05/24/2004 12:43 PM ET
Princeton duo wows scouts
Szymanski, Ohlendorf expected to go early in draft
By Kent Malmros / Special to MLB.com
|Ross Ohlendorf was 6-3 with 73 strikeouts in 59 innings in 2004. (Courtesy Beverly Schaefer)
Dynamic Princeton Tigers duo: 56K | 350K
Princeton University is renowned for its academics. Its hallowed lecture halls consistently produce world-class physicists, politicians and poets. And the school's most well-known athlete, Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Bradley, is equally well-known as a politician.
But more athletes from Princeton may break through, thanks in large part to another Bradley -- the Tigers' head baseball coach, Scott. In his seventh season at the helm, the former Major League catcher -- who played for the Yankees, Mariners, White Sox and Reds -- has led the Tigers to their ninth straight Ivy League championship, the team's fourth title in the last five years.
Since 2000, five Princeton products have been selected in the First-Year Player Draft, including Thomas Pauly, who became the highest Princeton player ever drafted, when the Reds chose him with the 51st overall pick in 2003.
So it should come as no surprise that two current Tigers -- outfielder B.J. Szymanski and pitcher Ross Ohlendorf -- are projected as potential high-round selections this year. It's a natural progression, and it's all part of Bradley's grand plan to put Princeton firmly on the collegiate baseball map, right?
"I never saw Ross Ohlendorf with a baseball in his hand until we started fall practice," Bradley said of his star pitcher. "I tell people that you have so many advantages when you're at a place like Princeton when it comes to recruiting. [Ohlendorf] contacted us."
Ohlendorf played for former Cub Keith Moreland at St. Stephen's Episcopal High School in Austin, Texas. He had also participated in private pitching lessons with one-time Pirate Lee Tunnell. Bradley knew the both Tunnell and Moreland, and he called them to get a read on Ohlendorf. When they said Ohlendforf was legit -- and after Bradley saw he scored 1580 on his SATs -- the decision to recruit him "was a no-brainer."
Szymanski? He was recruited out of Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, to play wide receiver for the Tigers' football team. Bradley was aware of the talented outfielder, but knew of Szymanski's commitments on the gridiron and let him decide if he wanted to be part of the baseball program.
Now, three years after arriving in New Jersey, Szymanski and Ohlendorf sit atop draft boards throughout the country.
Regardless of how they arrived at his doorstep, Bradley has been instrumental in the development of both prospects. Entering this season, Szymanski was a relative unknown, unranked among the top collegiate position players. Ohlendorf's talent was apparent coming out of high school, but he's become a refined product under Bradley's tutelage. Now both are ranked among the top 60 players available heading into the draft, according to Baseball America.
"He has helped me quite a bit," Ohlendorf said of Bradley. "He's caught a lot of pitchers, so he knows quite a bit about pitching even though he didn't pitch himself."
Though scouts were well aware of the 6-foot-4 right-hander after a strong sophomore season, his 95 mph fastball was missing the polish scouts wanted to see in a top selection.
This year, he's shown a refined repertoire, throwing from a more consistent arm slot on his fastball and using his breaking ball with confidence. Bradley estimates that Ohlendorf threw 25-30 curves all of last season. This year, the Tigers' opponents know they'll see a steady variation in the Texan's pitch selection -- possibly 25-30 each game.
The results speak for themselves. Through the end of the regular season, Ohlendorf posted a 6-3 record, with a 3.66 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 59 innings pitched.
His maturity has truly solidified his status as a top draft prospect. His poise has been remarkable, particularly in big games.
"We talk about it quite a bit, and the big thing that we try to get them to realize is that they don't have control over a whole lot of things, except what happens on the field," Bradley said. "So with the amount of scouts that are here ... they can't worry about who's there, and they can't try to do too much."
One stretch this season stands out among the rest. It was March 5, when about 100 radar guns arrived in Norfolk, Va., to track each pitch thrown by two great college pitchers -- Ohlendorf and Old Dominion's Justin Verlander, a potential top draft choice himself.
The Tigers' ace outpitched Verlander, throwing five innings and allowing just two runs while striking out nine. Just two weeks later against Virginia Commonwealth, the reserved Ohlendorf matched up against Justin Orenduff, another elite pitching prospect. And again, the Princeton star shined brightest. Ohlendorf capped a successful southern swing by throwing seven stellar innings, striking out seven and allowing just one run, en route to a victory over Orenduff.
"I felt really good that night. I felt real loose and I was able to control my fastball really well," Ohlendorf said of his performance in Richmond. "I felt really good throwing ... it was the most fun I've had pitching this year. I felt relaxed."
But as good as Ohlendorf was on that trip, it was really Szymanski who stole the show. With two outs, Szymanski deposited the first Verlander pitch he saw 450 feet from home plate, into the trees beyond the outfield fence. It was his first official swing of the season.
When the scouts' buzz subsided, one question remained: Who is B.J. Szymanski, anyway? The answer, they would soon find out, is a superior athlete, and a probable first-round draft choice in his own right. According to Bradley, Szymanski reminds him of one recruit he lost to the Majors: Rocco Baldelli.
"Rocco was a big-time basketball player and a big-time volleyball player, and he could just do so many different things. And when he first signed, [he was] relatively unproven as a baseball player ... it was the athleticism that stood out," Bradley said. "With B.J. you see the same thing. You see the same size, the same explosiveness to his run."
Before this season, Szymanski was best known for his athletic exploits as an All-Ivy wide receiver on the Princeton football team. Just last season, the 21-year old led the Tigers with 824 yards receiving on 44 catches. By his next at-bat, scouts had identified Szymanski as a rising positional prospect for June's draft.
Since that afternoon, scouts have been watching his every move. And the switch-hitting outfielder has responded, compiling a .378 average while leading his team with 48 RBI in 42 games during the regular season. In a pitching-rich draft, his performance was good enough to elevate his draft status from unknown to near-certain first-round pick. Baseball America recently ranked Szymanski the third-best college position player available in June's draft.
"With the dearth of position players in this draft, he's likely a first-round choice," one Major League executive said of Szymanski. "He does everything well, and has a Major League body. He's only going to get better."
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Szymanski didn't even play baseball during his freshman year at Princeton. He was recruited to play football. After what he considered a subpar rookie season on the football field, Szymanski decided to spend the spring learning the Tigers' offensive playbook, catching passes instead of fly balls.
"I knew pretty much when I came in that I was not going to play baseball my freshman year. But it was difficult to sit out here and watch some of the games knowing that I wanted to play baseball," Szymanski said. "I knew toward the middle of my freshman year that I wasn't going to be the starter (on the football team), but I had to solidify myself on the depth chart as the starter. ... I didn't want me being a baseball player to take away from my football, because I had come here initially to play football and I wanted to make sure I had fulfilled my obligations."
Baseball wasn't terribly far off his radar screen. In fact, when Szymanski came to New Jersey for his official football visit, he stopped in to see Bradley. The Princeton coach was aware of the gifted athlete, but understood that football got him to Princeton and that, along with rigorous freshman academics, baseball would be third on Szymanski's list of priorities.
But when Szymanski finally stepped on the baseball field during his sophomore season, it was clear that he may never leave.
"About halfway through our first individual session in late November , [assistant] coach [Lloyd] Brewer and I looked at each other and we said, 'We don't get this very often,'" Bradley said of Szymanski's first practice last year. "To see somebody who had basically a mirror image of his swings from both sides of the plate ... I mean, you shake hands with him and the first thing you notice physically is what he's capable of doing.
"We had watched him run on the football field, and we could tell immediately with his bat speed and everything he had that he was going to be really, really good."
Even if Bradley didn't quite draw it up like this, he's thrilled that players of Ohlendorf's and Szymanski's caliber found their way onto his roster. Their success can only provide a positive influence on the perception of Princeton baseball and Ivy League athletics as a whole. And that is Bradley's primary concern -- an athlete can play baseball at a superior level while getting a world-class education.
But he'll take some personal pride in the great ones he finds along the way.
"You know what, for me as a former pro player it's great [that they're likely going to be drafted], to see these guys have the opportunities that I did, and to develop and move on," Bradley said. "I can't wait until the day when I can sit in the stands with my three kids and watch my former players play in the big leagues. That'll be a great day."
Kent Malmros is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.