‘Cubs University’ features football, hoops experience

SHARE ‘Cubs University’ features football, hoops experience

MESA, Ariz. — In an alternate universe, Dexter Fowler might be spending Thursday sitting courtside, watching his former basketball team play in the Big Dance

The Cubs centerfielder was recruited out of high school to play basketball at Harvard — where he would have teamed with Jeremy Lin — and a few other Ivy League schools.

He played both baseball and basketball at Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga. By his senior year, he decided to focus solely on baseball, where he had starred as a travel-ball player. Before being drafted by the Rockies, he had agreed to play baseball at Miami.

“That,” he said, “was where my heart’s at.”

Joe Maddon wished more high schoolers were allowed to make that decision as late as Fowler. This week, the Cubs manager railed against the thought that kids have to pick one sport in middle school, and focus on nothing else.

“That’s why I hate the specialization with kids, when they’re playing on these travel squads when they’re like 12, 13, 14 years old, only dedicated to one thing,” he said. “Traveling all the time. Paying exorbitant amounts of money to play baseball with hopes they’re going to become a professional baseball player.

“I think that’s crazy.”

Maddon, who played catcher and freshman team quarterback at Lafayette College, said he’s partial to former football players. They’re more apt to remember plays, play hurt and work hard in practices.

Ironically, the Bears feel the same way about baseball players; when former GM Phil Emery evaluated prospects, he wanted former centerfielders — for the way they learned to anticipate and track a fly ball at a young age — as well as wrestlers.

“I love cross-pollination when it comes to athletes,” Maddon said. “You get guys that did not just play baseball, meaning they’ve been around a different set of coaches and styles and ways to get in shape and thoughts. I love that.”

Up until the day he signed with the Cubs, Matt Szczur thought he’d play in the NFL. As a wide receiver, he was a consensus first-team Div. I-AA All-American who helped lead Villanova to the 2009 national title.

He received a $1.5 million bonus from the Cubs to walk away from football about a week before the 2011 Senior Bowl.

“I feel like, financially, I would have been able to get the same for football,” said Szczur, who made his big-league debut last season. “But I knew if I was going to play baseball, I’d be healthy longer.”

Szczur, who also ran track, said he was never, until that day in January, pressured to pick a sport. Every once in a while, he wonders how he’d play now had he specialized as a kid.

“But I’ve accomplished a lot of things and I would never take it back,” he said. “I have no regrets.”

If anything, the aggressiveness of football still helps him today. That was evident Tuesday when he beat out a bunt single and then stealing second with a head-first slide. Later, he crashed into the left-field wall while barely missing a spectacular catch.

In a sport that can be stagnant, Szczur said, he always has to be doing something.

“I feel like my mentality for football comes to baseball,” he said. “Every play, I have to play as hard as I can.”

At Maddon’s “Cubs University,” experience matters — even if it comes from other sports.

“I talk about a liberal arts education in regards to playing baseball,” he said. “Making the complete athlete here is kinda interesting, too. “

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley

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