Last week, I traveled down a rabbit hole searching for former Chicago Cubs players who were multi-sport professional athletes because it was NFL Draft week. In the end, the only one I could find was Chuck Connors, who ended up being nothing special at either baseball or basketball at the professional level but rather a fantastic actor.
However, while searching, I stumbled upon many former Cubs who played at the collegiate level as well as with the Cubs, and Matt Szczur might be the most successful who played two sports because he won a championship in both.
Szczur helped Villanova win its first Division I FCS National Championship in 2009. He was a versatile playmaker who could be used almost anywhere on offense. He played wide receiver, running back, quarterback out of the wildcat formation, and was a return specialist on special teams. These factors led to CAA Offensive Player of the Year honors.
If you’re a casual fan of baseball or the Cubs, I doubt you know who Szczur is. If you’re like me and live on the internet or follow the Cubs extensively, you probably remember Szczur.
Szczur is beloved by the Villanova family for helping them achieve on the field. But off the field, he did something bigger in 2009.
He donated bone marrow to a 15-month-old Ukrainian girl named Anastasia battling leukemia. Szczur saved her life given the severity of her condition and how hard it would have been to find another person that was a match for bone marrow.
He met the Anastasia when she was four with her parents via Skype using a translator who was present at Anastasia’s house. The story is documented in an E:60 documentary by ESPN.
Szczur first played for the Cubs in 2014, appearing in 33 games. While in the minors, he was named a minor league All-Star by the Cubs in 2012 and was a Futures Game selection in 2011.
He was part of the Cubs 2016 squad that went on to win the coveted World Series trophy that fans longed to attain for more than a century.
However, he did not make an appearance in the 2016 postseason. His bat is more famous in the 2016 postseason than Szczur himself.
As fans remember, the Cubs offense struggled early during the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. At one point, the Cubs trailed in the series two games to one.
Anthony Rizzo, who was 2-for-26 going into game four, struck out in his first two at-bats and then decided to make a change.
In his third at-bat and onward, Rizzo used Szczur’s bat to launch a homer and a pair of singles the rest of the game as the Cubs offense broke out in game four. It was the start of three straight wins that included clinching the pennant at Wrigley Field in game six.
Rizzo went from batting .077 in the 2016 postseason to .161 after game four. Over the remaining ten games, Rizzo batted .432 on his way to recording the final out in game seven in Cleveland.
Szczur was the prototypical bench guy for the Cubs in 2015 and 2016. He played 107 games in 2016, manning any of the three outfield positions.
He was never a guy who would scare opposing pitchers. He slashed .259/.312/.400 with five home runs and 24 RBI’s in 200 plate appearances.
For his career, he slashed just .231/.312/.355 and posted a -0.6 fWAR.
In 2017, the Cubs had to decide who they wanted on their bench. It was either Szczur or infielder Tommy La Stella. The Cubs chose La Stella and traded Szczur to the San Diego Padres on May 8th for Justin Hancock.
Hancock didn’t pitch for the Cubs in 2017 but played in ten games for the North Siders in 2018 and logged 12.1 innings. The Cubs granted him free agency after the season.
Szczur went on to play for San Diego for the rest of 2017 and all of 2018. He was granted free agency at the end of the season and eventually signed a minor-league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks on December 4th, 2018.
He played for the Reno Aces, slashing .322/.390/.577 in 44 games, but was sidelined with a quadriceps injury for most of the season. The Diamondbacks granted him free agency in November of last year. The Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a minor-league deal in December, which included an invitation to Spring Training this spring.
Another interesting fact about Szczur is that he’s an incredible painter.
He does more than just Cubs paintings too. The latest paintings he’s shared over the last two Sundays before ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary airings are just as impressive.
Szczur may not have been the best player or favorite role player on the Cubs for most fans, but for those who follow the team extensively, he was easy to like.
If there is a particular player you’re interested in knowing more about, tweet me @codelmendo and I’ll take a deep dive.