MESA, Ariz. Thirteen months ago, Matt Szczur was training for the NFL combine at a facility in Boca Raton, Fla. Jim Hendry flew down from Chicago to watch him work out and the two went to dinner at a nearby Mortons steakhouse.
The Cubs had selected Szczur in the fifth round of the 2010 draft, and he got a taste that summer, playing 25 games of Class-A ball that began with a 21-game hitting streak.
It was fun, but Szczur (pronounced Caesar) had already won a national championship at Villanova University in 2009, and some NFL team figured to draft him as a wide receiver who could line up at running back and return punts and kickoffs.
I didnt think I was playing baseball at all, Szczur said Saturday, sitting in front of his locker at Fitch Park. I had no thought in my mind I was playing baseball.
Szczur got high marks for his character. He had donated his bone marrow to an infant with leukemia in the spring of 2010. She only had a 1-in-80,000 chance of finding a match, but still survived.
The Cubs general manager at the time had to own some bad contracts. That overshadowed how creative Hendry could be as a dealmaker, the loyalty and trust that he could build up across the table.
Greg Maddux could have any job he wanted in baseball, but he once decided to be a special assistant to Hendry. Kerry Wood had just given Hendry a hometown discount.
Several players Hendry closed on last August when he already knew he was fired were scheduled to begin a minicamp on Saturday at HoHoKam Stadium, among them: Shawon Dunston Jr.; Javier Baez; Daniel Vogelbach; and Dillon Maples, all part of a 12 million draft class.
He was very easy to talk to, Szczur said. I just felt like I had a lot of injuries my senior year (in football). We talked about that a little bit and it got me thinking.
Szczur went back to his parents and his agent and took a new deal, which was believed to include a 1.5 million payment for the 2011 season. The outfielder landed in the All-Star Futures Game and finished with a .293 average, 10 homers and 24 stolen bases in 109 games split between Class-A Peoria and Daytona.
Szczur played last season on top of a football schedule, and by the middle of July he was so sore that hed jump into an ice bath after each game.
Hendry used to joke that Szczurs offseason baseball activities were the equivalent of taking hacks in a beer league. Szczur freely admits that fundamentally, Im not that sound.
Szczur also missed 10 games during Villanovas 2010 baseball season because of the medication he had to take to donate those peripheral blood cells, which saved the young girls life.
Really, the 22-year-old Szczur is just scratching the surface. Hes been at the Cubs complex in Arizona since last November, losing the bulk he used to carry for football, redistributing the weight and becoming more flexible.
Szczur is listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds and has explosive speed. He can chase down balls in the outfield, but he might not take the right path. He can sprint to second and steal a base, but he might not get the best jump. Hes always been aggressive, able to just get by on his athleticism.
Thats why Baseball America is bullish on Szczur, putting him at No. 64 on its just-released top 100 prospect list and giving this scouting report: Exciting high-risk, high-reward talent who should take off with football in his rearview mirror.
Theo Epstein collected those types of players when he ran the Boston Red Sox. Szczur has spoken with the president of baseball operations, and will have to make the new boss take notice.
Maybe a dinner at Mortons last January got the Cubs a core player for the future. The fans in the bleachers would love a guy whos not afraid of crashing into the bricks and ivy.
Im just here to play and make a team, Szczur said. I dont care whos in the front office. Not that its a bad thing, but I have to worry about myself. I have to perform, because no matter whos in the front office, if Im not playing well, theyre not going to do anything for me. Once I start playing well, they see that.