Matt Szczur will get a chance to live out his dream next baseball season.
The 2007 Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate has agreed to sign a minor-league contract with the Phillies that includes an invitation to major-league spring training in Clearwater, Florida.
With the invite comes a chance to possibly wear red pinstripes and play in front of family and friends.
“Growing up (in Lower Township) and playing Little League with everybody, we all dreamed about playing for the Phillies,” Szczur said Friday in a phone interview. “I’m very excited to have that opportunity.”
The former Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres outfielder spent last season with Arizona’s triple-A affiliate in Reno, Nevada. An oblique injury limited him to 44 games, but he hit .322 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs for the Aces.
After the season, the 30-year-old outfielder became a free agent. The Phillies immediately rose to the top of his list of potential teams for both professional and personal reasons.
Szczur’s wife, Natalie, a Wildwood Catholic High School graduate, is due to have the couple’s first child, a son, on Jan. 2.
“Since we’re about to have a baby, we wanted to stay close to home,” he said. “This is just the right fit for me on a lot of levels. It’s worked out perfectly.”
Szczur appeared in 363 career major league games with the Cubs (2014-16) and Padres (2017-18), batting .231 with 12 homers, 31 doubles, three triples, 61 RBIs, and a .666 OPS. His best season came with the Cubs in 2016, when he hit .259 (.261 as a pinch hitter) with five homers and 24 RBIs for the World Series champions.
Szczur did not play in the postseason but received a World Series ring for his contributions.
Szczur’s reputation as a good defensive outfielder and reliable pinch hitter could eventually earn him a spot on the Phils’ major-league roster as a fourth or fifth outfielder. The Phillies’ outfield includes Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Adam Haseley and Roman Quinn.
Prior to getting drafted with the Cubs, Szczur was a three-sport star at Lower Cape May (football, indoor track, baseball) and played football and baseball for Villanova University.
He in the Lower Cape May athletic Hall of Fame and had his jersey numbers retired for both football (No. 41) and baseball (No. 20).
He drew national headlines while at Villanova in 2009 when he donated bone marrow to a 13-month-old girl from the Ukraine, thus saving her life.
In 2017, Szczur and his wife created the Matt Szczur Foundation to raise awareness of the need for bone marrow donors. Projects such as his annual Szcz the Day dinner event have helped to raise more than $300,000.
Szczur also has gained acclaim as an artist, a talent he developed while watching his father, Marc Sr., draw and shape things out of wood. Over the years, he’s done paintings featuring the Cubs’ World Series celebration and of former NHL legend Wayne Gretzky and Batman. His most recent work is a 36-inch-by-36-inch painting of “The Joker.”
Since returning to Lower Township, he’s also been taking steps to help prevent the injuries that sidelined him for much of last season.
He changed his workout routine in an effort to increase his flexibility and core strength. His regimen includes Pilates sessions with instructor Connie Kelly at CK Pilates in Marmora.
“It’s different than anything I’ve done before,” Szczur said with a laugh. “It’s much tougher than I expected.”
Note: Szczur is one of five local players with Major League experience in recent years. Three-time American League MVP Mike Trout with the Angels (Millville) and Minnesota reliever Cody Stashak (Oakcrest, Mays Landing) are currently in the majors. Pitcher Brett Kennedy (Atlantic City) spent part of 2018 with the Padres. Outfielder Darren Ford (Vineland) was with the Giants for parts of 2010 and 2011.