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‘Doesn’t get any better than this’

Suzuki returns home to Valley Isle for ninth annual clinic, this time as world champion

Kurt Suzuki of the World Series champion Washington Nationals smiles during the Kurt Suzuki All Pono Baseball Clinic on Saturday at Maehara Stadium. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILUKU — Kurt Suzuki always comes home with a smile on his face, but the beam seemed to be a bit brighter on Saturday morning at the ninth annual Kurt Suzuki All Pono Baseball Clinic.

Suzuki, a 2001 Baldwin High School graduate, walked into Maehara Stadium for the first time as a world champion.

“It’s pretty surreal, I mean obviously the accolades, the championships, it’s great, but at the same time the focus is coming back and seeing all my friends, family, aunties, uncles, everybody,” said Suzuki, who is set to leave today for home in Southern California. “And seeing these kids out here, that’s the main priority here.”

He must report for spring training with the Washington Nationals in about two weeks.

“Obviously being a World Series champion is also cool, but at the end of the day seeing these kids out here, that’s what really makes it happen,” he said. “I think this is the eighth time we’re doing this, so we’re still going, still chugging along.”

While Suzuki’s son Kai, 6, may have been too young to officially participate in his dad’s clinic, that didn’t keep him from working on his game as he slides into third base Saturday.

The clinic where the Maui baseball family comes together to teach hundreds of kids — several from Lanai and Molokai are flown in each year on Suzuki’s dime — has a special vibe, even in the intermittent rain that hit Saturday morning.

“It’s awesome, being able to give back to the community that I grew up in, I mean to the support that everyone gives me throughout my career, it’s great to see these kids out here, run around, get free stuff, get excited,” Suzuki said. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

All Pono Foundation president Jon Viela was an assistant coach on the Baldwin teams that Suzuki played on. Viela was the head coach for Baldwin’s 2016 state title team and is now the athletic director at Kamehameha Maui.

“Kurt has always given back to the community,” Viela said. “I think it’s just the way his parents, Warren and Kathleen, raised him. From (when he was) young, we could see that he had — they instilled a lot of good values in Kurt. We knew that he was going to come back and give in some way to his community.”

The clinic has grown from a small start.

Braedon Souza leaps to throw after fielding a ground ball while on the run to his right during a drill at the Kurt Suzuki All Pono Baseball Clinic on Saturday.

“We’re just a grassroots organization, so when he asked us to start with him to do a baseball clinic, we were so honored and blessed to be a part of his clinic and what he’s doing on the island,” Viela said. “So, we try to help out as much as we can. We get all the college coaches, the local college players come back and give. We’ve also got high school kids out here sharing their knowledge with these young campers out here.”

Suzuki and company saw plenty of talent on the field Saturday.

Several members of the Senior League World Series champions from Central East Maui Little League served as helpers at the event and some members of the CEMLL 11-12 year olds who finished fourth in the traditional Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., attended the event.

“There’s some talent out here, you saw it obviously in the Little League World Series,” Suzuki said. “I was pulling hard for those kids. It was pretty cool seeing all these kids, their dads that I grew up with, playing baseball with — watching them dominate like that was pretty cool.”

New Baldwin head coach Craig Okita also coached the SLWS champions last summer. Having Suzuki as a Baldwin alumnus only helps the Bears’ program.

Hailey Souza works on her swing.

“It’s a blessing to have him,” Okita said. “Yesterday he came up and talked to the boys. He worked out a little bit and talked to the boys. Just him being there, going through the grind and getting to where he’s at right now is just a big boost for these guys.

“It gives them a sense of reality: ‘Well, if he did it, maybe I can.’ That’s one big part and he’s just been supportive all along with our batting cage and helping us get that done. It’s just a blessing, just a blessing for the Baldwin program.”

Suzuki, 36, is entering the final year of his contract with Washington and knows the end of his career is near. He has played for the Oakland A’s, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves and Nationals in his career — 2020 will be his 14th season in the majors.

“I take it year by year, every year could be my last year,” Suzuki said. “That’s kind of the stance I take it now. I don’t know if it helps me or what, but knowing that every year could be your last you go out there and play as hard as you can and see what happens.”

He has the most hits (1,317), doubles (275), home runs (131) and RBIs (682) for any Hawaii-born player in MLB history. And now, he also has a World Series ring.

His 17 home runs and 63 RBIs were both the second-best totals in his career last season — and they came in just 85 games.

“I feel great,” he said. “I can’t complain. My body, you know obviously first time playing that far into the postseason, you know some things happen, but for the most part, for all the innings and the games that I’ve played in my career, I feel great.”

As a catcher who has played 1,479 MLB games in his career, Suzuki is well aware of the sign-stealing scandal that is rocking baseball right now.

“It’s happening, there’s a lot more out there than people know,” he said. “At the end of the day, yeah, it’s unfair, but for us, we can’t control what they’re doing; we can control what we’re doing. That was kind of our whole M.O. Our whole, (all of our) meetings that we had about this whole postseason was, ‘We know guys are doing what they’re doing, we can’t control that. All we can control is going out there focusing on executing our pitches, getting a good pitch to hit and focusing on ourselves and our team.’

“At the end of the day, that’s what we focused on and it helped us.”

When asked if new technology like a buzzer system between catcher and pitcher might work to cut down on sign stealing, Suzuki shook his head.

“I don’t know, I mean I think things are getting a little out of hand, but at the same time baseball is going to do what baseball is going to do,” he said. “I mean, obviously the best thing is to just cut everything out and let everything just play like how it usually (does), how it’s been played the last thousand years.

“But guys are going to come and try to get the advantage. Everybody wants to win, you know. Everybody wants to win and guys are going to do what they’ve got to do to win, but you can’t control what they’re doing.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.