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He's in class by himself

Szuminski has made it big like no other from MIT

Some boys and girls grow up wanting to play in the major leagues. Still others dream of becoming astronauts. Jason Szuminski, MIT class of 2000, fell somewhere in between.

An aerospace engineer by degree, Szuminski these days is a San Diego Padres relief pitcher by trade. Named to the Padres' staff at the start of last month, the 25-year-old righthander now stands as the sole former Engineer athlete to go from the campus of the highly respected science and technology school in Cambridge to the highest end of professional athletics.

"Going to MIT, for me, was about opportunity," said the 6-foot-5-inch Szuminski, who grew up in San Antonio and attended MIT on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. "And as grueling as the scholastic side of it was, baseball was my escape. There were times, believe me, it felt good to be able to go out there and throw a fastball as hard as I could."

Particularly vexing during his school days, recalled Szuminski, was a course in thermodynamics.

"It took me three tries," he recalled, "to knock that one out."

Until Szuminski made his way up through the minor leagues, MIT could claim few athletic luminaries. Tom Pelham Curtis, class of 1894, was an Olympic gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles. Henry Steinbrenner, class of 1927 and father of New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, also competed as a hurdler, in the 1928 Olympics.

Prior to Szuminski, the top Engineer competitor of them all might have been Larry Kahn, class of 1975, the world singles titleholder in tiddlywinks.

"That's a fact," said James Kramer, MIT's sports information director, who yesterday confirmed that Szuminski was the first in school history, dating to 1861, to go from campus to the highest reaches of North America's four major sports. "We don't have any NBA or NFL players here."

Szuminski, who'll return to Air Force reserve duty at the end of the baseball season, wasn't in a hunt for diamonds -- baseball or otherwise -- when he came to MIT. A Texas boy, he grew up wanting one day to play for one of the state's big colleges -- perhaps follow Roger Clemens to the University of Texas -- and find his way to baseball fame and fortune from there.

What he got was the offer to come east, a prospect that looked all the more appealing because the Air Force was willing to pick up the tab.

"No way in the world," recalled Szuminski, his Padres pay a reported $300,000, "was I going on my own ticket."

While at Cambridge, said Szuminski, he often made the hike across Massachusetts Avenue on the Harvard Bridge to watch the Red Sox at Fenway.

"I could see the lights across the [Charles] river from my room," he recalled. "Other than, oh, one or two games, I was always in the bleachers. Sometimes, they'd open the gates after the seventh inning, and I'd sneak in with some of my buddies. I walked that bridge many times -- more times than I care to remember, it was so cold -- even in the spring. I'm a Texas boy. I like it warm."

For the record, Szuminski could not quickly convert the distance from the pitching mound to home plate, 60 feet 6 inches, to the standard MIT measurement of Smoots. The 5-6 Oliver R. Smoot Jr., MIT class of 1962, as a fraternity prank once was used to measure the full expanse of the Harvard Bridge: 364.4 Smoots and one ear.

The numbers nearly as vexing as thermodynamics for Szuminski right now are his walks (nine in seven innings) and his bloated earned run average (9.00). If he's going to remain in manager Bruce Bochy's bullpen, he'll have to sharpen his control. The Padres last night opened a three-game series in Florida with a loss to the Marlins, and Szuminski, with six appearances, hasn't worked since giving up back-to-back walks against the Mets last Sunday.

"I know, being new and all, I'm not going to get a million chances," Szuminski said. "If you don't get 'em out, you can be out of here in a hurry. Make a mistake in college ball, and you might get away with it. But up here, these hitters aren't going to miss 'em. There's really no margin for error, that's really the biggest difference."

According to Szuminski, originally drafted in the 27th round by the Cubs in 2000, there is little correlation between the cerebral dynamics of becoming an aerospace engineer and pitching in the big leagues.

"They're two very different things," he said. "The only similarity I see between the two is the challenge. In both cases you're working in situations where you have to find a way to figure it out."

Szuminski is scheduled to return here next month when the Padres come to Fenway for three games (June 8-10). He has a bleacher seat waiting for him, this time at the foot of the front row in straightaway right field, in the visiting team's bullpen. Seduced by Fenway's glow first as an MIT underclassman, he might have his own chance to light up the place.

"I hope it's warm," he said. "It's a great park, and I loved going there. But I still shudder, thinking how cold it was walking across that bridge."

When the opportunity with the Padres came into focus, the Air Force granted Szuminski's wish to be switched from active to reserve duty.

This autumn, he'll likely be assigned a more 9-to-5 existence at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

"It's a base with a lot of history," said Szuminski, whose duties could be varied, possibly including some public relations work now that his MIT-Padres-Air Force story line has become better known. "Chances are, I'll be in a lab, working on advanced research for some new technologies, for space and different systems."

Meanwhile, from his office in Falls Church, Va., 50-year-old righthanded tiddlywinker Larry Kahn yesterday set the record straight.

Listed in MIT literature as the former world singles champ, Kahn would like the world to know that he reclaimed the title just last year at a tournament in England.

Kahn, a systems engineer with Mitretek Systems, nonetheless concedes that Szuminski has passed him on MIT's totem pole of athletic achievement.

"But hey, I still play Ultimate Frisbee," boasted Kahn, who also claims to hold more tiddlywinks titles than anyone in the world. "I learned that at MIT, and I'm still playing it. At least [Szuminski] is getting paid for what he's doing. If I got paid for [tiddlywinks], I could have retired by now."

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