Giving back ‘Kurt-esy’ of Maui’s own Suzuki
WAILUKU – Kurt Suzuki saw himself about 210 times – and two decades or so ago – over six hours on Saturday at Maehara Stadium.
The Kurt Suzuki All-Pono Baseball Clinic drew that many Maui youngsters and it would have been something Suzuki would have eaten up as a baseball-enthralled keiki.
“It’s special, you see all the excitement in the air right now, you can kind of feel it walking into the stadium, yeah?” said Suzuki, a 2001 Baldwin High School graduate. “Being able to have all of my best friends that I grew up with, coaches that I had coming up help out and support, it makes everything that much more special.”
Suzuki himself has been reborn on the baseball diamond since a midseason trade sent him from the Oakland Athletics to the Washington Nationals. He went from being the grizzled veteran struggling to hold on to his position to the everyday starting catcher for the youthful, vaunted pitching staff in the nation’s capital.
“It was a breath of fresh air you could say,” Suzuki said. “It was just one of those things where sometimes a change of scenery is better. I went to Washington and everything kind of just clicked and fell into place.”
Suzuki hit .218 with one home run and 18 RBIs in 75 games with Oakland last season before hitting .267 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 43 games with Washington – much more in line with his six-year career averages of .255, 13 home runs and 71 RBIs.
Suzuki said that he had some undisclosed injury problems with Oakland in 2012.
“I got beaned in the hand at the end of the first month of the season and then I got a couple of backswings on the hand,” he said. “It never really healed up, but I just played through it because my job was to handle the pitching staff, to help them out. That was my No. 1 priority, so when I got to Washington, my hand was healed up, everything was good and you could kind of say it showed a little.
“Now, I’m good to go, I’m excited, I’m ready.”
The clinic showed just where Suzuki’s priorities lie.
“Kurt Suzuki is an amazing human being, he is a good person,” said Shane Dudoit, a Baldwin assistant coach and close friend of the All-Pono organization. “He wants to give back, he wants to help us as coaches get better at what we do. He’s an awesome, awesome person.
“For where he’s playing at, World Series champs hopefully, but very humble, very mellow, good upbringing.”
Jamie Aloy, a Baldwin and University of Hawaii standout in the 1990s, had his 7- and 8-year-old sons at the clinic.
“He has a lot to offer the community, especially being from Maui,” Aloy said. “I think it is a great thing. He remembers where he came from and it shows a lot about his character, his person – I believe that is what it’s about.”
Baldwin pitching coach Bruce Dang, a 38-year Bear assistant, is not surprised.
“It makes us feel real proud,” Dang said. “Bottom line, we are here for the kids. . . . We always impress on our current kids, ‘If you want to get to that level, you need to do this, this and this.’ Kurt’s work ethic was unbelievable and he was very coachable.”
Guiding Washington’s young-gun staff led by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren also has Suzuki ready to report for spring training on Feb. 10.
“It’s awesome, that is the first thing everybody talks about, is the staff because it is so special,” Suzuki said. “Being a catcher and being able to handle those guys day in and day out, there’s nothing like it. . . . We have got a good team, but I’m enjoying my off-season, my time with my family.”
He and wife Renee have a daughter who will turn 2 in April.
“My No. 1 priority in life is my family and nothing is ever going to change that,” Suzuki said. “Baseball is not going to change that, but I still love the game and support that I have from my family to support me in baseball makes it that much easier.”
Suzuki is scheduled to make $6.45 million this season in the third year of a four-year deal that ends with a club option for $8.5 million in 2014. He smiles when asked about fellow Maui major leaguer Shane Victorino, a 1999 St. Anthony graduate who recently signed a three-year, $39 million deal with the Boston Red Sox, the largest money deal ever for a Hawaii-born athlete.
“That’s awesome for him, I mean he works hard, well-deserved, he does a lot for the communities, and I know Boston is going to be real happy,” Suzuki said.
Even the stadium, with freshly laid grass behind home plate that Suzuki once commanded, had a new, fresh feel. Longtime baseball scorekeeper and official Warren Shimabukuro planted the grass that reaches from dugout to dugout all the way back to the press box.
“They have done a really nice job with this stadium, it kind of brings back memories,” Suzuki said. “They have worked so hard and we really appreciate that.”
* Robert Collias is at rcollias @mauinews.com