Szymanski's Athletic Double Life at Princeton Sees Receiver Emerge as Big League Prospect
By Bill Alden
BJ. Szymanski felt a void in the spring of 2002 as he finished up his freshman year at Princeton University.
Looking to solidify his claim to a starting receiver position on the Princeton football team, Szymanski opted to participate in spring football practice rather than to try his hand at college baseball.
Szymanski, who started playing baseball at age 3 and was a two-time all-district performer in baseball at Rider High in Wichita Falls, Texas, took in a couple of Tiger baseball games that spring as he suffered withdrawal symptoms from the diamond.
That summer, Szymanski took part in a Cincinnati Reds tryout camp and was urged by scouts to play baseball at the next level. After putting together a terrific football season in which he caught 33 passes for 567 yards and two touchdowns, Szymanski decided to act on the scouts' advice and try baseball in college.
The gifted Szymanski, a 6'5, 215-pound gazelle who runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, was an instant hit for the Princeton baseball team in 2003 as he hit .330, played an outstanding centerfield, and earned second-team All-Ivy recognition.
This spring, after completing yet another productive football campaign in which he earned All-Ivy honorable mention recognition, the switch-hitting Szymanski has taken his baseball game to a new level, hitting .389 through Princeton's first 26 games and drawing national attention as one of college baseball's hottest major league prospects.
The genial Szymanski is taken aback by how his baseball stock has skyrocketed. "It's a bit overwhelming," said Szymanski, speaking in a Texas drawl. "I was hoping that I would do better this spring. I've put on weight and gotten stronger. I was hoping that would equate to a little more patience at the plate and some more power."
Szymanski credits Princeton head coach Scott Bradley, a former major leaguer, with his remarkable progress on the diamond. "I was really worried last spring, I was naive as to what college baseball is about and whether I could perform," recalled Szymanski, who acknowledges that Princeton football coach Roger Hughes has been supportive of the wide receiver's stab at baseball.
"When I started college ball I found out there were a whole lot of things I didn't know about the game. Coach Bradley told me a lot of little things that helped my transition to the game. If I feel like I've done something wrong, I'll walk up to the coaches and ask them what am I doing. Sometimes it's the smallest things that get you back on line."
Bradley, though, will tell you that he tinkers as little as possible with the talented Szymanski. "If you would design someone as the prototypical big league outfielder, you basically would start at the drawing board and make B.J.," asserted Bradley, who is in his seventh year guiding the Tigers and had a nine-year major league career as a left-handed hitting catcher.
"He's bigger, faster, and stronger than everybody else. He's a switch hitter and his swing is pretty much a mirror image from both sides of the plate. He's a five-tool player and he makes 'em all look easy."
While Szymanski's physical gifts are startling, Bradley is just as impressed with the junior outfielder's mental approach to the game. "The thing about B.J. that is most amazing to me is not his physical ability but his ability as a hitter to adjust," explained Bradley, whose club split doubleheaders with Yale and Brown last weekend to move to 4-12 overall and 3-5 in Ivy play.
"He'll get fooled by a pitcher but it won't last very long. He's able to make adjustments as a game goes on, which to move up in baseball, you have to be able to do that."
Bradley acknowledges that Szymanski's prodigious gifts have catapulted him into such high status with the major league that there is a good chance that this spring might be his last in a Princeton uniform.
"B.J. wasn't one of the high profile names, he just flashed on the scene after the ball he hit off Justin Verlander (a mammoth homer off of the Old Dominion ace and likely top-ten pick in the upcoming major league draft)," said Bradley, who lost star pitcher Thomas Pauly in 2003 after his junior year when he was picked in the second round by the Cincinnati Reds.
"There were a 100 scouts there and they see a 6'5 kid with this silky smooth swing. He has been going up and up on the national prospect lists. Baseball America which didn't even rank him before the season now has him ranked as the No 11 college prospect in the U.S."
Szymanski, who professes to not prefer baseball over football, knows he is facing a dilemma if he is taken high in the major league draft this June. "My parents and I would have to sit down with Coach Bradley and weigh all of my options," said Szymanski, who would be ineligible under Ivy rules to play either sport again for Princeton if he signed a professional contract.
"Whatever it is, it's going to have to be very lucrative because I love football. It's going to have to be worth it for me to not play my final year with my football teammates. It was a very upsetting season (2-8) and we are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen again."
However Szymanski's athletic saga plays out, he is glad that he went the two-sport route at Princeton.
"After I decided to play baseball, people asked me why I was taking on so much with football and the school work," recalled Szymanski, who said the challenge of going from one sport to another comes natural to him since he has been doing it since grade school.
"I told myself I could go out there and fail and that would be fine, at least I know I tried. If I looked back in 20 years and I didn't know how I could've done, I would kick my butt."
With the way Szymanski is kicking butt on the diamond this spring, he might just leave a major void on the Princeton sporting scene after the major league draft.