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Suzuki ready to get back to work

Nationals catcher says players felt need to play, proud of union standing ground during negotiations

Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki throws to second while warming up during the second inning of a spring training game against the Miami Marlins on March 10 in Jupiter, Fla. The Baldwin High School graduate is entering his 14th season in the majors. AP file photos

Kurt Suzuki will finally reach the field as a world champion in less than a month.

“It feels like it has been a long time coming, you know, right?” the Baldwin High School graduate, on the verge of his 14th Major League Baseball season, said Saturday from his home in Southern California.

Suzuki is entering the second and final year of his current contract with the Washington Nationals.

“There’s been a lot of things happening around the country and in the world and all that stuff. Obviously the coronavirus having a big impact on businesses, and things shutting down and all that kind of stuff,” the veteran catcher said. “So, to be able be back doing the game, the sport, the job that you love to do is a great feeling.”

After some contentious negotiations between the players’ union and owners, a 60-game schedule has been set. Reporting day for spring training 2.0 is Wednesday and opening day is three weeks later.

Kurt Suzuki of the Nationals bats during a spring training game March 10. The Major League Baseball season is set to start July 23 or 24.

Suzuki said the players were aware of their importance to a nation and world staggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were also steadfast in their contract game plan, including compensation and safety protocols.

“Absolutely, I think we obviously felt we need to get back, but on the flip side, you know, there’s a huge risk involved in what we’re doing,” he said. “We wanted to be compensated what was fair and I think that taking the risk — not just us, but our families, too — taking the risk and potentially contracting something that could be in a lot of people fatal. It’s a huge risk and a huge on-taking and a lot of changes in the way that we prepare for a baseball game and the way we go about our business.”

Suzuki said there is a 100-plus page handbook on the safety guidelines that must be followed.

“It’s a lot of sacrifice and I think that nobody really understands that but us, so I think we felt like we needed to take a stand and to make sure that everybody was comfortable with everything that was going on and that we were comfortable going back on the field in a timely fashion,” he said.

Suzuki added, “I guess the mentality you’ve got to take is you’ve got to be willing to accept the fact that you could possibly get it and there’s a good chance that you might get it. And I think that you’ve got to take that risk and if that risk is something that you want to take, then you’re going to go and do it. But at the same time, with that being said, you can’t hide. You know, this virus is not going away. Sometime you have to come out and it’s going to be there, so how are you going to deal with it?”

With the Black Lives Matter protests going on around the country, Suzuki said there is no added impact playing for the team that represents the nation’s capital.

“No, I think we have a job to do and our job is to go out there and play baseball, no matter what team you’re on,” he said. “I think this whole country needs some kind of sports — you’re probably sick and tired of watching sports from three years ago or things like that. You want to watch something live and I think for baseball to become possibly the first sport back on live TV, I think that’s a huge thing. With everything that’s going on in the country, to be able to be the first sport back is huge.”

Suzuki said that the BLM protests have not come up much amongst the Nationals as they prepare for spring training. He’s sure it will soon.

“Honestly, we’ve been so caught up in the health protocols and all that kind of stuff we haven’t gotten to that yet,” he said. “I’m sure at some point we will get to that, but right now first and foremost the health protocols and the safety protocols of what we have to go through to get back on the field is right now … I mean we’re talking about it every single day. There’s changes to be made and ways that we have to stay safe, I think right now that’s No. 1 on our agenda.”

There were preliminary reports that the Nats would receive their 2019 World Series championship rings in a virtual ceremony, but things quickly changed when it became apparent a return to the field was possible.

“That’s what we’re all looking forward to, getting back there together and receiving our rings that we’ve earned,” Suzuki said. “Finally getting the chance to do it together as a team is a pretty cool achievement.”

He said playing games that count in front of empty stadiums will be a bit eerie.

“It’s going to be a change, man,” he said. “There’s no hiding behind it, it’s going to be different. Preparation for a game is going to be different, the recovery in a game is going to be different. I mean, it’s going to be a lot of things that we have to get used to, but you know, at the same time, I think that’s what everybody’s doing. Everybody’s making adjustments and we’re going to be doing the same.”

With the shutdown of spring training in March, Suzuki noted that he got to spend Father’s Day at home for the first time as he has spent more time with his three children — Malia, 9; Kai, 6; and Elijah, 3 — and wife Renee.

“I think when it comes to this, some of these owners, they think we just come home and sit around and go to the beach all day,” Suzuki said. “I think that they don’t realize that as a professional athlete you have to stay ready, you have to be professional about your job and keep in shape.”

While he would love to, there wasn’t a lot of time to hang out with the family.

“Especially now, you know that when you come back you only have three weeks before you start games, you have to stay in shape. So, I’ve been working out, strength and conditioning, hitting, running, throwing. I mean, I’ve been working out three hours-plus a day,” he said. “It’s a job and it’s something that I have to do. I’ve always said, ‘If I’m going to do it I’m going to do it right and I’m going to stay professional about things and stay ready.’ And when the time comes, I will be ready to play.”

With the negotiations done, Suzuki is proud of the way the players stood their ground on their position that they were to get 100 percent of their prorated salaries.

“I think when all the players stand unified together, I thought that was a huge statement that we made as the players’ association,” he said. “That we weren’t going to accept anything less and this is how we felt strongly about it and we’re sticking together about it. When we stick together, we’re that much stronger.”

Going into his 14th MLB season as catcher — he turns 37 on Oct. 4 — Suzuki admitted that the pandemic caused him to ponder the future more than he ever has. He was set to make $6 million this season in the final year of a two-year, $10 million contract.

“I mean nobody wants to go out this way, right?” he said. “You don’t know what the future of the game is going to be from this pandemic and all this kind of things going on with the country. We don’t know how the game of baseball is going to respond, we don’t know if ownerships are going to spend money on free agency or what they’re going to do.”

Suzuki leads Hawaii-born players in just about every significant career hitting category and he was an American League All-Star in 2014 for the Minnesota Twins. And, soon he will have a cherished championship ring.

“So, thinking that this possibly could be my last year, I mean it was a tough pill to swallow, but at the same time I’m proud of everything that I have accomplished,” he said. “If it’s time to walk away and nothing really entices me to come back and play another year, then I’m happy with it. I can move on with my life and do stuff that I want to do.”

He got a glimpse of what retirement life will be like in the last three months.

“I ain’t going to lie, it’s tough to go back right now,” he said. “I was kind of getting to that point — I mean, I was working out every day — but to be able to be at home, be with your kids, put them to sleep every night, wake up and see them in the bed, not having to go on road trips and be gone for a long period of time, that was pretty appealing.

“I was pretty excited about it and it makes it hard to go back, but we have a job to do and we have to go do it.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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