MIT model explains how the brain can learn novel tasks while still remembering what it has already learned.
Four MIT graduates have walked on the moon, but none has ever played major-league baseball.
Jason Szuminski, Class of 2000, hopes to be the first.
Mr. Szuminski gave up the dream of a professional baseball career at age 17 when he came to MIT in 1996 to study aeronautics on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. "It's a great school," said Mr. Szuminski, who was not the star of his baseball team at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. "It seemed like the smartest thing to do."
His dream was rekindled in June when he was chosen on the 27th round of the major-league baseball draft by the Chicago Cubs, only the second MIT student ever to be drafted. A week later, the hard-throwing right-hander signed an $850-a-month contract and was pitching for the Mesa Cubs in the Arizona Rookie League. He did well enough to earn a promotion to the Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts in the Class A Midwest League.
After compiling a 3-1 record at Lansing, the Cubs invited him to pitch in the fall Arizona Instructional League and told him he has major-league potential. There is a major roadblock: the Air Force believes he has great potential as a developmental engineer and plans to put Lt. Szuminski to work until 2005. That would truly shatter the baseball dream.
The Cubs offered to reimburse the Air Force for Mr. Szuminski's scholarship. "It's not that simple," he said. "Discussions are ongoing."
Mr. Szuminski believes that teams were hesitant to draft him because of his ROTC commitment. Finally, the Cubs took a chance, making him the 793rd player chosen (of a total of 1,452). At 6-feet 4-inches and 220 pounds, their scouts liked his size, his arm and his grit.
"I developed a lot more in college than most people do," said Mr. Szuminski, who had a 10-11 record in four seasons at MIT, including 4-4 as a senior with 57 strikeouts and 22 walks in 64 innings. "I got a little bigger and started throwing a lot harder. I was pretty good in high school but not exceptional."
"There's a lot of uncertainty," said Mr. Szuminski, now taking the three courses he needs to earn his SB. "If I had a choice, I'd like to continue playing. I think I could have a good future in baseball and I'd like to find out. But I'm not the one who gets to decide."
The irony, he said, is that his performance this summer convinced him that he has the talent to make it to the major leagues, but he might never get the chance to play it out. "I have to admit it would be a little hard to accept that a prior commitment rather than my lack of ability kept me from ever getting a chance to pitch in the show," he said.
SUMMERING IN THE MINORS
Starting out at the advanced age of 21 in the rookie league, he knew he'd better make an impression in a hurry. In his first appearance, in relief, he struck out four in three innings. But perhaps more important, he threw 94-mile-an-hour fastballs.
He started his next game and allowed only two hits in six scoreless innings. That earned a place in the starting rotation. After compiling a 2-1 record and a 2.43 earned-run average in 10 games, he was promoted to the Midwest League on August 16.
In his first Lansing appearance, Mr. Szuminski continued to impress by pitching six shutout innings. In his next start, he extended his shutout streak to eight innings before falling apart and yielding six runs in the third. "I was tired and I felt sick," he said, "but I gave it my best shot. You don't call in sick at that level."
He finished the season with two straight victories, pitching seven innings and allowing only one run in the season finale against the Dayton Dragons, whose roster includes many of the Cincinnati Reds' top prospects. "If things don't work out, for whatever reason, at least I went out with a bang," said Mr. Szuminski, who grew up idolizing Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, the quintessential hard-throwing righty. Mr. Szuminski still wears a baseball glove charm around his neck, given to him by his mother when he was a teenager.
As a boy, Jason watched the Yankees on television with his grandfather, a lifelong Yankee fan. He saw his first professional game in Yankee Stadium. After the family moved from Pennsylvania to Texas when he was 7 years old, he rooted for the Rangers and Astros and switched to the Red Sox when he came to MIT. "Now I play for the Cubs so I've got to be a Cubs fan," he said. "Maybe I just love baseball."
"Millions of kids play baseball and they all dream of being a pro. If you told me I'd get to do it when I was a 9-year-old kid in Little League, what do you think I would have said?" he said.
If his professional career is nipped in the bud, he's savored every moment. "I did it. It was great. I'm glad I had the opportunity."
ANOTHER DRAFT PITCHER
MIT's previous draft choice, Alan Dopfel, Class of 1972, seconds that motion. "I had a lot of fun playing ball," he said.
Drafted on the third round by the California Angels, Mr. Dopfel, a righty, pitched three years in the minor leagues, rising as high as Salt Lake City in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League in 1974. His overall record with Shreveport and El Paso in the Class AA Texas League and Salt Lake City was 17-27.
He went to spring training with the Angels in 1975 and faced the Oakland As, winner of three consecutive World Series, in an exhibition game. The high point: "I struck out Reggie Jackson. He swung from the heels." The low point: "I hung a curveball a little. Joe Rudi hit it out of sight for a home run."
Mr. Dopfel quit baseball to get married when he was reassigned to Salt Lake City after the 1975 training camp. He went to work for IBM and is still there. He was pleased to hear that Mr. Szuminski is committed to getting a degree. "You need an education," he said.
In his day, when teammates discovered the identity of Mr. Dopfel's alma mater, they asked if MIT was in Michigan. Modern players are hipper. "I heard a lot of jokes about rocket scientists," said Mr. Szuminski.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 27, 2000.