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MIT Graduate Joins Major League Baseball - 2004-03-27

Graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have walked on the moon, won Nobel Prizes, and founded thousands of companies that generate hundreds of millions of dollars. But in the nearly 150 years since its founding, no MIT graduate has ever gone on to play major league baseball. Until now ... maybe.

When Jason Szuminski decided to go to MIT, it was for two reasons. First was his Air Force ROTC scholarship. And second, he thought maybe he could play a little baseball while he was there.

"I went there knowing it was a good school, and I knew that with a lesser baseball program, I would be able to play," he said. "It wasn't a whole lot more competitive than high school. So it was kind of an opportunity to play the game I love and get a good education out of it. Kind of funny how things worked out, but I'm excited about it."

So for four years, he worked towards his degree in aerospace engineering, and played baseball in the spring. He also played in a summer league, where scouts began to find out about the 2-meter, 100-kilo engineer. He wound up being picked near the bottom of the major league draft. But now, at the San Diego Padres spring training camp, manager Bruce Bochy thinks Jason Szuminski may just have the "right stuff."

"Jason's throwing the ball really well," he said. "He's got a bulldog attitude out there, goes right at the hitters. He's shown good stuff, he's got a great hard sinker, and throws strikes, and has good command."

Mr. Bochy also believes Szuminski has major league mental power.

"You have to be strong to compete, but smart to win, so somebody who has the education he has, I think it can come into play," said Bruce Bochy.

And part of what Jason Szuminski is learning at this stage of his career is balancing the mental aspect of the game with his physical talents.

He describes a recent game he pitched against the Oakland A's when his instincts took over.

"I just wanted the ball back to throw that next pitch as soon as I could," said Jason Szuminski. "I didn't want to have time to think, or to change anything I was doing. Stay in the flow, stay locked in, and just keep throwing pitches."

That's a wise attitude, according to another major league scientist. Dave Baldwin pitched for four big league teams in the 1960s and '70s, while he was earning his PhD in genetics. Out on the mound, Baldwin focused on the game, not his books, working instead on pitches such as a talcum powder-laced spitball that once earned him the nickname "Dirty Dave." But he says there were plenty of players who spent too much time in their own heads.

"We had a pitcher when I was with the Senators who thought about everything out on the mound," he said. "We called him 'slide rule,' and he had really good stuff, and he could have been a very effective pitcher, but he did think too much, and that sort of thing is what would bother the coaches."

Most of Jason Szuminski's current teammates probably wouldn't recognize a slide rule. But he says many of them have been honestly curious about his MIT experience.

And he says while his physics classes haven't really helped with his pitching career, there is a parallel he can draw between his life at college in Cambridge and what he's going through at Spring Training in Peoria.

"I think it may be, to be a little vague, an inspiration to say that you can do whatever you want to do," he said. "That's the attitude I took away from MIT. I feel like, after conquering that I wasn't even sure I was going to make it out of school with a degree. I feel there's nothing I can't do, if I want to."

And degree in hand, Szuminski has attained a kind of cult celebrity status: Sports Illustrated magazine created a "Szuminski Watch" to chart his progress, complete with a mortar board superimposed on his baseball cap. This week, the meter is pointing more toward the Major Leagues than academia. He has his own Internet news group.

And in Boston, where they're normally crazy about the Red Sox, the MIT faithful are keeping a close eye on Padres Spring Training.

"I'm a little nervous that we've put an awful lot of pressure on Jason as the first MIT alumnus," said Beth Garvin, who heads MIT's alumni association. "It's hard enough to do this as a pitcher, I would think, without us having our eyes upon him all the time, too."

If Szuminski does make the big club, he'll be joining a team that finished with the worst record in the National League last year. This year, Padres management may decide that improving the record is a complex process - one that may even take a rocket scientist.