Rocket scientist, big league pitcher and Air Force Reservist

Meet Jason Szuminski: rocket scientist, big league pitcher and Air Force Reservist

Bo Joyner

Like most Major League baseball players, Jason Szuminski has worn a lot of different uniforms in his day. But what makes him different from all of his fellow big leaguers is the uniform he wears during the off-season.

During the summer, Mr. Szuminski wears the blue and gray as a pitcher for the San Diego Padres. When the season ends, he quickly switches to Air Force blue. As a first lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve, he serves as an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Not only is the 6’4″, 220-pound right-hander the only Air Force Reservist pitching in the Major Leagues, he is probably the only aerospace engineer in the world who can throw a 95-mile-per-hour fastball and a wicked, knee-buckling sinker ball.

Lieutenant Szuminski’s road to the Major Leagues was an unusual one. Growing up in San Antonio, he started playing baseball at an early age and competed every year through his senior year at Douglas MacArthur High School in 1996. Like most youngsters who put on a glove, he dreamed of someday playing in the big leagues, but when no professional scouts or colleges came calling with baseball offers after high school, he put his baseball dreams on hold.

Having grown up in a military family (his father was a Navy fighter pilot, and both of his grandfathers served), Lieutenant Szuminski decided to accept an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Despite a heavy course load at one of the country’s most prestigious and demanding institutions of higher learning, he wasn’t ready to give up baseball, so he tried out for MIT’s varsity as a walk-on.

“MIT plays Division III baseball, and the level of play wasn’t much better than I had seen in high school,” the lieutenant said during an interview at the Padres’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., in March. “My freshman year, I was the big, hard-thrower in the conference. I found I could go out and throw fastballs by people as a brand-new freshman.

“My first couple of years at MIT, I pretty much looked at baseball as a way to blow off some steam. The courses were so demanding and there was so much stress that going out there and throwing fastballs as hard as I possibly could was just a release for me.”

While he had all but given up on his dream of playing professional baseball, Lieutenant Szuminski’s fortunes turned during his junior year at MIT.

“I wasn’t playing much because my class schedule was so heavy in the afternoons that I couldn’t make it to many practices or games,” he said. “About halfway through the season, I made it a point to be there for a game against Brandeis, the best team we would play all year. I knew the Brandeis shortstop had some scouts looking at him. I went out there throwing 90-mile-per-hour fastballs and blew him away. After the game, a scout for the Cincinnati Reds told me I had something special and that if I worked at it I had a chance to play pro ball.”

Amazingly, Lieutenant Szuminski’s encounter with the Reds’ scout almost didn’t happen. He had an exam in fluid dynamics scheduled that same day, and teachers at MIT don’t let students reschedule tests to take part in sports. They will, however, let students reschedule an exam if they have a job interview.

“I told the teacher I had a job interview: Baseball scouts are coming, and I intend to be a Major League player.”

The teacher agreed, and the lieutenant took off for the field.

Since that day, Lieutenant Szuminski has labored tirelessly to make his childhood dream come true. He worked to get into one of the competitive New England summer leagues where he held his own against some of the better players from Division I college programs and made a name for himself among the scouts who search the leagues looking for potential Major League talent.

“I was a big kid with a strong arm, so I guess they saw some potential there,” he said. “My senior year at M1T, there would be more scouts than fans at the game every time I pitched.”

Even so, his dream of playing Major League baseball seemed like a long shot.

Just before graduating from MIT with a degree in aerospace engineering in 2000, the Chicago Cubs selected him in the 27th round with the 793rd pick in the amateur draft. He would have been taken much earlier in the draft, but his Air Force commitment scared most professional teams away.

He pitched well in his pro debut with Chicago’s rookie league team in Arizona, then returned to Cambridge to complete his degree. After graduation, the Cubs wanted Lieutenant Szuminski to report to their Class A team in Michigan. The Air Force, on the other hand, assigned him to Los Angeles AFB, Calif., to work in the acquisitions office for the advanced extremely high-frequency satellite program.

Owing the Air Force at least four years in return for his $100,000 ROTC scholarship, it again looked like Lieutenant Szuminski’s baseball career might be over. He and the Cubs looked at the possibility of repaying his scholarship, but the Air Force desperately needed engineers and wasn’t interested in losing an MIT grad with a 3.60 grade-point average.

Luckily, the lieutenant discovered the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows elite athletes to train with the goal of making a U.S. Olympic team. The program gave him the opportunity to develop his skills in the Cubs’ minor league system and shoot for making the U.S. Olympic baseball team in 2004.

“The Cubs taught me how to pitch and not just throw,” Lieutenant Szuminski said. “When I came out of college, I was throwing a 95-mile-per-hour fastball, but it was leaving the bat faster than it was coming in.”

As he worked his way up in the Cubs’ organization, he traded his hard, straight fastball for a two-seam fastball that sinks and developed his slider and change-up.

Just when it looked like everything was falling into place, the baseball gods threw Jason another curve. On Nov. 7, 2003, Mexico stunned Team USA 2-1 in the quarterfinals of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama, knocking the U.S. team out of the Olympics and effectively knocking Lieutenant Szuminski out of the World Class Athlete Program.

By that time, he was turning a lot of heads in the baseball world. During the 2003 season in the Cubs organization, the lieutenant made the move from Class A to AAA. In 97 innings, his combined ERA was 2.78. He struck out 73 while walking 29 and allowing only one homerun.

Pitching against the best minor league players in the prestigious Arizona Fall League, he struck out 19 hitters in 19 innings. His performance was so impressive that the Kansas City Royals took Lieutenant Szuminski from the Cubs in the December 2003 Rule 5 draft and quickly traded him to the Padres.

Rule 5 is a supplemental draft designed to prevent teams from stockpiling talent. It stipulates that a player taken can’t be sent to the minors that year without clearing waivers and then being offered back to the original team for half of the $50,000 selection price. It looked like Lieutenant Szuminski’s dream of making the big leagues was going to happen. But there was just one problem: How could he pitch full time for the Padres and simultaneously work full-time for the Air Force? That’s where the Air Force Reserve stepped in.

The lieutenant offered to trade in the one year he had remaining on his active-duty commitment for a three-year commitment in the Reserve. Former Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Chad Hennings and current Rams defensive end Bryce Fisher made similar deals when they made the National Football League.

“I think this is a win-win situation for both the Air Force and me,” the lieutenant said. “I’m extending my commitment, I’ll have plenty of time in the off-season to perform my IMA duties, plus I’m really looking forward to doing some stuff for (Air Force and Reserve) recruiting in the off-season, I have nothing but great things to say about the Air Force.”

Jason’s coaches have had some great things to say about him.

“I’ve been very impressed with him,” Padres Manager Bruce Bochy said during spring training. “Not just the way he pitches, but with the way he handles his business. He’s very intelligent, and he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. We like his competitiveness.”

Lieutenant Szuminski believes the four years he spent at MIT definitely helped him in his quest to be a Major League pitcher.

“The world of baseball and MIT could not be more different, but making it through MIT gave me the confidence to think I can jump into anything and be successful,” he said.

Back on campus, Lieutenant Szuminski is something of a celebrity. That’s not surprising when you consider that the school has produced 57 Nobel Prize winners but only one big league ball player. In fact, he is only the second Engineer player ever to be drafted by a Major League team. The first was another pitcher, Alan Dopfel, who was taken in the third round by the Angels in 1972 but never made it to “the Show.”

Jason made his Major League debut April 11 during a nationally televised Sunday night game against the San Francisco Giants and future Hall-of-Famer Barry Bonds. He gave up one unearned run in one inning and got Mr. Bonds out on a fly ball to left field.

“I knew I was going to pitch to him,” Lieutenant Szuminski said. “I was trying to go with my strengths and get him out. I got a front-row seat at how strong he is. I thought he popped that ball up, and it wound up going pretty deep.”

(Editor’s note: Lieutenant Szuminski was offered back to the Chicago Cubs on May 11. The Cubs accepted the big righthander and, as of press time, Lieutenant Szuminski was pitching for the Cubs’ Triple A team in Des Moines, Iowa. He is currently trying to work his way back up to the Major Leagues.)

COPYRIGHT 2004 Air Force Reserves

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group