It might have been easy during the winter for Matt Szczur to imagine spending his summer nights at Citizens Bank Park, completing a climb back to the big leagues and wearing the uniform of the team that helped him fall in love with baseball as a kid growing up at the Shore.
The 30-year-old outfielder joined the Phillies in December on a minor-league contract, hoping to get the chance to prove that last year’s triple-A numbers could translate to major-league success. But Szczur’s career — highlighted by a national championship with Villanova football and a World Series ring with the Cubs — was paused with the rest of baseball by the coronavirus pandemic.
So instead of spending the start of the summer under the stadium lights in South Philly, Szczur spent his nights in a room above the garage of his Cape May home working on his other art: painting. Three months without baseball allowed Szczur to dig deep into a passion he has held nearly as long as his love for baseball.
“I feel like it’s definitely a stress reliever,” Szczur said last week. “I think it helps me kind of get away from whatever is going on and I can focus on the task at hand. Baseball is what it is right now. I have plenty of other stuff to take my mind off of that. But I feel like art is so much fun to do right now.”
For an hour or two each night, Szczur buried himself in his home studio after he and his wife, Natalie, put their 6-month old son, Matthew, to bed. Using spray paint and stencils, he created portraits of Michael Jordan, Rocky Balboa, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mouse, and Ken Griffey Jr. that he sells on his website. Szczur tried to list a new piece every Sunday.
He’s been commissioned by teammates to create art for their homes, and Mark McGwire, his coach in San Diego, asked him two years ago to paint a portrait of him and his daughter. Szczur listed two McGwire-inspired pieces on his website last month.
“That was cool because he came up to me and was like a little kid asking for something,” Szczur said. “I was like, ‘Dude, you’re Big Mac. You can ask me for whatever you want.' He just started laughing. He wanted to pay for it but I didn’t want his money. I just asked him to sign something.”
Szczur teamed with former major-leaguer Micah Johnson to paint a portrait of George Floyd. The piece — with each artist painting half — was bought by Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward for $10,000, which is being donated to organizations fighting racial injustice.
For Szczur, it was another chapter in his charitable work. His foundation, which he launched three years ago, has donated money during the pandemic to food banks at the Jersey Shore and raises awareness for bone marrow donors.
Szczur was Villanova’s electric, do-everything receiver when the Wildcats won the national championship in 2009, but he made national news five months later when he donated bone marrow to save the life of a 15-month-old girl in Ukraine just weeks before the MLB draft.
“It’s crazy because someone reached out to me a couple weeks ago and he saw the E:60 documentary and went and signed up,” Szczur said of the ESPN documentary about his lifesaving donation. “Then a year ago, he got called to donate and save a life. He reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I just want you to know that you helped save this person’s life.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said he signed up because of me and he saved this person’s life because of me.”
Szczur hit .322 last season with a .967 OPS in 149 at-bats with Arizona’s triple-A team. But he didn’t play in the majors for the first time since 2013. He was one of six veteran position players the Phillies brought to camp on minor-league deals and was expected to begin the season at triple A until a need arose in the majors.
With no minor-league season, Szczur will likely be one of the 60 players named to the Phillies pool on Sunday for the resumption of spring training. If so, he’ll compete for a bench job on the 30-man opening-day roster.
He can play all three outfield positions and has experience coming off the bench. He was one of the National League’s top pinch-hitters when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. The Phillies could give him a look this season.
“I was definitely looking forward to it,” Szczur said. “Hopefully, I get another shot at it soon.”
Szczur’s interest in art started in grade school, when he watched his father, Marc, make wood carvings, paint, and sketch. But it didn’t become more than a passionate hobby until 2016, when he painted photos of himself playing for Villanova and the Cubs to sell at his foundation’s dinner.
The self-portraits sold for $500 each, the money helping to pay bills for cancer patients. The Cubs then asked him to paint a portrait of the World Series clincher to sell at their charity event.
“That ended up raising $35,000 or $40,000,” Szczur said. “And I kind of just kept at it since then. It’s been growing over the last couple years.”
The artwork — and raising a newborn son — kept Szczur busy during baseball’s shutdown. He worked out each day, taking batting practice with his brother at a baseball facility near his home and staying in shape for when baseball returns. Next week, it should be back to work as baseball resumes spring training.
If Szczur has his way, he’ll be spending his nights this summer at Citizens Bank Park instead of the room atop his garage. His passion for art became more than just a hobby during the last few months, and it certainly helped him pass the time until his other career returned.