Peoria outfielder Matt Szczur
is totally devoted to professional baseball, but the football player in him is hard to suppress.
"I go 100 percent, no matter what the situation is, even in practice," said Szczur (pronounced like the Roman ruler Caesar), who helped Villanova win an FCS (formerly Division I-AA) national title in 2009 as a receiver. "The coaches tell me to take it easy every once in a while, because I'm running around full speed and it's 100 degrees, and I have to keep my legs for the game. That's how I condition. I go full speed, no matter what. I think it helps me."
Szczur was originally drafted by the Dodgers in 2007 but instead went on to star at Villanova in both football and baseball. The Cubs drafted Szczur in the fifth round in 2010, and he signed for $100,000 but returned to play football at Villanova in August after hitting .347 in 25 games. He received an additional $500,000 for bypassing the NFL combine and signed a new $1.4 million deal with the Cubs in January for committing to baseball. As part of the trade-off, Szczur will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if he doesn't make the Cubs' 40-man roster in 2011.
This season, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound native of Cape May, N.J., is hitting .317 with five homers, 27 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. His involvement in football and baseball has been a double-edged sword regarding his pro baseball career.
"I think a lot of the guys here [in the Midwest League] have a big advantage over me, because they've been playing baseball most of their lives, all year round," Szczur said. "The only time I really got to play was the spring. I didn't play baseball in the summer or the fall.
"I'm happy with my development now," he continued. "I'm learning a lot and seeing progress with my play in the outfield as well as hitting. I'm learning to stay back and drive the ball more, rather than just kind of get up there and slap hitting. I just want to keep winning. If you win, your stats are going to speak for themselves."
Giving up football and a possible career in the NFL was a tough decision for Szczur.
"It was hard," Szczur said of walking away from the gridiron. "I love football, but I don't regret anything, and I don't look back on it at all. I'm happy where I am. The Cubs are a great organization."
Szczur believes that playing football has given him an advantage in terms of endurance and toughness.
"Playing two sports helped me out because of the longevity of the baseball season," Szczur said. "These guys had the fall off, but I was playing football. I think I know more about handling the grind than these guys, just because of the physical demand of football. I'd play a sport all through the spring, summer and continue into the fall. I haven't had a break since junior high. It's something I learned to deal with. I'm actually excited to get some time off this winter."
In addition to missing time on the diamond due to football, Szczur missed nearly a month of the 2010 Big East baseball season when he was a bone-marrow donor. Szczur, through a painful process, donated peripheral blood cells to a young girl suffering from leukemia.
"Our football coach had us sign up for the bone marrow program," Szczur said. "It's a 1-in-80,000 chance that you'll get called. There have only been five or six guys from the football team called in the last 10 years. I got called, and it was all good. It's a different feeling than I can even describe, especially because the girl survived and is doing great. It was easy to make that decision. I have great parents and a great brother who raised me the right way."
Despite playing catch-up, Szczur is making strides to reach Wrigley thanks to a reputation as a quick learner and student of the game.
"I have a lot of development to go and a lot of understanding of the game to learn," Szczur said. "I haven't been around the game nearly as close as any of the other guys playing, because I was always in another sport. I know it's not a sprint. It's a marathon."
Ouch!: Dayton hurler Kyle Lotzkar tied a Midwest League record Tuesday when he plunked five batters in a game against South Bend. The 21-year-old right-hander was making his fifth start after missing more than two years because of a broken elbow.
First pitch: Jordan Heim, who interned with the South Bend Silver Hawks last season, will throw out the first pitch at a Silver Hawks game from the left-field seats. Heim caught a home-run ball hit by Miguel Tejada of the Giants last week at Wrigley Field and, keeping with the Wrigley tradition of throwing back home-run balls hit by opponents, fired a shot that reached the infield as Tejada trotted toward third base.
Broadcast milestone: Dayton Dragons broadcaster Tom Nichols called his 3,000th Minor League game Tuesday. Nichols began announcing games in 1988 with the Indianapolis Indians and has worked for the Kinston Indians, Peoria Chiefs, Fort Wayne Wizards and Mobile BayBears. In addition to working at the Triple-A, Double-A, Class A Advanced and Class A levels, Nichols has called more than 1,000 games in two different leagues (Southern and Midwest).