‘It never gets old’

Suzuki, entering 13th MLB season, returns home to host annual youth clinic

Kurt Suzuki shares a laugh during his All-Pono Baseball Clinic on Saturday at Maehara Stadium. Suzuki was joined at the free youth clinic by three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols and former major leaguers Kanekoa Texeira and Shane Komine. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — Saturday morning showed just where Kurt Suzuki stands in the world of baseball.

The 35-year-old Baldwin High School graduate who recently signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Washington Nationals was meeting and greeting old friends all over the place at Maehara Stadium when a buzz started to grow.

Albert Pujols was in the house.

“It’s awesome, it never gets old,” Suzuki said minutes before the eighth annual Kurt Suzuki All-Pono Baseball Clinic began. “The turnout is always good. You get to see old classmates that have kids now and friends. And all the kids out there having fun, it’s always fun.”

Suzuki has watched as Maui has enjoyed a baseball surge in recent years with seven youth world series appearances over the last three summers and three straight Division I state high school titles.

Albert Pujols talks hitting with Jayden Mateo during Saturday’s Kurt Suzuki All-Pono Baseball Clinic at Maehara Stadium. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Baldwin finished ranked eighth in the nation by USA Today last season after the Bears won the state title for the second time in three years.

“There’s a lot of talent here on Maui and Hawaii in general,” Suzuki said. “It’s just a matter of which kid wants to keep pursuing it and it’s always good to see kids enjoy the game of baseball and love it — that’s the No. 1 thing, to make sure they go out there and have fun.”

It appears that Suzuki is still a kid at heart when he steps on the baseball field.

After two seasons in Atlanta where he combined to hit 31 homers and knocked in 100 runs — 50 in each year — he said before the Braves’ postseason appearance in 2018 that it would take the right situation for him to continue his Major League Baseball career that is now 12 years old.

“It came quick, it was the first couple weeks of official free agency,” Suzuki said of his return to Washington, where he played the end of the 2012 season after a trade from the Oakland Athletics. “Washington was a really aggressive suitor.

Kurt Suzuki talks with Thad Shishido on Saturday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Oakland called a little bit, Houston called a little bit.

“It was pretty much between Washington and Atlanta. Obviously the two years guaranteed was a big thing, good for the family, we love Washington, we’ve been there before.”

Soon after Suzuki signed, his teammate with the Braves, pitcher Anibal Sanchez, signed with the Nationals and said a big reason was reuniting with Suzuki.

“That’s a big thing for me, especially because the way I pitch in 2018, Suzuki was involved in every change I made,” Sanchez said in a conference call with reporters when he signed.

Suzuki said part of his reasoning was simple.

“They’ve got a great team, they’re building another great team,” he said. “I want to win, I want a chance to win and I think they’re going to give that opportunity.

“Me and Anibal, we work well together. I faced him a ton throughout my career and to be able to catch him now, we are on the same page.”

Shortly after signing Suzuki, the Nationals traded for Cleveland Indians All-Star catcher Yan Gomes.

Suzuki knows his role with the Nationals will likely be in line with what it was with the Braves — he played 81 games in 2017 and 105 in 2018.

“I think it’s probably going to be the same thing, they’re pretty cognizant of the fact that I am 35,” Suzuki said. “What we did in Atlanta with that split time, platooning kind of thing has worked out obviously great for myself and the team.”

Pujols, a probable Hall of Famer who is represented by the same agency as Suzuki, said he has wanted to be part of the clinic for several years.

“This is what it’s all about, this is the talent that God has given you to bless these kids,” Pujols said prior to the start of the clinic. “Some of these kids watch you on TV. To have the opportunity like Kurt said earlier — I never had an opportunity to be in a baseball camp or clinic where a Major League Baseball player was at.

“So, to be able to do this for the last eight or nine years, that’s pretty awesome. I hope the kids get to enjoy because at the end of the day, it’s not about Kurt, it’s not about me, it’s not about the coaches that are here. It’s about these kids.”

Two former major league pitchers, Shane Komine and Kanekoa Texeira, were also instructors at the clinic. Both are now coaches — Texeira is the pitching coach for Class A Rome, Ga., in the Braves organization and Komine is coaching youth baseball here.

“For me, it’s incredible to come back here,” said Komine, a Kalani graduate who has lived on Maui for the last four years while working at the Grand Wailea Resort after playing in two MLB seasons for Oakland. “I remember when I was growing up a lot of us looked up to a lot of these players that were from Hawaii as well and watching them give back. So to be able to reciprocate that and give back to the next generation, it really means a lot of all of us.”

Texeira, who grew up on Maui, helped Kamehameha Kapalama win the 2003 state crown at Maehara Stadium. He played for the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals in 2010 and 2011.

“It feels great to be back home and to be out here helping Kurt, it feels amazing,” Texeira said. “We’ve been battling each other for years. We’ve been friends for years. It’s always good to come out here and see him.”

Texeira also keeps up with the baseball played here.

“It’s amazing to see the baseball on Maui starting to overcome and beat the Oahu teams,” Texeira said. “It’s awesome to see and awesome to hear. It makes us from Maui feel very, very proud. … Maui has great talent.”

Suzuki continuing to pursue his major league dream is not surprising to Texeira.

“Kurt, he’s ironman, he does everything the right way, plays the game the right way, doesn’t do, in my eyes, nothing wrong,” Texeira said. “He’s been an amazing player, amazing teammate. I hear only good things about him when I was coaching for the Braves, so it doesn’t surprise me at all.”