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Proof Positive

Fullerton's Suzuki still gets overlooked despite turning into one of the nation's best catchers

June 12, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Kurt Suzuki is a name often associated with college baseball's leaders.

The Cal State Fullerton catcher's .435 batting average puts him up there, as do his 83 runs batted in and 15 home runs.

That's why he's among three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation's top player at the position.

Yet Suzuki, who leads the Titans (40-21) into a best-of-three-games NCAA super regional against Tulane (41-19) beginning tonight at Fullerton, has, in at least one major way, still been overlooked.

The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Assn., which awards its Dick Howser Trophy to the nation's top player, did not list Suzuki among its 30 semifinalists.

In Tim Wallach, Mark Kotsay and Phil Nevin, Fullerton has had winners of prestigious national player of the year awards before, and Coach George Horton said Suzuki's season is comparable.

Suzuki, who joined the Titans three years ago without a scholarship, was a second-team All-American selection by USA Today behind South Carolina catcher Landon Powell, even though he had a far higher batting average -- Powell batted .339 -- and 19 more RBIs.

As for the Bench award, Pepperdine Coach Steve Rodriguez said Suzuki earned his vote -- and that was before he belted two home runs and had seven RBIs last Sunday in a two-game Fullerton sweep over the Waves in a regional playoff.

"He's the kind of guy who deserves the award," Rodriguez said. "The way he played didn't surprise me at all."

Horton said he thinks Suzuki gets bypassed by some because he doesn't carry the reputation of other players who played with the USA national team last summer.

"Coming into the season, he wasn't at the top of everybody's list," Horton said. "He kind of snuck up on the radar screen."

Not that it matters much to Suzuki, who platooned behind the plate for two years until this season.

"I've had to prove myself a lot," Suzuki said. "That sort of stuff isn't really that big to me. As long as I get a ring. If we win, then those honors just kind of come anyway."

Suzuki may not be a household name, but his exploits aren't just followed by faithful Titan supporters. He is big news in his home state of Hawaii, particularly on the island of Maui, at Henry P. Baldwin High, where he was a varsity starter for four years.

"He's been in the newspaper and on the TV news here," Baldwin Coach Kahai Shishido said. "We've had a couple of guys [from Baldwin] play college ball and a few have signed pro contracts but no one has made it to the major leagues. No one has done what Kurt is doing at the level he's at."

Fullerton assistant Dave Serrano, the Titans' recruiting coordinator, got a tip on Suzuki as he was scouting another player on the island. It was needed because Suzuki hit a modest .326 as a senior, more than 100 points lower than during his junior year.

Shishido said there were some extenuating circumstances.

"About a third of the way into the season, we had a teacher's strike and we couldn't practice or do anything for 21 school days," he said. "The players worked out on their own and his swing got messed up. We lost our first game in the state playoffs so he didn't get seen by a lot of people."

The drop-off as a senior took him off the list of many colleges, but schools such as Arizona State and Loyola Marymount retained interest. It was at a player showcase in Arizona -- similar to the Area Code Games every August in Long Beach -- where Horton watched him in person and immediately wanted him in his program.

"I thought we hit the jackpot," Horton said. "He impressed us with his defense and his catching skills. And I think Kurt and his family were committed to getting off the island [for baseball]."

Suzuki has always been strong on defense, but his hitting is opening eyes. He has a knack for coming up with big hits in critical situations. His walk-off three-run homer against Long Beach State in the regular-season finale in 2003 helped earn him the nickname "Kurt Klutch."

Now he has become a complete player. Suzuki credits renewed emphasis on weight training in the off-season and his work with assistant Rick Vanderhook on his approach in the batter's box.

The Oakland Athletics took notice. Suzuki was taken in the second round of this week's amateur draft. Powell was the team's first pick.

Suzuki notes the lack of native Hawaiian players in the major leagues. Only four -- San Francisco starting pitcher Jerome Williams, Florida reliever Justin Wayne, Arizona reliever Brandon Villafuerte and New York Met rookie pitcher Tyler Yates -- are on current rosters.

"I know there aren't too many of us so it would mean a lot if I get the chance to do that," he said.

If the catcher does make the majors, it will bring a smile to the face of Shishido.

"He had aspirations at a young age to take this game as far as he could, Shishido said. "When he's playing, he's like a kid in a candy store."

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