'The paranoia is real': Keeping fresh signs top of mind for catcher Kurt Suzuki vs. Astros

HOUSTON — He knows they’re watching. They always watch. Then they rewind, watch again.

He knows they’re looking in from second base, from the corners in the coaches boxes, from who knows where. He knows there are rumors about everywhere, every ballpark in every league, how they do it, how they try, some of their methods fair and some perhaps not.

He knows the reputation here. Everybody knows the reputation here, at Minute Maid Park. He also knows the nature of reputations, how one man’s anxiety, one man’s suspicion, becomes the hardened truth in a league of thousands of men willing to believe the worst, which is precisely how paranoia works, and also why Kurt Suzuki wears a wristband to remind him which pitchers use which set of signs, because there’s an awful lot of moving parts out here. And who knows what else.

After some 12,000 innings back there and hundreds of thousands of pitches called and caught and not caught, and at the end of 13 seasons in which not a single one of those innings or pitches had come in a World Series game, Suzuki on Monday afternoon returned to Minute Maid Park, where he’d caught the first of those innings and the first of those pitches, and where he’d play more than 12 years later in the World Series.

He was 23 then. Craig Biggio was a Houston Astro, nearing 3,000 hits. Brad Ausmus was the Astros’ catcher and older then than Suzuki is now. Mike Piazza was an Oakland A’s teammate and playing the final days of his career.

Now he stands — or squats — in tandem with fellow Washington Nationals catcher Yan Gomes on the honed end of a pitching staff that leads with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Suzuki, the veteran catcher the Nationals hope has seen it all, because they’re watching. They’re always watching.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Kurt Suzuki #28 of the Washington Nationals looks on against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Kurt Suzuki knows the Houston Astros are watching when it comes to signs. (Getty Images)

Funny now to think back, Suzuki said the day before Game 1 here, on the kid who had grown up on Maui, who’d gone off to Cal State Fullerton, who’d heard all about the long odds of a career as a professional ballplayer, whose aim had always been to reach the major leagues. The rest had been vague.

Funny to be the guy with the 12,000 innings behind the plate, those covering a pretty decent career and also the length of his marriage to Renee, the births of his three children, cancer coming and going in his father, Warren, the consideration of an early retirement when he didn’t feel like a very good ballplayer anymore, Renee talking him into one more season (that being three seasons ago), all that life that’s passed since that first inning right here in this ballpark.

“To be finally here in the World Series,” he mused. “Unbelievable.”

After all that time, you see, he’s watching, too.

“I’ve gotten calls,” he said, “from friends, front office people, saying, ‘Hey, man, make sure you get this right.’ Without accusing anybody, it’s like, ‘Just make sure you keep it sharp, keep it fresh, keep your signs fresh, your sequencing fresh,’ because the paranoia is real. And this is coming from teams that have played the Astros a lot.”

He grinned at that, because who knows what drives these sorts of trembly notions. Just last week in New York, Houston Astros reliever Ryan Pressly had thrown a 94-mph fastball when Robinson Chirinos was expecting a feathery slider because there’d been a runner at second base and one of them had gotten the sign wrong.

“That was my fault,” Pressly said the next day. “It’s tough, especially in this environment where you’re trying to count [fingers and sequences] and concentrate when you have 45,000 people screaming. All the paranoia is real, man. It’s real.”

And, then, a week before that, in a different city ahead of a playoff game between two different teams, one mid-level team employee confided his in-game assignment was to wander the outfield, “Looking for Johnny Intern holding a camera.”

Which is to say this isn’t just about the Astros, except the Astros are all that’s left ahead of the Nationals, and the first two games are in a ballpark that doesn’t belong to the Nationals, so best to be paranoid and laugh about it later.

Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki gets a new baseball during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Washington Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki knows the reputation at Minute Maid Park when it comes to sign stealing. (AP)

“I can’t control what kind of computer, what kind of devices, how many guys they got trying to crack codes, stuff like that,” Suzuki said. “My main goal is Max out there, the hitter in the box, [Jose] Altuve, [George] Springer, whoever it is, [Carlos] Correa in the box, and we’re trying to focus on sequencing and getting these guys out. If I’m worried about, ‘I hope this guy doesn’t pick signs,’ then my mind’s not where it needs to be on getting these unbelievable hitters out. You just have to trust the fact that we’re going to execute it.

“If they know it, if we execute and they somehow got it, then they somehow got it, but we can’t deter from our game plan. Our focus is the hitter. We can’t worry about, ‘OK, we gotta get the hitter out, but I hope he’s not picking these signs,’ and the next thing you know we get crossed up, next thing you know you threw the wrong pitch and the guy hits it over the fence and you’re like, ‘I thought you called this pitch, but no I didn’t. And it’s a crazy debacle. We focus on the task at hand and, hey, if it happens it happens.”

So, whether it’s Scherzer out there or Strasburg or Anibal Sanchez or whomever, Suzuki checks his wristband, and the pitcher checks the chart tucked into the inner headband of his cap, and they could change the signs two or three times inside an at-bat.

“It depends how long the at-bat is, how long the guy’s been at second base, or we see what the guy’s doing, we hear things coming from places,” he said. “The paranoia, man, about this stuff is unbelievable.”

The first catcher he backed up was Jason Kendall, who ran a game as if it were on the other end of a bullwhip. Play long enough and it all begins to change, if you let it, and Suzuki on Monday afternoon spoke almost whimsically about the bygone consequences of even the slightest suspicion.

“If he was catching and he found that out, there’d probably be a fight, knowing how Jason is,” he said. “Nowadays, I don’t know if you want to say it’s part of the game now. I guess it is.”

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