- Szczur is pronounced the same as "Caesar."
Szczur was a wide receiver for Villanova's football team and led the Wildcats to a Football Championship Subdivision national title in 2009, earning MVP honors in the championship game after racking up 270 all-purpose yards. He was a legitimate NFL draft prospect as a receiver in the Wes Welker mold, which clouded his baseball career. (May 2010)
- Matt is an intense player with a solid work ethic and is intelligent, applying instruction well.
He has a solid makeup on and off the field. He brings energy to the park every day.
He is a solid competitor. He is a grinder who goes about his business well.
DONATES HIS BONE MARROW
Matt Szczur, is fairly interesting in his own right. There was the two-sport career, football and baseball, at Villanova. Szczur, tormenting the 51s in a key four-game series at Cashman Field, was a wide receiver, running back and wildcat formation quarterback.
In the 2009 Football Championship Series national championship game, Szczur accumulated 270 all-purpose yards and was named Most Valuable Player of Villanova's 23-21 victory.The opponent was Montana. The Montana coach was Bobby Hauck. That was the last game Hauck coached at Montana before he became UNLV's coach for a little while.
There are 332 miles of corn belt between Des Moines and Chicago, about a five-hour drive. By now, Matt Szczur knows where all the good truck stops are on Interstate 80—or at least the world's largest one, called Iowa 80, just off exit 284 in Walcott. It has parking for 900 trucks.
"It's not a bad thing; you've just got to get through it mentally," he said of keeping apartments in two baseball cities. He said his bride, Natalie, is the real trouper. Szczur proposed to her on Broadway, onstage, in front of cast members at the Ambassador Theater's production of, what else? "Chicago."
His wife has been with him all the way on the baseball yo-yo and at the World's Largest Truck Stop. On one trip, she posted an Instagram picture of herself drinking a libation from one of those giant fist koozies they sell on Fremont Street.
In 2009, Matt was still was at Villanova. A girl in Ukraine, just 15 months old, was dying of leukemia. It was Matt Szczur of Cape May Court House, N.J., and now property of the Chicago Cubs, who saved her life.
He had a friend in high school who had battled leukemia, so he signed up with the National Marrow Donor Program while at Villanova. It was a long shot, but Szczur was a perfect match with the little sick girl in Ukraine. At first it was thought he might miss some of the football playoffs. But it turned out Szczur didn't have to go into the hospital until right after the football championship game.
Too bad for Bobby Hauck and the Griz.Great for the little sick girl in Ukraine. She's 5 years old now. At last report, she still was in remission, healthy, able to do all the things little girls do. It was ESPN that arranged for her savior and the little girl to meet via laptop computer, Skype and a translator. The uplifting segment aired on "E: 60." The little girl's first name is Anastasia. Her last name has multiple consonants and syllables like a forward on the old Red Army checking line.
"I wish I could read her last name. Should I even give it a try?" Szczur said to family members during the "E:60" segment. "I guess it would be like somebody trying to pronounce our last name." Matt and little Anastasia and Anastasia's parents, a truck driver and an accountant, spoke through a translator and giant smiles.Matt Szczur said that was awesome.
"Oh my God — when I saw her (for the first time) it was such a great feeling, seeing her family, seeing their reactions," he said. His perspective on the important things in life is a lot higher than his batting average.When we chatted before the ballgame at Cashman Field, Matt Szczur didn't seem all that concerned by the 0-fer. (Las Vegas Review-Journal - Ron Kantowski -Aug. 17, 2015)
As Jorge Soler walked off the field after injuring his hamstring in the third inning of the Cubs' 6-4 win on June 6, 2016, fans at Citizens Bank Park began to cheer. But it wasn't out of malice—a local product was entering the game. Matt grew up in Cape May, New Jersey, a small resort town in South Jersey about an hour and a half outside of Philadelphia. When he jogged to first base to pinch-run for Soler, it was the first time he'd seen the field in front of his hometown fans.
"It's good to be out on the field, kind of being an away guy but feeling like a home-field advantage," Szczur said.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who also grew up driving distance from Philadelphia, heaped praise on his fellow local for the role he's played on baseball's best team thus far.
"He's at the point now where he really feels he belongs in the Major Leagues," Maddon, from Hazleton, Pa., said. "He's starting to bring his game here that he had brought in the Minor Leagues. He gives us a lot of energy. He's very versatile in the outfield. He's got power, he can run the bases, steal a bag. He's a really nice piece to have and he's a great teammate. The guys love him."
Although he didn't get a hit, Szczur did reach base and drove in a run after taking over for Soler. He had a smattering of friends and family in attendance to see him get his first action in front of his hometown crowd. For the June 7 game, though, Szczur rented out a suite with 15 on the guest list. Growing up, Szczur visited Veterans Stadium for Phillies and Eagles games. His family would make the trek to what was then the CoreStates Center and later the First Union Center, currently the Wells Fargo Center, for Flyers and Sixers games.
Once he was ready for college, Szczur attended Villanova University, where he played both baseball and football. As a football player, Szczur in 2009 helped lead Villanova to its first football championship. In his final baseball season, Szczur led the Wildcats in nearly every hitting category, batting .443.
"I feel like Villanova pulls a lot of weight around here," Szczur said of the warm welcome from the crowd. "It's kind of surreal. I've got a lot of support out here." (Webeck - MLB.com - 6/7/16)
- Just days after Szcur hit for the cycle on April 27, 2010 for Villanova University, he donated bone marrow to a one-year-old girl with leukemia. For five days, Szczur would be injected with medicine to help him produce more bone marrow, and on the fifth day he would go through a four-to-five-hour-long procedure to take blood out of one of his arms, filter out healthy stem cells to transplant, and put the blood back into his other arm. One side effect of the medication leading up to the operation is an enlarged spleen, which would sideline Szczur from football for at least a few days.
"There's more to life than just baseball." That's become something of a common saying around the game over the past couple decades. but Matt Szczur actually practiced what he preached.
He didn't go out and climb Mount Everest or win the lottery. Instead, he saved a little girl's life.
On one of the E:60, ESPN documents Szczur's story about how he donated bone marrow to a little girl in Ukraine he had never met.
Szczur was a standout football and baseball player at Villanova in 2009 when he got a call that he was a perfect match with a baby girl who needed a bone marrow transplant. A few months later, in May 2010, Szczur followed through with the donation, even though it meant missing a few weeks of his final collegiate baseball season.
"You can only do so much in baseball. You can only hit the ball so far, throw the ball so hard," Szczur said. "To be able to make a difference in not only your life, but somebody else's life and their family, it's huge and I feel like that's my greatest accomplishment so far." (Tony Andracki - 10/07/13)
In 2011, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Szczur as the 7th-best prospect in the Cubs' organization. They moved Matt up to #3 in the winter before 2012 spring training. But they dropped him down to #14 in the offseason before 2013 spring camps opened. And they dropped Matt all the way to #26 in the spring of 2014.
Not only is Matt a talented athlete, he is also an exceptional person.
Football took priority over baseball for Matt growing up."In football, you need to learn the plays, you need to be in shape, so that would always take precedence over baseball," Szczur said. "Baseball, I could just suit up and play. Here and there in high school, I would take hitting lessons, but not too often. I didn't play summer ball at all. It was all football."
Time off after the 2013 season gave Szczur a chance to firm up wedding plans. He and his bride got married on Nov. 21, 2013.
His wife's maiden name is Cooper, and she is from North Wildwood. She and Szczur knew each growing up. Their families are longtime friends.
- Szczur's father was in Des Moines to help his son pack some of his belongings. Szczur had spent the season at Triple-A Iowa, and with the year winding down, the plan was for his father to make a stop at the Iowa State Fair, then load up the car and drive to New Jersey. But plans changed.
"I called him and said, 'You might want to come back—we're packing up for a different reason now,'" Szczur said.
Szczur was called up from the Minors and joined the Cubs at Citi Field, New York, where he had played once before in a workout for Major League scouts. He entered the game in the eighth as a pinch-runner. And he wasn't nervous.
"I feel if it was my first time up and I hadn't been in big league camp, I would've been a lot more nervous," Szczur said. "I remember the first time I was in big league camp, my legs were shaking. I felt very comfortable today. I wasn't nervous. It was good to hear the crowd go crazy—it brought me back to my football days."
He had a cheering section from Cape May, N.J., which is about 2 1/2 hours away from New York City. A lot of his former Villanova classmates and teammates were at Citi Field. "It was a great day," said Szczur, who was given the lineup card as a souvenir.
He stayed in the game in right field, and hit into a fielder's choice in his first at-bat in the ninth. "To be honest, I didn't even think I'd be playing baseball," said Szczur, who was a star wide receiver at Villanova. "I thought I was going to go to the NFL and play football. It happened my opportunity was better at the time to play baseball. (8/17/14)
Szczur knows first-hand about struggles. He donated blood cells to a leukemia patient who had a 1-in-80,000 chance of finding a match.
And in 2010 he missed 10 games because of side effects from the medication he had to take.
Szczur has impressed the Cubs organization with his work habits. He doesn't just stand in the outfield during batting practice, he "power shags" and chases after balls hit as if it's a game situation. "It's helped me a lot," Szczur said. "What helped get me here is being a defensive help in the outfield."
Iowa manager Marty Pevey broke the news to Szczur in a lighthearted way. Szczur was called into Pevey's office before the August 16, 2014 game.
"He asked if I was hitting off the curveball machine today," Szczur said. "I said, 'Yeah, I planned on it.' He said, 'Well, you're not going to hit it with us, you're going to the big leagues.' I was excited, everybody else was excited. They see the hard work I put in and they were happy for me."
Cubs manager Rick Renteria wants to take advantage of Szczur's speed, since the fleet-footed outfielder had 30 stolen bases at Iowa.
"He did a nice job for us in the spring. He's a nice defensive player, he had some really good at-bats, runs the bases well," Renteria said.
"I couldn't sleep at all last night, there was no way," Szczur said. "It's exciting. You have to realize it's your job and you have to go out there and work. Once you make it, [the work] doesn't stop. You have to just keep it up." (Muskat - mlb.com - 8/17/14)
- "What a great kid," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in 2015 Spring Training of Szczur. "He plays the game properly. Could you get more eager? I don't think so. And now he's hitting balls out of sight. Great baserunner with great speed. Throws well, outstanding outfielder and on and on.
"I can just honestly control what I can control and play as best as I can. I'll fit in somewhere. No matter what it is I'll fight and come up and be able to play any sort of role." (Nowak - mlb.com - 3/15/15)
Mattand manager Joe Maddon are still trying to finalize their friendly wager on the 2015 NCAA men's opening basketball game between their respective schools: Villanova, the top seed in the East Regional, and No. 16 seed Lafayette. What's more important for Szczur is whether he makes the Cubs' Opening Day roster.
But Szczur needs to play every day. The question is, where? "Guys like him, if you don't have a more consistent way to play him, you don't want him to be sitting on the bench very long," Maddon said. "You see how he's understanding his swing better. Why would you want him to put that in his back pocket on a sporadic basis and not get a chance to play regularly where if something were to break down, he's ready to rock and roll?"
Meanwhile, Maddon and Szczur have to settle their bet. Villanova is a 22-point favorite over Lafayette. Maddon said he'd wear a 'Nova sweatshirt if Lafayette loses. That'd be fair. (Muskat - mlb.com - 3/17/15)
- Szczur was called into manager Joe Maddon's office on April 1, 2015. He knew the team was making roster moves and wasn't sure where he fit.
"[Maddon] said, 'I hate to give this news to a Villanova guy, but you made the team,'" Szczur said from the dugout at Wrigley Field on the Cubs' Opening Day roster for the first time in his young career.
"It was great, and a really great feeling," he said. "They told me I earned it, which was an even better feeling. I worked hard this offseason to fine-tune it."
Szczur and Maddon had a friendly wager this spring, because their respective schools, Villanova and Lafayette, faced off in the first round of the 2015 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Villanova crushed Lafayette, and Maddon had to wear a Wildcats sweatshirt and give Szczur a bottle of wine.
"The skip's a good sport," Szczur said. "He's trying to get me a Lafayette sweater. I'm waiting for it."
Szczur was able to get his family to Wrigley Field in time for Sunday's game against the Cardinals. More important, all his work paid off. He changed his swing path so that he isn't rolling over on balls as much.
"I feel I have the anxious feeling, the excited feeling for the game," Szczur said. "It's a blessing, it's a great feeling to be here." (Muskat - mlb.com - 4/5/15)
Nov 24, 2016: In Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, Matt Szczur loaned Anthony Rizzo one of his bats, and the first baseman used it to hit a home run in the fifth inning, helping propel the Cubs to a 10-2 victory over the Dodgers. After the game, Szczur was asked about the bat, and once the media throng departed, a reporter approached the outfielder to say thank you. Szczur had helped save the life of the man's wife.
"I'm not sure who he was," Szczur said. "The media by my locker was outrageous, and then he came up to me afterward, and said to me, 'Hey, you might not know this, but there's a lot of people who appreciate what you've done.' I'm thinking, 'Is this about the bat?' He said, 'It's about donating bone marrow.'"
Thanksgiving is a perfect time to give thanks to people like Szczur. Here's some background: When he was 20 years old and a two-sport star at Villanova, Szczur's football coach, Andy Talley, encouraged players to get involved in the "Be The Match" bone marrow donor program. Szczur was the first player from 'Nova who was a match, and he provided bone marrow for a 15-month-old Ukranian girl, Anastasia Olkhovsky, who was battling Leukemia. Szczur also was a standout baseball player at Villanova, and he risked his career by having the procedure done one month before the June 2010 Major League Draft.
As for Anastasia, Szczur eventually did meet her and her family via Skype when she was 4 years old, and he chatted again with them this year. At Dodger Stadium in October, Szczur, 27, came face to face with the impact his donation had when Jack Magruder, a D-backs beat writer for Fanragsports.com, approached him.
"He said, 'We really appreciate people like you and we're very happy to have somebody like you around,'" Szczur said. "He got choked up. It gave his wife another chance at life. It was really cool to see. If all this stuff, the bat and everything else, wouldn't have happened, it wouldn't have been as big. Maybe he wouldn't have come up to talk to me. Everything happens for a reason."
In May, Magruder's wife, Janie, received a bone marrow donation from a 19-year-old male."When I told Matt that the transplant saved her life, I meant it," Magruder said. "We were told it is a lot harder on the transplant donor than on the recipient. Janie basically was given an IV drip of the new blood cells, and we were told donors go through a several-day process to harvest the marrow."Her transplant went smoothly, and she is now cancer-free. Magruder said the doctor described her condition as "pristine."
"We are so grateful for our donor and for Matt and people like him who give selflessly so that others can confront and overcome serious health issues," Magruder said. "They may not realize how valuable they are, but we do."Szczur is finding out."When he came up to me, it wasn't that I saved Anastasia's life," Szczur said. "I gave hope to other people's lives as well. I think anybody would do it in the right circumstance and given the opportunity. I don t think I'm more special than anyone else. It makes me feel good -- it gives us hope."
If anything, Szczur is hoping to raise awareness of the need for bone marrow donors. He joined Talley at a fundraiser late in 2015 that raised $60,000, and he hopes to do something in his hometown of Cape May, N.J."What a good year to do it, after a World Series victory," Szczur said. (C Muskat - MLB.com - Nov 24, 2016)
"He's a complete player," teammate Kyle Hendricks said of Matt. "Fielding, running, hitting -- laying down a bunt -- every facet of the game, he's gotten better and better every year. Hitting for power has come along more."
"Playing with him coming up, I knew the type of ballplayer he was going to be," Hendricks said. "He's such a hard worker and dedicated. It's pretty special to see that kind of work ethic from a guy. It's not a surprise to see how complete his game is and how big of an asset he can be for anybody." (Muskat - mlb.com - 3/21/17)
June 2010: The Cubs drafted Matt in the 5th round, out of Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
July 2, 2010: Szczur signed for a bonus of $100,000, via scout Tim Adkins. His interesting contract gives him an additional $500,000 bonus–provided he declines to attend the NFL combine and makes a written commitment to baseball before Feb. 10, 2011. He also would have to pass an additional physical at that time.
Under MLB provisions for two-sport athletes, the Cubs can spread Szczur's bonus over multiple years. Tim Adkins is the scout who signed him.
Then, on January 18, 2011, Matt and the Cubs agreed on a $1.4 million contract to keep Szczur from pursuing an NFL career.