PHOENIX (AP) -A line of people waited around the dugout to have a word with Kurt Suzuki, Oakland's personable first-year catcher.
He is suddenly much more popular, and handles each request for his time with a sincerity not always seen in his sport. And what a thrilling change this is for the 24-year-old Hawaiian who regularly sports a sunny smile. Suzuki will make his first opening day roster in the big leagues - and it is a bigger deal for him this year than it would have been any other.
He grew up on Maui but his father's parents are from Japan, where the Athletics will open the season March 25, with the first of two games against the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. His folks will make the trip from the Aloha State, along with his maternal grandparents.
``Everyone has been telling me they're so excited,'' Suzuki said before catching a Cactus League game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday. ``For me, it's great because I get to break camp with the team and be out there opening day. It's awesome. Last year I didn't get to make it. It's a kid's dream.''
He still gets kidded that he's related to Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki, but their last name is about as common in Japan as Smith is here in the United States. Suzuki plays along on occasion.
``I would mess around with them sometimes,'' he said with a grin.
Jokes aside, Suzuki is using this final week before the team departs from the desert Tuesday for Tokyo to tweak a few things and further get to know his pitchers and their tendencies. Suzuki is hitting .308 this spring but is 1-for-14 over his last five exhibition games after hitting safely in his first four.
``He's similar to a new quarterback coming in,'' second-year A's skipper Bob Geren said. ``But he's very sharp. He keeps improving every game. He has a sense of confidence walking around the clubhouse, and you see that confidence when he's catching. He talks to pitchers between pitches, plays and innings, and I think the pitching staff is comfortable with him. He brings a lot of positives to the position.''
Suzuki has caught nine innings a couple of times, and insists his body feels ready for the grind of a 162-game season. The A's got an off day in Arizona on Thursday.
``I'm just fine-tuning some things,'' Suzuki said. ``It's getting comfortable with the pitchers and just the basic stuff for all catchers.''
Suzuki arrived at spring training last month with the mentality that he still had to go out and win the starting job. After the A's dealt durable veteran Jason Kendall to the Chicago Cubs last summer, Suzuki caught 68 games for Oakland. He batted .249 with seven home runs, 13 doubles and 39 RBIs and made only two errors.
That experience helped him get a feel for what to expect this season.
``The first time I got out there, Kendall told me that it's the same thing as the minor leagues except there are more people, which was true,'' Suzuki said.
He will be a key face in the A's rebuilding movement - but isn't about to say that means Oakland will take its lumps in the AL West. General manager Billy Beane traded away several popular players this winter to reload the franchise's farm system.
While Justin Duchscherer - moved into the A's rotation for 2008 - has only thrown one inning to Suzuki so far, he likes what he's seen. Kendall took so much pride in calling games that the pitchers didn't care if he threw out runners or never hit a home run.
Suzuki has shown similar traits already.
``He's one of those guys who wants to learn and study to become one of the better game callers,'' Duchscherer said.
Other pitchers also like Suzuki's approach.
Right-hander Rich Harden and Suzuki have talked about how fun it will be to play together considering Harden was hurt late in 2007 and hasn't been caught by Suzuki in a game that counts.
``He receives the ball really well,'' Harden said.
Suzuki has become more vocal in pitcher-catcher meetings, too. That's an encouraging sign to Geren because ``you can tell he has something to say.''
``If you look back a year ago, I'm sure in that meeting he'd be really quiet,'' Geren said. ``There's a certain energy level to him.''
Suzuki has the advantage of a pair of former big league catchers in Geren and bench coach Don Wakamatsu constantly helping him with his craft.
``I can't see anybody in a better position,'' he said. ``I have two guys who are great to tutor me and mentor me in my first year in the big leagues.''

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