By Tony Andracki
Earlier this month, prior to the 2013 Cubs Convention, the Cubs brought a select group of top prospects to Wrigley Field for a rookie development program.
The idea was to give some future Cubs a crash course on what it means to be a big-leaguer.
Message delivered for Matt Szczur.
"Oh yeah," Szczur said when asked if that helped him see light at the end of the tunnel in his journey to the majors. "Being at the convention, being in Chicago all week [was amazing]. I walked out on the field and there was nobody there, but I still got chills.
"I want to be there, and I want to be there soon."
The Cubs drafted Szczur, 23, in the fifth round of the 2010 draft and as a stipulation on his contract, handed him a spot on the 40-man roster. Next month, he will head to his second big-league spring training.
"I trained hard last year, but I feel like I know what to train for more now to go in and be prepared for spring training," Szczur said. "I have a routine and that's the biggest thing. And I feel more confident being around the guys."
Szczur got his first taste of the MLB life last spring, and said he spent a lot of time learning from those players around him, veterans that have endured the ups and downs of the big-league season.
He credited Reed Johnson, whose locker was right next to Szczur's in Arizona, in having the biggest impact on him as he shadowed the veteran and picked Johnson's brain.
Johnson, a 10-year MLB veteran, has made a career as a gritty fourth outfielder. His all-out style of play and flexibility sets a good example for young players.
"He's been grinding his whole career," Szczur said. "he hasn't had a set position or a set team his whole career and that's motivation for me because he's still grinding every single day. Still lifting weights, still doing the batting cages every day."
Szczur also pinned Alfonso Soriano as a good role model, something that would have made some fans laugh two years ago.
"I remember [last spring training], he hit a ball over the first baseman's head and he busted his butt to make it a hustle double," Szczur said. "And if he's 36 years old [at the time] and he's still doing it, everybody else better be doing it. It's good to see."
Szczur said he also paid attention to how Soriano handled the high expectations of the Chicago fanbase, something that could come in handy for a top prospect in the "rebuilding" process the franchise is currently undergoing.
"The fans are great. They're going to boo you and they're going to cheer for you. You've gotta shake it off and know that you're going to be out there and they're going to be cheering for you," Szczur said.
Szczur's athleticism -- he played wide receiver at Villanova -- helped him gain momentum as a prospect, even landing at No. 64 on Baseball America's Top 100 list prior to the start of the 2012 season.
He finished last year in Double-A Tennessee and struggled, hitting just .210 in 158 plate appearances. But the 6-foot-1, 195-pound outfielder enjoyed a big season at High-A Daytona prior to his promotion, compiling a slash line of .295/.394/.407 with 38 steals and 68 runs in 78 games.
But he still has a long way to go to fulfill his dream of making the Major Leagues.
Kerry Wood and Mark Prior -- two of the most highly-touted Cubs prospects in franchise history before their varied levels of success in the MLB -- were brought in at the end of the rookie development program to discuss the adversity they faced in their careers, from arm injuries to being released or traded, and their words really resonated with Szczur.
"At the drop of a hat or the snap of a fingers, it could be gone," he said. "Those guys remember their entire career like it was yesterday. They remember everything. I just want to be grateful and respect the game.
"I want to play as hard as I can and give myself the opportunity to get to the big leagues. No matter what it is, if I'm running the bases or playing the outfield or getting some at-bats, I just want to go out and play hard and never give up."