Suzuki’s left kidney and operated to remove it. A year later, the cancer came back, and Warren underwent another surgery to remove part of his left lung.
“Knock on wood, I’m fine today,” Warren Suzuki said. “One of the things I constantly stress to Kurt is, you always have to maintain a positive attitude, because you never know what’s going to happen. I’m not sure that’s something he’s thought about. But I’ve always told him, ‘Maintain a good attitude.’ ”
The picture, then, becomes clear. Suzuki gets to the ballpark first, leaves last and keeps a smile on his face. He does small, thoughtful things that more people would remember to do if they gave themselves over to others. That is how the little catcher from Maui made it here. That is Kurt Suzuki’s edge.