ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first 23 years of Steven Souza Jr.'s life and the first five years of his professional career, he was known only as Steven Souza. Adding the "Jr." was something he always wanted to do. It was something he thought about often. But it was also
ST. PETERSBURG -- For the first 23 years of Steven Souza Jr.'s life and the first five years of his professional career, he was known only as Steven Souza. Adding the "Jr." was something he always wanted to do. It was something he thought about often. But it was also something he continuously put off to a later date.
Souza Jr. isn't like many players who end their name with the two-letter suffix. There are guys like Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn Jr., Cal Ripken Jr., and several more. Those players, though, are the "Juniors" to other well-known fathers in Major League Baseball. The suffix serves as a way to honor their distinguished fathers, while also making their own distinction.
Souza Jr. doesn't have a father who played baseball, let alone one who played in the Major Leagues. He has a dad who supported his baseball career growing up, and one who helped put it in perspective when he decided to quit. He has a dad who he wanted to honor on his jersey with those two letters when he returned to the game in 2012, and a person he especially honors on Father's Day.
"This is what I want to be known by," Souza Jr. said. "It gives me an opportunity to honor my dad, talk about him, and let them know how I got here."
Souza Jr. is in his second season with Tampa Bay. He has made a reputation as a right-fielder who isn't afraid to lay out for a fly ball, and he also has a strong arm. He owes much of that to his father, Steve Souza Sr., who may not have given him the baseball gene, but has given him just about everything else.
"We were told multiple times that he had the talent," Souza Sr. said. "People could see that he had the athleticism to do very well. We just helped foster it. I felt that he was dedicated to the sport, so I would help keep that dedication."
:: Father's Day 2016 ::
Souza Jr.'s father would drive him two hours in traffic to get him to practice. He bought a pitching machine, and he built a hitting cage in the family's backyard in Washington state. There were times when the two would play and Souza Jr. would be frustrated with his dad's lack of baseball ability, but those are moments the two look back on and laugh about.
However, there have been some struggles. While Souza Jr. was rising through the Nationals' organization, he served a 50-game suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs. He even quit baseball for part of a year before returning the following season, in large part, because of his dad's guidance.
"He kind of put his foot down in my life. That was the first time in a long time," Souza Jr. said. "My dad was always 'buck stops here' when I was growing up, but when I got older, it was more of a friend relationship. This was the first time in a long time where he put his foot down."
So when Souza Jr. finally got called up from Triple-A Syracuse to the big leagues with the Nationals, he gave the ball from his first base hit to his dad. Even if Souza Jr. had never made it to the next level, he says, he still would have been forever grateful. This, though, was a tangible way to show his gratitude.
Souza Sr. still resides in Washington state. He started off as a mechanic for Boeing and worked his way up to senior manager. Everyone he works with knows his son is in the Major Leagues, because he's proud to share it. He'll make the trip to Tropicana Field as much as possible, and fly up and down the West Coast to see his son and a dream he helped make possible.
"It's so surreal, you don't know how to comprehend it," Souza Sr. said. "I knew my son had the talent. I knew that he could go far with it. How far? I could have never told you that he'd be a big leaguer…It took a while to sink in. It's like a dad's day in heaven."
*Sam Blum * is a reporter for MLB.com based in St. Petersburg.