What if Jeff Samardzija had quit baseball for football?

What if Jeff Samardzija had quit baseball for football?
July 15, 2014, 1:15 pm
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CSN Staff

Jeff Samardzija no longer plays in Chicago, having been traded to the Oakland A's a week ago, but there was a time -- four years ago -- when it looked like Samardzija was ready to hang up his baseball cleats entirely.

Monday Morning Quarterback's Robert Klemko spoke with Samardzija about a time when the ace was ready to give football another go, and how NFL teams continued to reach out to him as early as two years ago.

In his final two seasons at Notre Dame, Samardzija the wide receiver caught 155 passes for nearly 2,300 yards and 27 touchdowns. He was named an All-American and was projected by many to be a first-round pick in a draft that eventually saw wideouts Calvin Johnson, Ted Ginn Jr. and Dwayne Bowe hear their names called in Round 1. Yet by the time the 2007 NFL Draft had come and gone, Samardzija, a fifth-round pick by the Cubs in 2006, had already committed to baseball, where he threw 30 innings for Boise and Peoria that year.

Samardzija moved up the ranks quickly, making his debut in 2008, appearing in 26 games and finishing the year with a 2.28 ERA in 27.2 innings. But things went sour for Samardzija the next two seasons, combining to go 3-5 with a 7.83 ERA in 54 innings (27 games) between 2009 and 2010. He walked more batters (35) than he struck out (30), allowed 11 home runs and, already 25 years old, showed little promise of upside or improvement.

And it was one of those games, in April 2010, that Samardzija said almost forced him away from baseball to give football another shot.

On April 19, Samardzija came on in relief against the New York Mets, trailing 3-1. He proceeded to walk David Wright, gave up a double to Jason Bay and Jeff Francoeur reached on an error. That ended Samardzija's afternoon and, according to him, potentially his baseball career.

“We got back to the Parker Meridian in the city and I remember calling my agent and being like, 'I think we need to start setting something up with NFL teams and getting some workouts,'" Samardzija told SI. "I really wasn’t getting much better as a pitcher. The age was getting up on me; I was 25. But he talked me down, told me to sleep on it."

 

He slept on it, and eventually stuck it out. In 2011 Samardzija appeared in 75 games, finishsing with an 8-4 record and 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen. The Cubs then moved him into the rotation, where he has improved each of the last three seasons, peaking in 2014 with a 3-8 record, 2.78 ERA and first All-Star berth.

Samardzija stopped considering the NFL, but up until a year ago the NFL hadn't stopped considering Samardzija. Klemka wrote that the Bears called Samardzija's agent two years ago to gauge the starter's interest in returning to the NFL, and last year teams also called to see if he'd be interested in working out.

[RELATED: Samardzija happy to be with A's after Cubs trade]

Samardzija declined each time and is now lined up to receive a new contract that could reach $100 million. That's certainly a large reason why he's never considered a return to football and the other, he says, involves the health aspect of it all.

Seven Notre Dame players were drafted in 2007, and only one is still playing in the NFL. Five of the six had their careers shortened by injury, and that never-hurt mentality was something that gave Samardzija concern.

“The mentality of the NFL is you’re just not hurt,” he told SI. “There’s no time to be hurt. It’s different in baseball. It’s more accepted to rest. What my buddies were going through every day in the NFL was unbelievable.”

Four years ago it appeared Samardzija had made the wrong choice, something he admitted. Now he's in a rotation for the best team in baseball and will get his shot at competing for a pennant and potential World Series. That April 2010 outing against the Mets seems like forever ago to the ace, and as he recalls:

“I got back to the field and that love for the game took over and I never really let that thought resurface.”