Matt Szczur arrived in Boise at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, dressed in his new uniform and then participated in pre-game batting practice.
His first day with the Boise Hawks ended on the dugout bench, watching Boise’s 5-4 win over the Eugene Emeralds at Memorial Stadium.
It was about time Szczur got a chance to sit back and relax. The Chicago Cubs’ fifth-round draft pick has been excelling on and off athletic fields for nearly a year.
Between helping Villanova to its first Football Championship Subdivison national championship in the fall and leading the Big East Conference in batting last spring, Szczur helped save the life of a young girl with leukemia.
“Everything fell into place for me,” he said. “It was just an unbelievable year for me.”
The Cubs are expecting unbelievable things from the 6-foot-1, 190-pound dual-sport standout. The consensus first-team All-American football player and first-team Big East baseball player was ranked as the second fastest college position player entering the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft, according to Baseball America. He batted .443 and struck out just nine times in 191 at-bats to earn baseball accolades to match his national championship game MVP and all-american football awards.
But the biggest prize Szczur received in the past year was helping out that 19-month-old patient.
He didn’t know the girl or the family. He registered for the Be The Match donation program during his freshman football season at Villanova. He had simply had his cheek swabbed and didn’t think too much about it.
“You just wait for a call,” he said. “I think it’s a one in 80,000 chance to be called.”
He received that call right before the 2009 football playoffs, and the choice to play or help was easy.
He remembers telling Villanova football coach Andy Talley: “You know what I’m going to do, I have a chance to save a life, I can play another football game any day.”
The surgery ended up getting postponed until the spring. He missed 10 baseball games, but still led his team in eight offensive categories, including on-base percentage (.487) and slugging percentage (.667).
Szczur said the recipient of his donation has since been discharged from the hospital and is doing well.
“He’s a character guy, he’s mature beyond his years,” said Bob Dernier, the Cubs outfield/base running coordinator. “He comes with very, very high praise. We’re really happy to have him.”
Szczur signed with the Cubs for $100,000 on July 2 and will receive an additional $500,000 if he chooses to play baseball over football.
“I couldn’t throw away that deal,” he said. “I get a taste of the minor leagues, I get some money in my pocket for school and I have better options now. I can have a chance to play NFL football or come back and play minor league baseball and, hopefully, make my way up to the (major leagues).”
Szczur is expected to start for the Hawks tonight against Eugene. First pitch is 7:15 at Memorial Stadium. The fleet-footed outfielder will attempt to get his footing in professional baseball before returning to Villanova the first week of August for his final football season.
Szczur could be an NFL prospect as a wide receiver and return specialist. He rushed for 159 yards out of the Wildcat formation and collected 270 all-purpose yards in Villanova’s 23-21 championship game win over Montana.
In three college football seasons, Szczur has collected 4,345 all-purpose yards.
Now, he is forced with a decision to chose one sport.
Jeff Samardzija had a similar situation —albeit for much more money — when he started his professional baseball career with the Boise Hawks in 2006.
Samardzija, also drafted in the fifth round, eventually chose baseball over football and was rewarded by the Cubs with a $10 million, five-year deal. He has played in parts of three seasons in Chicago.
Szczur doesn’t know what sport he’ll chose yet, but he likes the fact that he has options.
“I’ll play out the season and see how the season goes, and if the NFL’s looking my way, I might take the NFL. If not, I’ve got my feet in the water here, so I know what a taste of what minor league baseball is.”
Jesus Morelli went 3-for-3 Thursday with a pair of doubles to lead the Hawks to a 5-4 win in the first of five games with the Emeralds.
Lefty John Mincone is expected to start tonight for the Hawks, while Eugene starts right-hander Keyvius Sampson.
The Hawks had many roster moves on Thursday.
In addition to Szczur, four other players were added to the Hawks' roster. Pitchers Brent Ebinger and Matthew Loosen, infielder Elliot Soto and Eduardo Figueroa all were promoted from the Cubs' Rookie League team in Mesa.
Brandon May (left knee) and pitcher Tarlandus Mitchell (muscle strain), were placed on the seven-Day disabled list due to injuries and will rehab at the Cubs training facility in Mesa.
Pitchers Joe Zeller and Yao-Lin Wang were demoted from Boise to Mesa, and outfielder Runey Davis was released by the Cubs.
The Chris Huseby Experiment might be over.
Huseby, a pitcher, has seen more at-bats than innings on the mound this season.
He has pitched only three innings with the Hawks this season compared to 21 at-bats. He took fly-balls in right field on Thursday.
Oneri Fleita, the Cubs vice president of player personnel, said the organization hasn’t given up on the 6-foot-7 right-hander as a pitcher.
“I wouldn’t say it’s over with,” Fleita said.
Huseby is batting .190 (4-for-21) with one double and two RBIs.
Fleita said the Cubs’ No. 1 pick, right-hander Hayden Simpson, is still battling an illness and the club wants him to get healthy before traveling to the team’s spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz.