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Szczur's football roots ring familiar at Cubs camp

Samardzija, Sveum can relate to former Villanova wideout's adjustment

MESA, Ariz. -- Football took priority over baseball for Cubs prospect Matt Szczur. Manager Dale Sveum and pitcher Jeff Samardzija can relate.

"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."

A wide receiver, he helped lead Villanova to the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision tournament in 2008, then an FCS national title in '09 and the semifinals in '10. The Cubs made him their fifth-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.

"I have a lot of catching up to do," Szczur said. "That's why being here, being around these guys, I gain more knowledge."

Samardzija is the Cubs' most well-known former football player after his days as an All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame. He also had a gridiron-heavy schedule.

"You get 20 hours a week [to play sports], and I was doing 16 for football and four for baseball," Samardzija said. "One hour for a bullpen counted as practice. Any time you start a game, it counts as three hours. Those were my four hours for baseball.

"You don't get time for baseball until the football team leaves after school in mid May and then you get the second half of the baseball season and the playoffs," Samardzija said. "It's really about a month and a half to fully do baseball in college."

Sveum had no intention of playing professional baseball when he was attending Pinole Valley High School in California.

"It was football, basketball, baseball, and in the summer, it was football practice," Sveum said. "In my town, it was football all summer long.

"My whole thought growing up was that I was going to play football in the NFL, not play Major League Baseball. That's one reason why I put all my efforts into football. I played the other sports because I was a good athlete and bigger than everybody else, but my mind was set on always playing football. It kind of changed when I got drafted in the first round."

Sveum earned All-State and All-America honors at quarterback in high school but turned down a football scholarship at Arizona State to play professional baseball.

"He knows what I went through," Szczur said of Sveum, adding that the common background helps when the two talk hitting.

"He's a young man who hasn't played tons of baseball in his life," Sveum said of Szczur. "He's another kid who you can't teach that hand strength. The ball comes off his bat like a Major League player. But there's just adjustments that have to be made to understand what's all valued in his swing.

"His upper body wants to lift out of his swing, and that's why he chops balls to shortstop and third base. He's got power, he can hit a ball a long way. That guy's a really, really strong kid with Major League hands when he has a bat in his hands."

Szczur showed that at Class A Daytona last year, when he batted .295. He hit .210 in 35 games at Double-A Tennessee, then was added to the Mesa Solar Sox roster for the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .264 in 24 games.

"I tell everybody the Fall League was huge for me," Szczur said. "I was able to be around different players and learn from different players. I feel like it clicked for me in the Fall League."

He just needs to play more baseball. Just ask Samardzija.

"I played [baseball] my freshman year [at Notre Dame] and probably had a better year then than any other time," Samardzija said. "I had more time in baseball freshman year because I wasn't in the mix for football -- I was fourth string, fourth on the depth chart [for football].

"I ended up being a freshman All-American, which really kick-started my baseball career in college, to tell you the truth," he said.

Which is why he picked baseball over football when he was drafted by the Cubs in 2006.

"I was excited to come and play baseball and put all my time into it," Samardzija said. "I knew the success I had [in baseball] with not practicing. It was always intriguing to see where the ceiling was when you put all your time into it. I'm sure [Szczur] feels the same way."

Sveum had been so football focused, he didn't expect to be drafted in 1982. That year, the Cubs had the first-overall pick, and selected Shawon Dunston.

"I was all football, and I even told everybody, 'Don't draft me, I'm going to play football,'" Sveum said. "Then the Brewers drafted me. It caught me off guard. I was actually visiting a friend of mine in a hospital who got stabbed. It was our senior year and he had graduated. I walked into his hospital room and he told me, 'Hey, you got drafted, the Dodgers drafted you.' I'm like, 'Yeah, right.' It actually was the Brewers in the 25th round."

Right now, Szczur is trying to find his way.

"I need to create more rhythm," Szczur said of the adjustments Sveum was suggesting. "I was kind of pushing instead of going back and swinging. I need to create rhythm by getting a little energy."

When he talks to Sveum, it's as if the Cubs manager was in the dugout, watching all of Szczur's at-bats.

"He said, 'Just by watching you take [batting practice], I know where most of your outs are,'" Szczur said. "He said, 'Probably short and third.'"

Sveum was right.

"He said, 'That's because when you make a bad swing, your shoulders go up and your bat lags and you try to catch up with your arms because you're strong enough,'" Szczur said. "It's a bat path, but not the right one. Your shoulders go up and you try to muscle over, but when you stay down, that's when you stay through the ball."

Once Szczur gets his bat to catch up with his body and in sync, he'll be fine. It's all baseball all the time now.

"That's why I come down early [to Arizona]," Samardzija said of his pre-Spring Training workouts. "I have to make up for what I missed in college and high school. Baseball takes time, and grinding out work and just rolling your sleeves up. ... A lot of times, it's just the fact of getting out there and putting the ball on the tee and throwing off the mound."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.
Read More: Chicago Cubs, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Szczur