MIT graduate Jason Szuminski received an early Christmas gift that he's been dreaming of since Little League--a shot at the majors.
Szuminski (S.B. 2000), a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, was acquired from the Chicago Cubs on Dec. 15 in baseball's Rule 5 draft by the San Diego Padres, who must keep him on the major-league roster for the entire season if he makes the team out of spring training.
"This is a huge opportunity," the 25-year-old Szuminski said from his home in San Antonio, Texas. "I think I've got the stuff ... I'm glad the Padres are going to give me a chance."
Under Rule 5, if the Padres wish to release him or send him back to the minors, his rights return to the Cubs. At that point, either he returns to Chicago and the Padres pay the Cubs $25,000 for the audition, or the teams work out a minor-league deal. Whatever happens, Szuminski believes his future is bright.
"I'm going to make it to the major leagues and it's going to be another feather of success in my hat," Szuminski said. "I can't imagine looking back and saying, 'It was harder than MIT.'"
Szuminski, who is 6 foot 4 and 220 pounds, will report to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., with the Padres pitchers and catchers on Feb. 20. "I still have to make the team," he said. He would be the first MIT graduate to play major league baseball.
Szuminski was picked by the Cubs on the 27th round of the 2000 draft, the 793rd player chosen. He had a 23-12 record in 112 games with their minor-league teams in the past three seasons, including a cumulative 9-5 this year with Daytona in the Class-A Florida State League, West Tennessee in the AA Southern League and Iowa in the AAA Pacific Coast League. Forty of his 45 appearances have been as a relief pitcher.
He also appeared in 12 games last fall in the Arizona Fall League, traditionally a stop for highly rated prospects on their way to the major leagues. Sometimes he's surprised at the progress he's made in the game.
"Baseball is a game you can never perfect," said Szuminski, who made the scouts pay attention when his fastball was clocked at 94 mph. "There is always something you can do better, something to work on, something you wish you could do over. I think that continual drive to be better than you are right now is what has made me successful and able to keep moving up the ladder."
Szuminski, who was in ROTC as an undergraduate, is a first lieutenant in the Air Force assigned to a special sports program. The armed forces have used professional athletes for recruiting and public relations dating back to World War II, including professional football player Chad Hennings and basketball all-star David Robinson In recent years.
"I use every opportunity to talk up the Air Force and promote a positive image for it," he said.
Szuminski's baseball salary is donated to charity. He also volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and has coached youngsters as a volunteer during the off-seasons. He has also considered stitching "USAF" into his glove and asking manufacturers of baseball cards to include the affiliation in his biography.
An aeronautics and astronautics major, Szuminski believes MIT prepared him mentally for his chosen career.
"The challenges I encountered going through MIT, both in and out of the classroom, were probably the most difficult I will ever face," he said. "The more you rise up in the face of adversity and conquer your challenges, the more ability you gain to keep doing it. I left MIT with the attitude that I can do anything. Obviously I don't have near the talent as some in baseball, but I'm not intimidated by the road to the top. The so-called daily grind has nothing on the torture we called school."