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(Photo courtesy of the Billings Mustangs)

FITTING THE BILL: Former Princeton University star B.J. Szymanski looks like a big leaguer as he poses in his Billings Mustangs uniform. Szymanski, an outfielder, is hitting .259 with three homers and 17 RBIs in his 22 games so far with the Mustangs, an affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds that plays in the Pioneer League.
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Szymanski Making It in Montana As He Starts Pro Baseball Career

By Bill Alden

For some Princeton University baseball players, being sent out to Billings, Montana to play minor league ball would be a major change of pace.

But going from the relative flatlands of the Garden State to mountainous Big Sky country has been a natural fit for B.J. Szymanski, a former Tiger star and native of Wichita Falls, Texas.

"Things are going pretty well out here," said Szymanski in his Texas twang as he reflected on his summer with the Billings Mustangs, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate that plays in the Pioneer League at the "Rookie Advanced" classification of the minor leagues. "The city is a lot like my hometown, it's not too big, it's not too small."

Szymanski, however, acknowledged that he has needed to put a bigger focus on baseball as he looks to move up the Reds' organization.

"You have to come out and produce everyday," said Szymanski, who hit .362 with six homers and 48 RBIs this spring for Princeton in his junior season and was then chosen in the second round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Reds as the 48th pick overall.

"In college you have other things going on and that's great. Here you have to be very focused on baseball and you have to use your time on the field to get better. The daily grind is tough. I'm trying to acclimate myself and get as many at bats as possible."

Szymanski started producing right away with the Mustangs, hitting a homer in his second game. He smacked three homers in his first nine games, hitting at a .333 clip.

His batting average leveled off to the .295 area before the 6'5, 215-pound centerfielder hurt his quad muscle. Struggling to shake off that injury, Szymanski is hitting .259 with three homers and 17 RBIs through his first 22 games.

Despite the drop in his batting average, Szymanski feels he is adjusting to pro pitching. "Some of the pitching here is a lot like what I saw at the upper echelon of the teams we played at Princeton, some is better," said Szymanski, a first-team All-Ivy selection this spring. "Everybody's fastball is a little faster and their curves break a little more. You get used to it."

The levelheaded Szymanski said his experience playing under head coach Scott Bradley at Princeton has come in handy as he has dealt with the ups and downs that inevitably come with pro baseball.

"Coach Bradley has been such an influence on me," asserted Szymanski, referring to Bradley, who had a nine-year career as a big league catcher.

"He was always there to help. He told me to be prepared for everyday because that would be key if I went on to the pros. This is an everyday thing; you don't get five days between games. You can't live and die with each swing or at bat. I came to Princeton as a raw athlete and he turned me into a baseball player."

Szymanski's athleticism, which saw him garner honorable mention All-Ivy mention as a receiver for Princeton's football team, complicated his decision to sign with the Reds organization.

By signing a pro contract, he forfeited his senior season with the Tiger football squad under Ivy League rules. While Szymanski's choice in the second round of the MLB draft and the reported $750,000 signing bonus that came with it was too good to pass up, he is wistful when thinking about giving up football.

"Football is extremely important to me and I loved the way Coach [Roger] Hughes treated me and the team," said Szymanski, who had 85 receptions for 1603 yards in his Tiger football career and will be in the stands at Princeton Stadium this fall as he returns to school to finish up his psychology studies.

"I'll never regret the decision I made but I will miss football. It didn't set in that I wasn't going to ever play football again until I was driving out to Billings. I will miss the 2-a-day practices and the camaraderie you build through that."

As Szymanski finishes up his first pro baseball season, he is hoping his current team can forge that same kind of spirit.

"We clicked at the end of the first half of the season," said Szymanski, who helped Billings win the first half crown in the league's Northern Division. "The guys were joking around a lot. You don't have to be best friends but it is important for the guys to mesh as players."

In any event, Szymanski is ready to do whatever possible to get his skills to mesh to the point where he can make it to the majors.

"I can't say how long I'll stay in this," said Szymanski, who will play in the instructional league this fall in preparation for 2005 spring training. "I promised myself that if I don't make it to the major leagues it won't be for lack of effort. I feel I have the ability to do it."

The effort Szymanski is putting forth in his stop at Billings has him headed in the right direction as he pursues his dream of reaching the summit of his sport.

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