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MAGA Catcher Kurt Suzuki And The Nationals
Proved ‘You’ve Gotta Have Heart’
By Yoichi Shimatsu
Exclusive to Rense
Not for any reason having to do with sport, online spite is being heaped on Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki for wearing a MAGA cap at the White House reception for baseball’s unlikeliest World Series champions. These sour comments show utter lack of any reasoned opinion much less admiration for the odds-on underdogs, on top of being ill-informed as shown in the widespread assumption that he’s a player from Japan trying to curry favor in the USA.
To clarify, Kurt’s an American citizen of fourth-generation Japanese ancestry with the right to vote for whichever candidates he chooses and for whatever reasons, which he demonstrated much less obnoxiously than an opinionated loudmouth like Stephen Curry who pressured the Golden State Warriors to refuse the White House invitation. Plus adding injury to insult for the liberal crowd, gentleman Kurt actually shaved his trademark beard to attend that WH celebration, which shows his gentlemanly respect for the traditions of this democracy.
Now compare the venom against Kurt with the high praise from these same voices for former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernik for taking a knee during the national anthem, more than once, a symbolic gesture that sullied the shared values of this community of citizens who are expected to honor the sacrifices and courage of those patriots of the War of 1812 as expressed in those profound lyrics of the anthem, which extend far beyond race or parochial loyalty. Colin’s ignorance of the evolution of American attitudes toward racial inclusion also prompted Nike to self-censor the sneaker bearing the Betsy Ross flag of the original 13 founding states that joined together in the desperate fight against British colonialism.
Forgotten in his ill-considered Nike ban was the fact that the very first martyr of the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a black freeman and courageous patriot of the independence struggle. Eliminate “Make America Great Again” and deny the flag that flew over the Constitutional Convention, and one wonders what’s next to be banned by this self-righteous jihad? Ever tally how many white people lost their lives in the brutal struggle for emancipation? Why not just finish off the British arson of the White House? Then what are you left with, fools? The politically correct football players only further divided the nation on issues of racial equality, meaning everybody loses.
Fanaticism over race arises when the misfortunes of one sub-group of American society is elevated to absolute self-righteousness and condemnation of other ethnic groups. Slavery was dreadful in a thousand ways, and so too, also to a lesser degree the immigration exclusion act and wartime internment of Japanese Americans. Unjustifiable as those policies were, that’s the past not the present, when a talented kid from a humble family has a shot at pro sports or the Ivy League. Setting one group against another does not raise the level of freedom for all, but results in distrust, hatred and social discord ruinous to the entire society.
If Colin wants to kneel, that was his personal issue and should not have become so divisive and harmful to the NFL. Likewise Kurt’s MAGA cap should not be interpreted as a team statement or reelection endorsement but merely one player’s way of thanking President Trump for the honor of being invited to the White House for a long-overdue celebration of the Commissioner’s Cup coming to the nation’s capital, which has eluded Washington since the Senators beat the New York Giants in 1925. And if Kurt is a Republican, that’s not a crime but merely a free choice, just as it was for the Nationals to migrate to D.C. from Canada.
In the name of social justice, these hate-blinded party-poopers seemed to have forgotten Kurt’s succinct words at the podium “We love you all”, which is exactly appropriate for this time of political division and flaring anger between partisan camps. Like it or not, the White House happens to be located in the Nationals’ hometown and the nation’s capital, and Donald Trump was the best-possible host for the victory celebration. Let it go, guys, it’s just a game that we’ve all played on a sand lot or atop neatly groomed fields of grass. So here, let’s discuss who’s Kurt Suzuki and why does his sports career matter to Americans?
The capital’s perpetual underdog teams and its virtually unknown Japanese American catcher have just proven why baseball is and remains the national pastime. Overall, Houston dominated Washington through the series but broke down in key match-ups of ace Astros pitchers, who’d been near flawless during the regular season, against the Nationals power hitters including Anthony Rendon and Howie Kendrick who achieved one of the biggest upsets in American baseball history. Yet it was 36-year-old catcher Kurt Suzuki who hit the home run that led off that seventh-inning barrage, breaking open the tie despite an injured wrist, charging up his teammates in what would become a 12-3 rout in Game 2. That rally stunned the Astros, rattling their confidence and questioning the reliability of their pitchers.
Third baseman Anthony Rendon, a power hitter in the final game that broke the bats of the Astros, credited Suzuki with making similar game-changing homers in decisive moments throughout the 2019 season. Until he had to leave Game 3 with a hip injury, the veteran catcher’s tactical savvy limited scoring by Astros, enabling the National batters to wear down their opponent’s much-ballyhooed ace pitchers, resulting in the rare miscue. With power hitting, the emerging champs blasted their way out of the hole, psychologically rattling the over-confident Astros.
As a test of nerves and individual wills, this year’s World Series was a classic demonstration of the art of baseball, with persistence after recurrent disappointments, to be down yet not allowing the score to be run up, and setting up late-game firepower. The other key was their patience at probing the few chinks in the Astros’ armor, exploited by inspired players, in a similar manner to that memorable 1958 movie “Damn Yankees” about the luckless Senators, predecessors of the Nationals. To everyone’s astonishment, the drought ended spectacularly in glory.
If there’s a movie equivalent for Suzuki, it’s “Bull Durham”, the Kevin Costner story about an aging catcher who’s there only to train younger pitchers in self-confidence and game strategy, the sports equivalent of psychological warfare. At age 36, Kurt somehow made it to the dream.
For those who’ve never had the chance to play baseball, the hardest part of this game is to track a fast ball, which is probably the greatest challenge in all of sports. From a batter’s POV, that white spot moves half the distance from the pitcher rising all along (that's an optical illusion) and then disappearing into thin air, only to emerge with a thud in the catcher’s mitt, after you’ve swung the bat futilely with great hopes ending in frustration. Strike! Nobody’s ever been able to explain how to detect the exact location and timing of that ball inside the strike zone. Some people can do it with uncanny precision, and the vast majority of us can’t come close. It’s instinct processed through a specialized faculty of the brain, like a kingfisher diving obto the surface of a stream to catch its tiny moving prey. Pro players go through visualization training, making this challenging act of detection the closest experience to Luke Skywalker striking a tiny drone with a light-saber while blindfolded.
Kurt Suzuki is one of the rarefied species called a catcher, which demands sharpshooter eyeballs and nerves of steel to not drop a fast ball or miss the sudden curve of a sinker, while keeping watch on runners about to steal a base and tagging any opponent risking a dash to home plate after an outfield catch of a fly ball. Forget video-games, the skill sets of a catcher are super-human. Meanwhile, with fingers signaling, a catcher messages the pitcher about how to outwit the batter. Artificial intelligence can win at chess or a game of go against human opponents, but there’s no way that a computer can ever match the nearly mystical abilities of a veteran catcher in Major League Baseball, nor can a robot ever be able to cover home plate against a crafty runner diving and wiggling onto the bag. The archetype golden moment for the catcher is, of course, when he flips up the face guard to stare into the sun to snag a pop-up fly. Those were all excellent reasons for why I ended up playing soccer instead and moving into the ultimate spectator stands of journalism.
The Wa of Yakyu, baseball in Japanese
Baseball became the craze in Japan soon after the arrival of the Black Ships as a pastime between American sailors and Japanese youths who excelled at swinging samurai swords. Slicing a fast ball in half midair with a katana remains an amusing trick in Japan. As in the States, there are two leagues in Japan, the Pacific and Central, whose batters are at par with the MLB, meaning top players often rotate back and forth between the Japan League and Major League Baseball. The World Series is a misnomer, since Japanese teams have racked up the ratio of wins against visiting American teams, although that imbalance could be due to the visitors’ excess of hot sake.
This bilateral relationship accounts for the widespread misunderstanding about Kurt Suzuki being a foreign player trying to act over-politely toward the American president, as one of those talented MLB players from Japan might do, for example, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and other greats. Kurt Suzuki, no relation to Ichiro, is a home-grown product, born and raised in Hawaii, a fourth-generation Japanese American, with emphasis on the latter. Despite this key difference of upbringing, Kurt has a uncanny resemblance, in terms of tactical leadership, psychological depth and personal effort, to Japan’s greatest-ever catcher Atsuya Furuta of the Yakult Swallows whose masterful pitch-calling baffled and routed the great Ichiro Suzuki, then with Orix BlueWave, for the Swallows victory in the 1995 championship series. (Although I relished that contest while working in Tokyo as a newspaper editor, I was not then nor now partisan to either of those teams, since my fan loyalty has been through thick and then with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the most un-kosher, non-halal and anti-vegan rogues in world baseball, known for going hog-wild in home-run frenzies.)
Robert Whiting’s “You gotta have Wa” is the insightful dissection of Japanese baseball as the epitome of teamwork over individualism, “wa” or group spirit being the ultimate attainment, much like a well-oiled limousine that never breaks down, operating with quiet efficiency. As a mindful contest of wits and nerves whether between individuals or teams, it’s no wonder that baseball came to symbolize the core ethics for the industrial rise of America and Japan (as opposed, if I may be permitted to provoke a controversy, to the corporate ethos of football and consumerism of basketball).
Whenever drinking a beer with sports figures, my standard joke went like this. Baseball players have the best, most beautiful and nicest wives, whereas football guys date cheerleaders and basketball dudes go out with (fill in the blanks). Sorry, ladies.
Catcher at Bat
The blend of Japanese team-orientation and American individual performance accounts for the outstanding performance of the Japanese transfers to the MLB, and filtered down indirectly through baseball as played among Hawaiian-Japanese youths and coaches, as shown in the exemplary mentorship role of Kurt Suzuki at the struggling Nationals.
Your Average Hero
Kurt Suzuki distinguished himself with a .320-plus batting average at blue-collar Baldwin public high school in Waikiki, which produced several professional athletes but not any Ivy League types as at elitist private Punahou School, alma mater of that middling hoops jock Barack Obama.
Due to encouragement from a local MLB scout, Kurt opted to attend humble Cal State Fullerton, where he hit the winning RBI for the Titans versus the Texas Longhorns in the 2004 College World Series. That year he was awarded the Johnny Bench prize for top college catcher. After doing his apprenticeship in the minors, with a brilliant batting average, at Vancouver, Stockton and Sacramento, he was finally picked up by the Oakland A’s in 2007, where by chance he caught for pitcher Shane Komine, a fellow Hawaiian Japanese player. In that same year, he married his high-school sweetheart who was on the girl’s volleyball squad.
After leading the Oakland Athletics in RBIs along with hits, doubles and total bases, Kurt was traded to the lowly Washington Nationals (starting from the ground-up is also a part of the JA story). There, he was tossed out of an game by the umpire for protesting a strike-three call, which showed him not to be a yes-man out to please the Commissioner. Due to trades and an injury, Kurt bounced around the league like a ping-pong ball, back to the As, then to the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, despite hitting in the .270s and setting up strikeouts as a catcher. Then he was pushed into a career-ending trade back to the Washington Nationals in 2018, where nevertheless he did the journeyman’s job of hitting 17 home runs in his first season there. In the following year, he gave it the best shot with that morale-boosting home run in the second game of the World Series.
This average career path for an extraordinary player, without any favoritism or endorsement contracts, could have been a cause for highly publicized complaints about racism and favoritism, but Kurt remained a man of few words who focused on doing what had to be done for his current team. Likewise in his private life, eschewing any fanfare or publicity, Kurt and his wife Renee launched the Suzuki Family Foundation to fund research on chronic illnesses. Hes also provided financial aid to help retired ballplayers in need, starting with a former collegiate Titans team member injured in the car crash that killed Anaheim Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart.
One element in Kurt’s background contributed to his willingness to keep playing despite being cut from rosters and traded time and again, and that’s his ancestral roots in Okinawa, which is historically a colony of Japan, a tributary of China and an occupied encampment for the U.S. military. Repeated domination by big powers teaches humility while never giving up faith in maintaining one’s own identity under adversity and duress. Playing on a losing team is not the worst fate, since there’s always a remote possibility of busting out to seize the coveted prize.
Kurt Suzuki, who’s not one to boast or seek Instagram fame, has earned every right to wear whatever hat he chooses, or make an endorsement that wouldn’t carry a lot of weight anyway since he’s not after fame. “Make America Great Again” is no big deal except for those looking to start a fist fight. Booing Kurt only begs the question of how should minorities deal with unfairness. Which path earns enduring results? Did Jesse Owens succeed by hollering in Munich or by winning the foot race and acting like a civilized American gentleman, proving to his foes that he wasn’t the subhuman that they had wrongfully assumed? Suzuki’s few words amounted to a grand-slam home run: “We love you all”.
Congratulations to the Nationals, and thanks to the White House staff for showing their hospitality to the catcher from Hawaii and his teammates who’ve put baseball back into the lifeblood of the capital of this divided nation, which sorely needs a common point of agreement among different interests and parties. Yesteryear’s underdogs taking the World Series has proven the truth of that old song: “You’ve gotta have heart. All you really need is heart. When the odds are sayin’ you'll never win, that's when the grin should start. Cause you gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart. ”