George Horton ran a college baseball powerhouse at Cal State-Fullerton, the kind of program that had no place for someone like Kurt Suzuki. Horton had never seen or heard of Suzuki before a scout pal mentioned the high schooler in Hawaii.
"We didn't know a whole heck of a lot about him," Horton said. "We heard from our network of friends that this little catcher from Maui wanted to come and walk on at Fullerton."
On an island with 160,000 permanent residents, Suzuki played against five or six high schools. Few scouts noticed. But Fullerton needed a catcher, and there was no risk. Suzuki took the leap from Hawaii to major college baseball as a challenge. He began competing with kids who had attended higher-profile California high schools and earned scholarships.
"He needed to have some sort of edge," said Warren Suzuki, Kurt's father.
Instantly, "we just fell in love with him," Horton said. In three years, the little catcher from Maui had become the leader on the 2004 national champions. Three years later, he was in the majors. He came to the Washington Nationals at the 2012 trade deadline, and he will begin the 2013 season as their starting catcher.
In less than half a season, Suzuki became the nerve center for the Nationals' pitching staff. He arrives at Space Coast Stadium daily at 6:30 a.m. to work alone. He greets teammates with relentless positivity and cheerful prodding. He assists pitchers with detailed preparation. They say they have never seen him in a bad mood.
"He's like the big brother role," said Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez, who played with Suzuki in Oakland. "He's a leader, man. If there's a captain of the rotation, it's always 'Zuk."
As a kid, Suzuki devoured Atlanta Braves games on TBS, usually the only baseball he could watch. He loved to play. A random connection — a Fullerton assistant coach played college ball with a high school coach on Maui — opened the door for him to play in college. In 2004, he won the Johnny Bench Award as the country's best catcher and led Fullerton to a national title. The Oakland Athletics noticed and drafted the once unknown kid with the 67th overall pick.
Suzuki reached the majors with the A's in 2007, backing up Jason Kendall. Suzuki admired the veteran, and Kendall told him, "If you can walk, you can play."
"If you prepare and you take care of yourself and you want to play every day, people feed off of that," Suzuki said. "Pitchers see how much you want to fight to get in there, and they respect you. I don't like to get my respect off other stuff. That's the way I get my respect — wanting to play every day, preparing to play every day."
He established himself first as the starter, and then a driving force within the A's. As a minor leaguer, Gonzalez received occasional text messages from Suzuki: How's your mechanics? How do you feel? Keep it up down there.
Last season provided challenges. He played through injuries, and his batting average plummeted to barely above .200. Oakland called up Derek Norris, a former Nationals farmhand, and Suzuki's playing time dissipated.
The Nationals had the best record in baseball and a catcher, Jesus Flores, slumping at the plate and sulking behind it. They sent minor league catcher David Freitas to Oakland and removed Suzuki from the only organization he has ever known. The deal stunned Suzuki, but it also revitalized him. The edge came back.
"Sometimes, you lose that feeling," Suzuki said. "I came here, and I got that feeling again. It let me step back and kind of realize the enjoyment of the game. It got me back to just having fun and enjoying everything about it."
The first thing Suzuki told Nationals coaches was, "You don't have to ask me if I want to play or not. You know I want to play."
Suzuki made it a priority to learn his new pitchers and dedicated himself to the task.
"He's spending time with the pitching staff, in their ear," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Where he could be being selfish, going in the cage."
Each day during the season, Suzuki spends 45 minutes to an hour studying opposing lineups and how they will fit the strengths and weakness of each Nationals pitcher. He uses a computer to gauge a hitter's tendencies, emphasizing the past 10 games. He memorizes "heat maps" — plots that show how a hitter fares against specific pitch locations. He watches video to crosscheck the numbers.
"If I catch a shutout and win the game and I got 0-for, I'm really happy," Suzuki said. "To me, catching a shutdown is the best feeling."