Coming off an All-Star year, Kurt Suzuki is looking to even better things as the new MLB season begins. Off the field, having just signed a $12 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, the Maui native has created a foundation to fight kidney disease, a cause he takes personally
The low-key fundraiser and baseball clinic seemed to fit the Maui-born big leaguer. Kurt Suzuki, a modest, eight-year Major League veteran, hosted a youth baseball clinic and a kidney disease fundraiser that were a reflection of the host: focused, unassuming and effective.
Suzuki and wife Renee long have wanted to stage such events, but baseball and family obligations took precedence. Now, with a new two-year, $12 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, the young family has the chance to chase more than wild pitches and two active and usually harmonious children, 3-year-old Malia and 14-month-old Kai. (The deal also includes a one-year vesting option for 2017 worth $6 million.)
The camp was easy, open to youths ages 8-12, and volunteer coaches schooled the youngsters on all aspects of the game.
The Kurt Suzuki Family Foundation is another matter.
Baseball is a family passion, and it has provided a successful career for the Baldwin High School grad, who last season was named to his first All-Star team. Now in its fourth season, held a month before he was to report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., the free clinic is a partnership between Suzuki and All Pono Organization, a Maui-based nonprofit that uses sports to teach values and character to island youths. All Pono was founded by Maile and Jon Viela (Suzuki’s high school baseball coach), and named for their son Jrew Kupono Viela, who died at the age of 3.
Suzuki’s interest in fighting kidney disease did not happen by chance. Both he and Renee have been impacted by it.
Kurt’s father Warren was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer in 2007. Renee’s sister Patricia Vignery was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in 2000 at the age of 9. FSGS is a rare kidney disease that attacks the organ’s filtration units and can cause kidney failure.
“It was slowly poisoning her body,” explains Renee.
Vignery underwent chemo-therapy and was in and out of the hospital for years. After 11 years in remission, the disease returned. But she once again is in remission and is taking no medication.
The diagnoses shocked the families, but Kurt says his father’s outlook during his sickness buoyed everyone.
“It was tough,” says Kurt. “It was the last thing you wanted to hear. But if he was acting fine, then everything was fine. He was always positive and never wavered. It was just something he had to overcome.”
It’s that message of hope the Suzukis want to share with other families.
“I think families really appreciate hearing the success stories,” says Renee. “Warren is an absolute success and so is my sister. The families just hear all the negative statistics, so the success stories give them hope.”
The Taste of Hawaii fundraiser was the first for the foundation.
Unsure about how to set up a nonprofit, they asked Kurt’s agent at MVP Sports Group and others to guide them through the complex process. Also unsure about a standout menu, they tapped another expert, chef Alan Wong.
The dinner featured sports celebrities BJ Penn, All-Star shortstop Ian Demond, Oakland Raiders linebacker Kaluka Maiava and surfer Ian Walsh. Whipping up dishes at Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea were Top Chef finalist Sheldon Simeon, Maui Chef of the Year Isaac Bancaco, Maui Four Seasons executive chef Roger Stettler and Spago chef Cameron Lewark. The $70,000 raised at the dinner will help families with kidney disorders in rural Hawaii.
“It really hits home when you meet families who are dealing with the disease we are trying to raise money for,” says Renee. “Also, the support from the Maui community has really helped. They have stepped up, and we have been able to raise a lot of money. It’s been really amazing.”
Partnering with Wong made sense in ways beyond the fundraiser. The Suzukis are a foodie family, and Kurt is rumored to be a pretty good amateur chef. His specialties are stir-fries, barbecue and a spaghetti sauce that is anything but ordinary. Call it comfort food with a healthy purpose.
“In the offseason I just love to eat, indulge,” says Kurt with a laugh, safe in the knowledge that MidWeek is not delivered to Minneapolis.
On the baseball side, everything is positive for the well-rounded catcher. In addition to the contract and All-Star game appearance, Suzuki produced one of the most replayed moments of the 2014 season: an inside-the-park home run that was not an inside-the-park home run.
On May 20 against the San Diego Padres, Suzuki, apparently, hit a ball hard off the top of the outfield wall. He knew it was out, but without the official call, he kept motoring. It soon became apparent to everyone that the ball had cleared the wall, and to the laughter of his teammates and the Twins’ TV broadcasting crew, Suzuki crossed the plate after perhaps the fastest home run trot in history.
“It was great. I got to show off another dimension to my game,” he says, laughing about his underappreciated speed.
Suzuki, who previously led Call State-Fullerton to the 2004 College World Series title, is playing for his third Major League team (he had two stints in Oakland and also played for Washington) since being called up to the big leagues in 2007. It’s why Renee and the kids remain in Redondo Beach. The nomadic life of a baseball player can be tough.
“That’s why you need a family that supports you, a wife who supports you,” he says. “It’s a tough business. It takes a special person to be the wife of a baseball player.”
Will he move the family to Minnesota? In a word: no.
Why? Another one-word answer: weather.