Destined for stardom
To the folks who know him best from his home island, it is not a surprise that Kurt Suzuki has become an All-Star at the Major League level.
Suzuki will get a hometown welcome when he is introduced as an American League All-Star reserve today at Target Field in Minnesota. The 30-year-old Baldwin High School graduate is a first-time All-Star who is in his first season catching with the Minnesota Twins after signing a one-year, $2.75 million contract during the offseason.
“I always thought Kurt was going to be a successful player in the major leagues,” said former Baldwin teammate and close friend Tyson Higa. “On a one-year deal he knows he has to step up or he doesn’t know where he will be next year.”
Higa, now a Baldwin assistant baseball coach, always helps with Suzuki’s annual youth baseball clinic in January. Suzuki pays for 100 youngsters each from Molokai and Lanai to attend the event.
“When we see each other we act like little kids again,” Higa said. “The way we talk to each other it’s like youth baseball to high school all over again – it didn’t change.”
Suzuki is hitting .309, good for 14th in the major leagues and second among all catchers, behind only the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jonathan Lucroy (.315). Suzuki’s 37 RBIs are five more than he had all of last season and he has thrown out 11 would-be base stealers, three more than he had all of last season.
“You knew he would go far back when we were kids,” Higa said. “That’s why I’m here on Maui and he’s where he’s at.”
Kahai Shishido, a former University of Hawaii standout baseball player, coached Suzuki at Baldwin and is now the school’s athletic director. Suzuki was known as “Pup” to coaches and teammates before he graduated in 2001. He went on to attend Cal State Fullerton and was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Athletics in 2004.
“We always knew that he had exceptional talent,” Shishido said. “His work ethic, his discipline and coachability – he was always listening, always learning. He was a special kid from when he was young.”
Suzuki has donated money to Baldwin for an on-campus batting cage that Shishido says is among the best in the state, scholarships for college-bound athletes and to the baseball program in general.
“Where he’s at right now has not changed him,” Shishido said. “He never forgot where he came from, he’s always giving back to the school and we appreciate all that he’s done for us and are very proud of his accomplishments. . . . He has given back in so many ways.”
Kanekoa Texeira, who grew up in Kula, is now a Triple-A pitcher in the Atlanta Braves organization.
“Kurt’s a bulldog,” Texeira said. “He just works his tail off every day. He doesn’t take one out off in a game, he’s in the game the whole time. One year I worked out with him and he outworked me every day. I’m younger than him and I’m, like, ‘Dang Kurt.’ That just shows you how mentally tough the guy is. For him to make the All-Star team, it’s a blessing for him, it’s awesome, man. All his hard work paid off.
Texeira remembers an at-bat in 2010 against Suzuki when Texeira was with the Seattle Mariners and Suzuki was with the Athletics.
“I did hit him, I did plunk him in the big leagues,” Texeira said. “I want to say it was the first pitch, I wanted to go in, it ran in and hit him right on the okole. We just started laughing. He texted me after the game. I said, ‘Don’t rub it.’ He said, ‘Oh, you don’t throw hard enough.’
“He’s awesome, man. A lot of people like him from Maui are awesome people.”
Suzuki’s comeback season has come on the heels of yearlong batting averages of .242, .237, .237 and .232. He threw out just eight of 65 base stealers last season between Oakland and the Washington Nationals.
“Everybody gets banged up in this game, nobody plays this game 100 percent,” Suzuki said last Monday. “Was I banged up a little bit (last year), was I not feeling great physically? Yeah, I could say that. Everyone who plays this game could say that. It’s the guys who overcome that who are very successful.”
Suzuki remembers all of the people who have helped him along the way. He mentioned Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and coaches Tom Brunansky, Paul Molitor and Terry Steinbach, but also his Maui mentors and peers.
“My two best friends growing up, the Higa brothers, Tyson and Kimo, I heard from them,” Suzuki said after the All-Star announcement. “My coaches, coach Shishido and (Baldwin) coach (Jon) Viela is up here right now. Coach Shishido saw us play the (Los Angeles) Angels on a recent trip. Building friends in this game, for me, it’s really important and I really cherish that opportunity.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org