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Defending Szuminski’s Candid Comments

Jeffrey J. Billing and Alvie P. Loreto

In the April 13 issue of The Tech, Christopher Anderson opines negatively toward recent media quotes of MIT alumnus and current professional ballplayer Jason E. Szuminski ’01 [“Szuminski’s Barbs Hurt MIT Athletes”]. It is unfortunate that, in defending MIT Athletics, Anderson applies scant third-hand information about Szuminski’s collegiate career to make his supporting points. As four-year MIT baseball players (three years as teammates of Szuminski), and senior-year co-captains, we feel compelled to enlighten Anderson and anyone else who reacted with passionate assent to Anderson’s opinions.

Before touching upon Szuminski’s comments toward the MIT baseball program of the past, we must emphasize that things have vastly improved. In regards to the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER), one needs only to visit campus to see the remarkable newly-installed facilities. In regards to the baseball program, a new, extremely knowledgeable coaching staff has been hired, and the future of the program is bright. With a strong underclassman core complementing these qualified coaches, now is the most exciting time in recent history to be a current or prospective member of the MIT baseball team.

With that being said, let us address Anderson’s accusation that “Szuminski betrayed the entire department that made his Major League Baseball gig possible.”

First, Szuminski’s path to the major leagues started in 1999 in the New England College Baseball League (NECBL), a summer wooden-bat league comprised mainly of NCAA Division I players. It was here, not during MIT games, that scouts first saw Szuminski pitch. He was the NECBL all-star game’s winning pitcher, and only after his over-the-top summer performance did scouts express interest in attending MIT games to see him pitch. Incidentally, he made the NECBL through no assistance from anyone within DAPER. Rather, Szuminski himself e-mailed NECBL coaches and found his own transportation to Providence for a tryout with the only team with a remaining roster spot.

Second, once scouts became interested in seeing Jason play at MIT, the coach at the time refused to cooperate with Jason or the scouts. He failed to implement a pitching rotation -- a standard baseball strategy which plans that pitcher X will throw on day Y. Instead, an hour before game time the coach selected his starting pitcher (the coach did know who he was going to pitch long before, but he liked to defy the standard convention to emphasize his personal ideology about “being prepared for every game”; he did not at all believe it was counterproductive to his players). As a result, when scouts would call inquiring about Szuminski’s status, the coach would say he wasn’t sure, but maybe Jason would throw today... or tomorrow... or the next day. Scouts would then call Szuminski directly (and even at his home in Texas) trying to find out when and where they could see him pitch. We remember vividly how frustrating this experience was for Szuminski. Additionally, because it actually prevented some scouts from seeing him pitch, it empirically reduced his draft chances. (Luckily he threw well on the days that scouts did come, and the rest of Jason’s improbable journey is history.)

Any athletic coach is not supposed to make it harder to achieve success -- he or she should assist team members in recognizing and capitalizing upon all athletic opportunities at hand. But Jason received no such support, neither from his coach nor from an athletic department that constantly looked with passive indifference upon a fundamentally unqualified baseball coach who produced five losing seasons in six years, including an 8-43 record from 2001-2002. Being that this situation was the biggest roadblock to his dream, one would expect Szuminski to harbor some lingering animosity.

Thus, it was no surprise to us to see Jason’s comments in Jim Caple’s ESPN.com interview. In our opinion, it was exceedingly considerate of Szuminski to never have brought these issues up in prior interviews. During his four-year journey through the ranks of professional baseball, he has been interviewed multiple times, so he has had ample opportunities to convey these negative feelings towards MIT athletics -- yet he never brought the topic up himself. Only when ESPN broached the subject and then prodded him for an answer did he respond accordingly.

Anderson ends his column by saying he doesn’t “feel like cheering for [Szuminski], he doesn’t seem to be cheering for us.” It so happens that upon the hiring of the new baseball coaching staff in September 2003, we exchanged e-mails with assistant coach Chris Campassi to wish the new coaching staff good luck and offer alumni support. Szuminski carbon-copied on our e-mails and responded to Campassi Sept. 16 with the following reply: “Chris, I just wanted to chime in wishing y’all good luck with the new program. I’m sure you realize how excited most of your players and the recent alums are to have [a new coach]. Hopefully you still have enough guys psyched to play baseball and can quickly build a fun and competitive team ... Best of luck, Jason Szuminski”

The truth is that Jason and the rest of us alumni want nothing more than to see the MIT baseball program succeed, perhaps to the point of producing more professional-caliber players. However, the program’s future is bright only because past players endured so frustrating an experience for so long that they eventually delivered an ultimatum to DAPER to “either remove the coach or cut the program.” (Obviously, this was a desperate and less-than-ideal approach; we concur with Brian Chase’s April 13 Tech article [“A Focused Look at MIT Athletics”] in hoping more ideal conduits are put in place for feedback to DAPER.) Current MIT athletes should not be scorning Szuminski for telling the truth about his experiences any more than they should scorn today’s student-athletes for submitting critical feedback to their superiors. Were it not for mounting complaints, initiated by Szuminski and continuing through six seasons’ worth of MIT ballplayers, the baseball program would likely be in the same decrepit state as it was in Jason’s time.

In closing, Szuminski’s candid comments did cast a negative light on MIT athletics, but they were the cold, hard truth regarding his particular time there, not “non-constructive criticisms” or parting shots intended to shame the Institute. Szuminski’s outspoken yet sensible approach toward life, from his MIT days of past to his MLB days of today, has been a key building block in the Institute constantly re-examining and improving its athletic department through the feedback of its student participants. First and foremost an engineer, Szuminski has always had the mindset to elicit improvements in the structural integrity of his personal environments. Judging by today’s rejuvenated state of MIT athletics (and in particular MIT Men’s Baseball), Jason Szuminski is every bit as proud of DAPER as the Institute should be of the first Brass Rat big-leaguer.

Jeffrey J. Billing ‘01 and Alvie P. Loreto ‘01 played for the MIT baseball team from 1998-2001, and captained the team in 2001.