Catching up with Oakland A’s rising star Kurt Suzuki

BIG-TIME BIG LEAGUER — Kurt Suzuki, the Oakland A’s starting catcher, is on his way to becoming the most prominent Japanese American baseball player to play in the majors. photo by Anthony Yazaki/Nichi Bei Weekly

When the Nichi Bei Times first interviewed Kurt Suzuki in 2007, he was still a rookie — a fledgling major leaguer given the hefty responsibility of taking over as the starting catcher for the Oakland A’s. Now, roughly three years later, the situation is entirely different. At only 26 years old, Suzuki is still about to enter the prime of his career, but for the past two years, he has already been one of the focal points in the A’s offense.

Despite posting a subpar average of .249 his rookie year, the A’s kept their faith in the catcher from Wailuku, Hawai‘i and he has rewarded them by playing solid defense and leading the team in RBIs in 2009. This season he is on his way to being the team leader in homeruns and second on the team in terms of RBIs.

This kind of statistical improvement is certainly expected from any young player given the chance to play everyday, but Suzuki said that the changes in his game were not physical, but all mental. “You’re always trying to improve every aspect of your game,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a recent interview. “It’s about mental rather than physical growth — you learn about the league and the hitters.”

Suzuki’s mental growth has apparently had a positive affect on the A’s pitching staff as well as the team’s offense. For the first three seasons of Suzuki’s career the team ERA hovered above four, but this season it has dropped to an impressive 3.77, second in the American League. With a starting rotation that has not changed dramatically since last year, it makes sense that at least some of the success can be credited to Suzuki’s continued maturation behind the plate.

While many top prospects enter the professional ranks directly out of high school, Suzuki attributes much of his baseball mentality to the time he spent in college. “It was important because I learned about having responsibilities and how to get things done without my parents,” he said. “And going to a school like Cal State Fullerton, I learned a lot about the game too — the mental game that would prepare me to play professionally.”

In his time at CSF, Suzuki was able to develop his baseball mind, but also showed that his technical abilities were enough to make it as a professional. Not only did he deliver the hit to win the 2004 College World Series, he was given the series MVP award as well as the Johnny Bench award as the top collegiate catcher in the nation. As a decorated player at the amateur level, it was no surprise that he was selected by the A’s in second round of the 2004 MLB draft. After spending three and a half impressive seasons in the A’s farm system, Suzuki got the call he was waiting for.

“Winning the CWS [College World Series] was important and it was a great moment, but the highlight of my career is still when I got the call to the Majors,” he said. “In the end, that was the goal I had been working so hard for. It was great just to have the opportunity to play in front of thousands of fans everyday.”

Once he arrived in Oakland, one of the biggest influences on Suzuki’s game was recently fired Mariners manager and the first Asian American manager in the Major Leagues, Don Wakamatsu, who spent 2008 as the A’s bench coach. As a former Asian American catcher who had a modest Major League career, Wakamatsu was the perfect match to take Suzuki to the next level.

“He’s the man,” Suzuki said excitedly about Wakamatsu. “I’ve said this for a long time, but he makes everybody around him better. Even though he’s managing the Mariners, I can still call him up when I need advice. He doesn’t just teach you about the game. He reminds you that being a baseball player isn’t just about going on the field and playing. It’s about building relationships and becoming a better person. He reminds you that baseball is just a game so we should enjoy it every time we are out on the field.”

Having this proper attitude is something that has certainly helped Suzuki become a central figure for the A’s. In fact, according to the A’s director of scouting, Eric Kubota, who was in charge of drafting the young catcher, Suzuki “is as good of a man as you could come across in terms of his character and his effort and work ethic. It was always obvious he had the physical abilities that were needed, but his mentality gave him the edge he needed to stay in the Major Leagues.”

In fact, Suzuki’s put his generous attitude and leadership were on display off the field in 2009 following the car crash that killed Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two other occupants of the vehicle. This left Suzuki’s college teammate and fellow catcher, Jon Wilhite, as the sole survivor of the crash. Suzuki and his wife, Renee, were quick to begin raising funds to aid in Wilhite’s recovery by hosting a silent auction of donated baseball memorabilia in order to help cover Wilhite’s medical costs that included a surgery to reattach his skull and spinal column. Suzuki managed all of this while he continued to play a central role for the A’s on the field.

While Suzuki has enjoyed a fair amount of individual success, he has yet to experience a truly successful season for the team. Having made the postseason four times between 2000-06, the franchise experienced one of its more fruitful periods during the Moneyball era of the early 2000s. However, this streak came to an abrupt end in 2007, the year Suzuki was called up. The A’s finished that year third in the American League’s Western Division and posted a losing record for the first time since 1998. The past two seasons ended in disappointment as well, as the team failed to qualify for the postseason. Right now, the A’s would be hard pressed to make a run for the division title or the wild card this year.

Time, though, could be on the A’s side. As a team that seems to be perpetually planning for the future, they can boast one of the youngest teams in the league. Also, with starting pitcher Ben Sheets likely to leave during the coming off-season, the A’s should have an extra $10 million in annual salaries that could be paid to a big-name free agent or a collection of young talent.

If General Manager Billy Beane can pull the right strings, the A’s should at least have a shot at making the playoffs in the coming seasons and as long as he can avoid serious injuries, Suzuki should continue to become an increasingly significant part of the team on and off the field — especially given his signing of a four-year, $16.25 million contract extension just last month. Though in many ways he already is a key part of the A’s setup, it is also important to remember that Suzuki is only in his third full season at the Major League level and has plenty of room to continue growing. As long as he continues to put in the proper effort and work on his game, there is every reason to think that Suzuki can help lead the A’s to success in the future.

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