Kurt Suzuki: Surf, Sand & Synchronicity

Photo courtesy Angels Baseball
An exclusive interview with Hawaii native and former Los Angeles Angels catcher Kurt Suzuki.

As a kid, Kurt Suzuki hated baseball. 

No need to read that again. The World Series champion, College World Series champion, and MLB All-Star will be the first to tell you that soccer was his first love and that he was in a soccer club while growing up in Wailuku, Hawaii a city of about 18,000 people located on the island of Maui. 

“I played baseball because my friends played baseball. I was good at baseball, I just wasn’t in love with it,” says the newly-retired Suzuki. 

Those that have gotten to know him over the span of his 16-year Major League Baseball career, that includes 12,968 2/3 innings caught – which is 25th all-time – 1,635 games played, 730 RBIs, and 143 home runs are likely scratching their heads, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 

Make no mistake, Suzuki was an avid sports-lover growing up. In addition to soccer and baseball, he also surfed, played tennis, football, and basketball. In 1994, when he was 10 years old, the FIFA World Cup was held at venues across the United States and Suzuki’s parents, Warren and Kathleen, took him to a World Cup match. His favorite soccer players were Argentina’s Diego Maradona and Mexico’s Jorge Campos, if only because their goalkeeper kits were the coolest around.

And baseball?

Well, he liked it. He was able to follow the Atlanta Braves as a kid because their games were broadcast on TBS in Hawaii, and with no MLB Network or the like, the Braves were the only option. 

“I would come home from school at two o’clock and the Braves would be on so I’d be like ‘aw, sweet, I get to watch!’ So I became a huge fan of Chipper Jones, Rafael Furcal, John Smoltz, [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine, all those guys,” Suzuki recalls. “People in Hawaii love the Braves because that’s all we could watch, that was our team.” 

The story of how the man currently occupying the 32nd spot in all-time MLB games caught became a catcher is similarly…unspectacular.

“They always put me behind the plate when I was growing up because I wasn’t the slimmest cat,” explains Suzuki, stifling a chuckle. “I was always the bigger guy, so it was always ‘hey go catch.’ I could really throw, so that was another thing, but I used to fight, I’d be like ‘man, it’s too hot, I don’t want to put the gear on!’ I mean, growing up in Hawaii it’s always hot there, right? So I’d be complaining and they’d be like ‘no, you’re good!’ So I was like, ‘okay.’ So I always caught when I was younger.”

Photo courtesy Kurt Suzuki

As he got older, Suzuki hit a growth spurt and slimmed down. He pitched and played shortstop, but just before high school a parent of a teammate encouraged him to catch because he was incredibly adept at the challenging position which few others could manage, and being a catcher meant he would get more playing time. Apparently, that was all it took. He took to catching and he relished it. 

“I enjoyed being a part of every single play, was the thing that I really loved about being a catcher,” reveals Suzuki. “I could call the pitch – I didn’t really like everybody’s eyes on me, but I liked being a part of every single play – I love that part of it.” 

Crediting his participation in other sports for making him a better baseball player, specifically improving his coordination, it was in his junior year of high school that Suzuki decided to focus on baseball and forego all his other sports. It was more of a strategic decision than an emotional one, but nonetheless he began weight training in the off-season, with the goal of attending a Division I college and playing a sport. 

“I thought if I want to play a sport in college, baseball would probably be the sport that I would be able to play. I wasn’t extremely fast for soccer or tall, obviously, for basketball, I couldn’t jump, so that was out of the question, so baseball was the sport that I wanted to do and I got better and better and better, and I kept getting better,” remembers Suzuki. “Once I put my mind to it, that was it. I set my mind to being a baseball player and I lived it, I dreamt it, I eat, sleep, breath, I did everything baseball.”

With no long-term goal beyond going to a Division I school, Suzuki blocked out those who questioned his mission, speculated that it was possible he wouldn’t play, and told him he should start off at a junior college. For “Zuk,” as he is affectionately known, it was go big or go home. 

Living in Hawaii, it was hard for Suzuki to get seen by colleges, so one summer Kathleen took her son, who wanted to go to the best baseball school, on a tour. She set up meetings at Arizona State, Loyola Marymount, Cal State Fullerton, and Pepperdine, with Arizona State and Fullerton coming out as Suzuki’s top two choices. 

“Coach Dave Serrano was probably the nicest guy that I had met on the trip,” recounts Suzuki about Fullerton’s pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. “It was on a Sunday morning, and he came in and he took me around, talked to me on a Sunday morning – I remember that to a T – and I was like ‘wow, this is amazing and this is awesome,’ and we’re still really good friends to this day. I just remember how sincere he was.” 

Serrano was honest and told Suzuki that they hadn’t seen him play and therefore couldn’t offer a scholarship, but that he could walk on and would be given an opportunity to start. Feeling that it was in his best interest to go out and leave home in order to grow, Suzuki turned down a full scholarship to Hawaii in order to walk on at Fullerton and pursue the only thing he wanted – an opportunity. Not wanting to be a dead end for Suzuki, Serrano questioned whether he was making the right decision.

Suzuki moved forward knowing he was going to be given a fair shot, so he walked on at Fullerton and started his freshman year. Injuries plagued him his first season, but it was that year that Suzuki started to fall in love with baseball.

Photo courtesy Kurt Suzuki

Even during his senior year of high school when he was putting in the extra work to get to a Division 1 school, Suzuki just wanted to surf: “I was still going to the beach before I’d go play summer ball games. It wasn’t like I was practicing every day, I would practice twice a week, go to the beach, go to a game after the beach, no big deal. Then I went to college and it was like ‘okay, I have to do whatever it takes, weight training, put on weight, focus,’” says Suzuki, who majored in kinesiology with the hopes of becoming a physical education teacher. “That’s when I really started going after it hard. It was one of those things where it came up late and it was almost like it was a blessing that it did come late because I wasn’t burned out, I still had a love for the game.”

He played more during his sophomore year and by his junior year Suzuki earned a full in-state scholarship. During his junior year he was approached by a couple of agents and MLB teams, and there was talk of Suzuki possibly getting drafted anywhere between the fifth and tenth rounds of the MLB draft. 

“I thought oh, that’d be awesome. My junior year I just kind of went off. I was working with my hitting coach, Rick Vanderhook, and we just changed one thing in my swing and I just started hitting homers and it was the craziest thing,” chronicles Suzuki, who ended up winning the College World Series with the Titans that year. 

The numbers Suzuki put up as a junior earned him the Johnny Bench Award for college baseball’s top NCAA Division I catcher, as well as the Brooks Wallace Award, given by the College Baseball Foundation, at the time, to the nation’s most outstanding player. If that isn’t impressive enough, in 2004, the Oakland Athletics drafted Suzuki in the second round of the MLB draft. 

Kurt Suzuki holds the Johnny Bench Award alongside his parents, Warren and Kathleen, and Johnny Bench himself. Photo courtesy Kurt Suzuki.

“I had a really good year, but it just never crossed my mind, like, second-rounder? Coming from Hawaii, walking on, turning into a second-rounder, that was the coolest thing for me, and when my name got called the first day of the second round I was so so so happy, and it was awesome, such a cool time,” reminisces Suzuki, who made his big league debut with the A’s on June 12, 2007 against the Houston Astros.

His baseball career wasn’t the only thing that was launched at Cal State Fullerton. It was on campus that Suzuki met a volleyball player named Renee, a Southern California native, who became his wife in January of 2007. The couple bought their first house in the South Bay area of SoCal, and currently reside in Redondo Beach, where Suzuki’s sister also lives. For Suzuki, who cherishes the tranquility and lack of traffic that island life boasts, the decision to remain in SoCal seems like it could have been a difficult one. 

“I love it. I love Southern California. If I’m going to live anywhere it’s going to be Southern California just because I got the beach, I got the great weather, it’s as close as you’re going to get for Hawaii,” says Suzuki, who also cites the phrase ‘happy wife, happy life’ as a reason for settling in SoCal.

Is it turns out, geography is a major part of Suzuki’s MLB career spanning 16 seasons and not just 14, as he contemplated retirement at the conclusion of the 2020 season. After a career that saw an All-Star Game appearance while with the Minnesota Twins, signing with his childhood team, the Atlanta Braves, and two stints with both Oakland and the Washington Nationals, the last with the Nationals earning him a World Series ring, Suzuki thought about calling it quits. His kids were getting older, he knew he had accomplished everything he had set out to do, and after the World Series Championship in 2019 he felt at peace with his career and that he could retire whenever he wanted. 

But he wasn’t done.

Suzuki remained close with Perry Minasian, who was the assistant general manager in Atlanta during Suzuki’s time with the Braves, and when Minasian got the general manager post with the Los Angeles Angels in November of 2020 he called Suzuki with a proposal to play for him once more. 

Photo courtesy Angels Baseball

“Shoot, I get to live at home, play for the Angels, play for a GM that I love and keep my dream going, and I was like ‘you know what? Let’s do it,’” Suzuki shares. 

Suzuki concedes that the 2021 season wasn’t great, but he decided to sign for another year as the backup catcher. He was happy to be living at home, looking forward to the chance to mentor the younger players. For Suzuki, at that point in his career, it was exciting and the perfect gig.

Retirement wasn’t top of mind when the 2022 season began, but as the year wore on, it became clear. The Angels were originally supposed to end the season at home in Anaheim, but because of the lockout, their schedule changed and had them end on the road in Oakland. On October 4th, 2022, on what was Suzuki’s 39th birthday, he would end his career in the same place it started. 

The synchronicity continues from there. Mark Kotsay, who played with Suzuki when Suzuki first got called up in Oakland, is also a Fullerton alum and, as the current manager of the A’s, managed against Suzuki in that final game. Bill Beane, who was the general manager that drafted Suzuki in 2004, is still with the A’s as a minority owner and their executive vice president of baseball operations. David Forst, the current A’s general manager, was the assistant GM when Suzuki played in Oakland. The pitching coach and third base coach were Suzuki’s first pitching and third base coaches in the minors, and many of the video personnel, clubhouse attendees and guys he grew up in the game with are still there and were able to see his last game. And a memorable last game it was. 

Angels manager Phil Nevin knew that Oakland Coliseum was a special place for Suzuki and wanted to do something cool for Zuk’s last game. They had discussed pulling Suzuki after he caught the first pitch so he could have the opportunity to say goodbye. 

“I knew it was going to happen and I was walking on the field going ‘man, this is the last time I’m ever going to compete on a major league field, in an organized sport,” reveals Suzuki, who was pulled by Nevin after catching the first pitch from Michael Lorenzen, which queued his teammates to surround him on the mound. “There was a lot of emotion walking off, my wife and my kids were there, my best friend from Maui came up with his girlfriend, my two high school coaches that were a big influence in my career were there with their wives, so everybody that was there had a big part in my career.”

Continues Suzuki: “Walking off the field, the standing “O,” the team running in from the outfield, the dugout in Oakland standing up, clapping at the end of the dugout, my team – it was almost a surreal moment. I’m not a hall-of-fame player by any means, so for people to do this for me is awesome and it was very humbling and I was very honored. I came from Maui, walk-on, and now I’m walking off the field at the end of my big league career to people giving me a standing ovation, I was like ‘wow, I would have never dreamed of this as a young kid.’”

The Suzuki Family with friends from Maui after Kurt’s last game in Oakland. Photo courtesy Kurt Suzuki.

To be fair, Suzuki didn’t even dream of playing baseball as a kid. 

The outpouring of love no doubt reflected the years of dedication, passion, and leadership that Suzuki has poured into the game of baseball, in addition to the hearts he’s touched with his humility and grace along the way, not only within the sport but through his Kurt Suzuki Family Foundation, and the countless other ways he’s given back to his community in Hawaii. He points out the special bonds he’s created with teammates over the years – friends he still talks to today, like Daniel Hudson, Howie Kendrick, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, to name a few – among the things he treasures most from his career. 

Only about a month in, Suzuki is already basking in retirement and has found new (or maybe rekindled old?) passions to occupy himself with for the foreseeable future. Burnout Beach is where you can find Suzuki in his free time, surfing the swells with two of his best friends Scott and Bryan, after which they enjoy poké bowls. Clearly you can take the boy out of the island, but you can’t take the island out of the boy. 

Of course, free time is still a luxury for Kurt and Renee, as they are both heavily involved in youth sports with their three kids, Malia (11), Kainoah (9), and Elijah (6). All the kids play soccer on teams which Suzuki helps to coach; Malia plays volleyball at school where Kurt helps Renee coach; Kainoah plays flag football; Elijah does karate; and both boys play baseball in the Torrance American BaseBall program, which is where a good chunk of Suzuki’s time will be dedicated as head coach – at the request of his kids – now that he’s retired from the big leagues. 

“I love seeing kids have fun and I love seeing kids try to get better and it’s awesome. I try to keep it loose and it’s great because I try to keep everything in perspective for these kids because it can be a little competitive. You get started at a young age and not just with the kids but with the parents I try to teach these guys that as a kid it’s about having fun,” says Suzuki, who emphasizes fun and safety and wants the kids to enjoy themselves so they don’t hate baseball down the line. 

Oh, the irony.

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