It’s the ninth inning on a beautiful April evening in southern California. The San Diego Padres have fallen behind the San Francisco Giants 5-3. Jason Szuminski ‘00 takes the mound in his major league debut, hoping to retire the Giants quickly and give his team a chance to win the game. The relief pitcher walks the first batter he faces. He gets the second to ground out. With one runner on base and one out, Barry Bonds, one of the most lethal hitters of all time, strides to the plate. Later, Szuminski explains his thinking. “I didn’t want him to homer off me on national TV, with everyone I’ve ever known watching.”
Many pitchers would walk Bonds intentionally (he went on to set a major league record with 120 intentional walks in 2004 ) and take their chances with the next batter, but not Szuminski. “There is no way I was going to make such an improbable journey to the majors and then back down when I got there,” he says.
Working the count to two balls and one strike, Szuminski gets Bonds to hit a fly ball harmlessly to left field. Two outs. But then the inning gets rocky. Szuminski loads the bases and walks in another run. The Padres will go on to lose 6-3.
Szuminski’s improbable journey to the majors started when a scout for the Cincinnati Reds came to an MIT game to look at a player on the opposing team. The scout noticed Szuminski’s mid-90 mph fastball, and pretty soon other scouts were looking at the 21-year-old aerospace engineering major. Despite compiling a so-so 10-11 record for MIT, he was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round of the 2000 draft. Szuminski then embarked on a four-year minor league career that saw him only briefly reach the AAA level. In December 2003, he was traded to the Padres. The terms of the trade required the Padres put him on their major league roster for the entire 2004 season, or lose him back to the Cubs. In May, after pitching 10 innings in seven games for the Padres, Szuminski was returned to the Cubs, who sent him back to their AAA team in Des Moines, IA. Despite the demotion, Szuminski still believes he can have a career in major league baseball.
Szuminski was one of the most publicized rookies during the spring of 2004. The New York Times and the Boston Globe featured him, and Sports Illustrated even had a “Szuminski Watch” that ran for the duration of spring training. Why? Because Szuminski was the first MIT alumnus to make a major league roster.
But the attention didn’t distract him. “I kind of liked the added pressure,” he says. “It’s hard to complain when you are in Sports Illustrated every week,” Szuminski points out. “And don’t think for a second that those writers and graphics guys making the jokes wouldn’t give anything to trade spots with me. That’s also why it’s easy to laugh things off.” The media attention came in part from a belief that players from elite schools have problems fitting into major league baseball culture, but Szuminski had no trouble. “I get along with the guys as easily as anybody,” he says. “Among players, the only thing judged is how you act and how you play.”
After the thrill of pitching to Bonds, things went downhill quickly. An injury hurt his performance. “My ankle hurt all year, and looking back I think it affected me more than I realized,” he says. By May 11, after a half-dozen lackluster early-season appearances, he found himself back in the minors. Szuminski was disappointed but took it philosophically. “I knew in AAA Iowa I would pitch much more often, and if I threw well an opportunity would come soon enough.”
That opportunity never came. He started out extremely well: after 21 games, his earned run average was a microscopic 1.44. Then his season deteriorated. Pitching in 46 games, he compiled a 3-2 record and an ERA of 4.53. “I was competing all year with less than my best and, despite some good runs, it showed over the long term,” Szuminski explains.
Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita agrees. Szuminski “got a little too sophisticated” in his pitch selection, and his performance declined. While praising Szuminski as a “big strong kid” with a “great work ethic,” Fleita admits that the right-hander “didn’t put up the numbers we expected.”
Today Szuminski is not considered a top prospect to start the 2005 season in the majors. The Cubs declined to call him up from the minors last season when rosters expanded on September 1, and he’s also not on the Cubs off-season roster. But Szuminski firmly believes that he will return to the majors. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I still think I can do anything I want. That attitude is the reason I’ve been successful at baseball and everything else I have ever done.” As for his ankle, it’s completely healed, and he’s back on the mound, throwing again.
One might think that Szuminski’s pitching skill might benefit from his aero/astro studies—which, after all, deal fundamentally with objects moving through the air. He insists that this is not at all the case. “I can’t stress enough how different throwing a baseball is to anything learned in aero/astro,” Szuminski says. But the Institute may have provided him with something else he needs to make it back to the major leagues: fortitude. Graduating from MIT “was probably the hardest thing I will ever do in life,” he contends. At this point, making it back to the majors may prove to be a comparable feat.