Everett native Steven Souza Jr., enjoys playing his first major-league game in Seattle
He told himself he wasn’t going to be nervous. There was no reason to feel that way. It was going to be just another game.
Yes, he would have his personal cheering section of friends and family hanging on his every move — a triumphant return home for the Everett native. But that was no reason for butterflies.
It wouldn’t matter that it was the field of his adolescence, a forest green palace of possibility where Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Alex Rodriguez captured his imagination and heart for the game of baseball.
Yep, it would be just another game for 26-year-old Steven Souza Jr.
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Or at least that’s what he tried to make himself believe.
“In the morning, I was talking to my wife,” he said. “She asked me if I was nervous because she was nervous. I said, ‘No.’”
But then in the time leading up to the game, as he laced up his spikes — usually the last thing a player puts on — and tied them tight, he realized it wasn’t just another game. It was a seminal moment in a meandering career that started with talent, money, questionable choices and the repercussions that followed them, including a 50-game suspension, hitting rock bottom, finding a reason for rebirth, baptism and the big leagues.
“I got a little emotional,” he admitted. “Just with how long it’s been and the things I’ve been through to come back here and play, it’s surreal.”
He’d find that feeling again later Thursday night, hitting a hard ground ball up the middle in the fourth inning off Roenis Elias to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.
The large group of 30 or so Souza fans came alive with cheers.
“It was a really cool,” he said. “It’s an experience I will never forget. Hopefully, I will get to come back here for a long time. But it was the first time being able to play in front of some of my family that’s never seen me play. My grandma is hopefully going to be here on Sunday. Those are the types of memories I will cherish.”
Souza has plenty of Mariners’ memories from when he was a kid.
“We had season tickets at the Kingdome,” he said. “It was a flex package where we went to one-third of the games. We came here for the playoffs against the Yankees. I love this stadium. I loved the Kingdome. When Safeco was built and they had 116 wins, I went to so many games, so many memories.”
Those Mariners shaped his early baseball moments. They were his heroes.
“As a young kid, Griffey was my favorite,” he said. “He was always smiling on the field. My mom had got me a videotape of Griffey, his dad and his brother on the field hitting off the tee and teaching hitting. That’s really where I started to grasp baseball as a young kid, learning from that. And as I got older, Alex was probably my favorite player and I tried to mimic my swing after him.”
He rips the names off — Edgar, Buhner, A-Rod and Griffey — like they are long lost friends. That’s how much they meant to him. Told that Buhner was at Safeco on Thursday, Souza was disappointed he didn’t meet him.
“To be able watch Griffey, Buhner, Edgar and A-Rod here as a kid and then be able to step on the field, it’s just an honor,” he said.
Souza was supposed to make his Safeco Field debut last season as a member of the Washington Nationals, but he went on the disabled list with an injured shoulder just days before.
“My family had a bunch of tickets and it was a little disappointing,” he said.
But a trade to the Rays in the offseason made it possible for yearly trips to Safeco Field.
Souza was part of a massive three-team trade that sent him to Tampa Bay as the key piece in return for the Rays, who had to give up Wil Myers in the deal.
Souza was a highly coveted prospect in the 2014 offseason. He’d been the International League player of the year and rookie of the year after hitting. 350 with a 1.022 OPS, including 18 homers, 25 doubles and 75 RBI in 96 games.
With the glut of outfielders on the Nats’ roster, Souza had to adjust to his new team and life.
“It’s been a bumpy road from the beginning just as far you spend so much time with one organization,” he said. “You are building a relationship with coaches. Everything I went through with those guys and to get into the playoffs and everything that happened and then getting traded, it was a whirlwind. You have to start basically all over. This is a brand-new team. They traded a bunch of guys and brought in a bunch of new guys. It’s been a process, but it’s starting to mesh.”
Souza is starting to mesh with a familiar role — starting outfielder. After being called up by the Nationals, he was a part-time player.
“Last year was tough, I’ve never had that role before of not playing every day,” he said. “I would not play for three days and then be pinch-hitting. I started to get the hang of it at the end of the year. But this is kind of my comfort zone of knowing that I can go to the ballpark and this is how I’m going to prepare. You don’t really take every AB like it’s the last one. You could get four or more and you can show up the next day and get back out there again.”
The results are starting to come. He’s hitting just .230, but he has a team-high 11 homers and 26 RBI with a .330 on-base percentage.
“Early on with the trade and everything, I felt like I had to carry the load and just that pressure that comes with it,” he said. “And now I’m just trying to take care of my business.”
It was a responsibility he didn’t need to put on himself.
“I always flew under the radar,” he said. “The last year, I didn’t and it was a shock to me. I don’t think I handled it very well. But now with the grace of God, I’m starting to forget that stuff and remember it’s just a game and going out and playing and being an athlete. It’s a tough game, but I feel like I’m starting to fit in.”