Szczepanik embraces size advantage
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- Call him the Bigger Unit.
At 7-foot-2 and 270 pounds, it's quite likely that Barry University sophomore Frank Szczepanik is the tallest pitcher ever.
To put his size in perspective, he is four inches taller than Cy Young winner Randy "Big Unit" Johnson, who is Szczepanik's idol. He also stands three inches above Jon Rauch, the tallest player in major-league history.
At the other end of the spectrum, Szczepanik is more than a foot-and-a-half taller than former American League MVP Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox.
And when Szczepanik climbs on a mound, the intimidation factor grows because he is, in effect, 8 feet tall.
"I tend to get a lot of first-pitch takes," said Szczepanik, a criminology major who aspires to be an FBI or CIA agent. "They want to see what I've got. I get a lot of guys shaking their heads and saying: 'What the heck is this?'"
While Szczepanik's size is certainly impressive, his talent is still in question. Johnson's fastball once reached 100 miles per hour, but Szczepanik pitches in the mid-80s and will be used out of the bullpen when Barry, which plays in the NCAA's Division II, opens its season Feb. 4 against Georgia Southwestern.
Szczepanik is already playing for his third college team -- with limited success so far. The Newark, N.J., native was an immediate standout at Linden High, striking out 13 batters in his second varsity start.
The next day, however, he had open-heart surgery to repair a genetically damaged aorta. Szczepanik said the surgery was planned. Doctors had monitored him for a year before deciding to operate.
"It was a precautionary thing because there's a history of heart disease on my mother's side," he said. "My mother had the same surgery, and she's fine now. But my grandmother died and she had diabetes and Marfan syndrome."
Marfan is a disorder of the connective tissue, which holds the body together and controls how the body grows. People with Marfan are typically tall. According to marfan.org, there is no cure for the disorder, which affects 1 in 5,000 people, but it can be treated.
Szczepanik, who said he had "a touch" of Marfan since it is passed down genetically, said he has had no issues since his surgery. He never played basketball again after the surgery, which was a shame since he had averaged 20 points and nine rebounds over his sophomore and junior years, leading Linden to two straight state titles.
Szczepanik said baseball was his first love anyway, and he was able to play his senior season in his favorite sport. He then signed with an NAIA school, South Carolina Beaufort. But he felt he didn't fit in there and transferred -- without ever playing a game -- to Brookdale Community College, back in New Jersey.
In five games, including two starts, Szczepanik went 1-0 with a 1.49 ERA. He totaled 12 innings at Brookdale, which finished third in the Division III Junior College World Series. Szczepanik struck out six, walked four and allowed five hits.
Szczepanik then took a year off from school for family reasons but continued to pitch in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, posting a 6.55 ERA in 11 innings of relief. He explained the high ERA by saying he used the summer to work on his curveball and his ability to "paint the corners."
In August of 2010, Szczepanik landed at Barry, shortly after sending an e-mail to coach Marc Pavao.
"He mentioned he was 7-foot-2, and that got my attention," Pavao said. "I asked him to send me some video, and I was surprised to find a smooth and clean pitching motion with no hitches.
"We invited him down for a workout, and even though he hadn't pitched to live batters in five or six months, he struck out one of our best batters."
Pavao said the first person he called when he learned of Szczepanik was Barry basketball coach Cesar Odio.
"He's never had a 7-footer," Pavao said. "He asked if he could borrow Frank for the team photo."
Szczepanik, though, is devoted to baseball.
"I play baseball because I love it," he said. "I enjoyed basketball, too, but I didn't want to play it just because I felt I had to or that people expected me to play because I'm tall."
Pavao is glad he chose baseball, and is especially proud that Szczepanik had a 3.5 grade-point average in his first semester at Barry.
"That's the best he's ever done," Pavao said. "I know because I looked at his transcripts."
Szczepanik said he intends to make his mark this season at Barry and wants to forget about his struggles over the past couple of years.
"I'm not real proud of it," he said of his so-far nomadic college résumé. "I want to stay in one place and really establish myself. I'm really excited to come here."
Szczepanik throws two-seam and four-seam fastballs as well as a changeup and a curve. He has also been tinkering with a split-finger fastball and a slider.
Pavao said Szczepanik's fastball handcuffed Miami Dade College hitters in a fall exhibition game.
"He's deceptive," Pavao said. "He is an imposing figure who is getting stronger every day. He will be that much more intimidating when he can get his fastball to the high 80s or low 90s, potentially."
Because Szczepanik throws straight over the top, he has noticed that the ball "tends to get lost in the sky for a split-second because batters are not used to it coming from so high."
Szczepanik, 20, said he'd like to think he's done growing, although doctors have said he could add height for another couple of years. Szczepanik's father, Frank Sr., is 6-4 and his mother, Barbara, is 5-11, but he passed them quickly. He was 6-5 by the time he was a freshman in high school and had shot up to 7-0 by his senior year.
Szczepanik realizes his size makes him a big target for hitters who want to beat him, but he's ready for the challenges.
"Off the field, I can be friendly and funny," he said. "But on the mound, I'm down to business, and I don't like jokes.
"When I was growing up, I used to watch Randy Johnson. He was mean on the mound. I would never want to face that guy. But that's who I want to emulate. That's who I look up to."
Not literally, of course.
At 7-2, there is no one in baseball Szczepanik looks up to.
Walter Villa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.