MESA, Ariz. – Matt Szczur has a locker in between David DeJesus and Darwin Barney, a prime piece of real estate in the HoHoKam Stadium clubhouse.
DeJesus has the credibility that comes with 10 years in the big leagues. Barney wasn’t exactly a sure thing either coming up as a too-small, too-slow infielder. That helps to explain why Szczur is feeling more comfortable this spring.
Before the Cubs start making cuts and sending players down the street to Fitch Park, Szczur is going to soak up as much as he can. The learning curve accelerated as soon as the former Villanova football star accepted a $1.5 million signing bonus in January 2011 and stopped training for the NFL combine.
“I just try and pick everybody’s brain, so I can have my own approach,” Szczur said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. I feel like last year I didn’t talk to anybody. I just felt like I stayed inside myself. But this year I feel like I’ve been trying to get information.”
Two different administrations at Clark and Addison have used first-round picks on centerfielders who are on the radar: Brett Jackson (2009) and Albert Almora (2012).
Not to mention $30 million Cuban defector Jorge Soler – the corner outfielder who made his batting-practice shows must-see events – or all the other prospects team president Theo Epstein envisions being part of the scouting and player-development machine.
But that isn’t going to drive or motivate Szczur. The 23-year-old centerfielder sat in the chair in front of his locker on Tuesday and thought back to a conversation he had with a roommate last year.
“No, not at all,” Szczur said. “Just worry about yourself and that will take care of it. Because you should be friends with everybody on your team. Obviously, it’s competitive, but there are 29 other teams out there. You just got to play as best as you can and you’ll figure it out.”
That attitude should help Szczur. The shorthand story about his makeup is how he once donated his bone marrow to an infant with leukemia. The medication forced him to miss part of his 2010 baseball season at Villanova. She survived after only having a 1-in-80,000 chance of finding a match.
Szczur was the ultimate slash player – running back/wide receiver/quarterback/kick returner – on the Villanova football team that won a national title in 2009.
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Szczur wears an offensive lineman’s number (72), another sign of where he is right now in camp. He’s 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts so far in the Cactus League, but the exposure and experience has been invaluable.
“He’s a young man that hasn’t played tons of baseball in his life,” manager Dale Sveum said. “He’s another kid where you can’t teach that hand strength. The ball comes off his bat like a major-league player. But there’s just adjustments that have to be made to understand what's all valued in his swing.
“His upper body wants to lift out of his swing, and that's why he chops balls to shortstop and third base. He’s got power. He can hit a ball actually a long way. That guy’s a really, really strong kid with major-league hands when he’s got a bat.”
Last season Szczur hit .295 with a .394 on-base percentage, 38 stolen bases and 68 runs scored in 78 games at Class-A Daytona. He strained his left knee sliding feet first in June and then had to play with a bulky brace.
He wasn’t the same explosive player at Double-A Tennessee, hitting .210 with four stolen bases in 35 games. He’s healthy again and listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, feeling like his body’s much more flexible now.
“In football, you can be loose, but you can kind of will yourself to get an extra yard,” Szczur said. “You can’t will yourself to hit a slider.”
But Szczur could eventually force his way to the big leagues with his work ethic, athleticism and competitiveness, even if it’s somewhere other than the North Side.
Talking about the decision and being reminded of the glory days certainly got old for Jeff Samardzija as the Notre Dame All-American tried to find his identity as a pitcher. Now it’s fair game for the Opening Day starter whose confidence is off the charts.
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There are so many intangibles the Cubs once saw on the football field that could translate here. But Szczur has seen enough in big-league camp that this is the last time you should see this angle to the story in spring training.
“You know what, I don’t even follow football anymore,” Szczur said. “The only game I watched this year was the Super Bowl. It’s not that I don’t want to watch it – I just would rather throw in a movie.”