Diamond in the rough

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

MESA, Ariz. – Today, Jeff Samardzija will jog around a baseball field. He might pluck a bunt from the dirt. He could spit a sunflower seed or two. He will not sprint 40 yards. Last time any baseball player did that, in fact, was probably around the same time the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series.

Only two months ago, everyone figured Samardzija would be at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, slipping on his Under Armour, slicking back his hair and trying to bust the reputation that tends to accompany tall, Caucasian wide receivers: He's too slow. Instead he's here with the Cubs, a $10 million contract his so long as he sticks with baseball. The only 40 that matters is his spot on Chicago's 40-man roster.

"I wanted to run the 40," Samardzija said. "I was planning on being at Cris Carter's camp in Miami instead of here. If a guy like me gets a 4.4, he blows up, becomes huge. I'm pretty sure I could've gone out and run a 4.5.

"Now, I don't have to."

Even though Samardzija's decision of baseball over football has had two months to marinate, it's still, well, a little weird. Two-sport athletes are rare to begin with. Those with promising football prospects – Samardzija would have been a first- or second-round pick out of Notre Dame, the Spacely Space Sprockets of football factories – almost never choose baseball.

"Everyone was shocked, I think," he said. "And I knew it was coming. I was leaving football. Who does that?"

Drew Henson. And we saw how well that turned out.

Henson signed with the New York Yankees, flamed out at third base and never regained his football prowess with the Dallas Cowboys, petering out similarly.

There is no Bo Jackson today, no Deion Sanders, not even a Brian Jordan, who started his career in the NFL, spent a couple years playing minor-league baseball at the same time and eventually made the full switch to the big leagues.

"I don't think the physical aspect would be the problem, to tell you the truth," Samardzija said. "You keep with the flow. It's the political side, getting people to agree to share you.

"You feel like anytime you're part of an organization you have a duty to it. It's tough. Where's your allegiance?"

All fall, Samardzija asked himself just that.

"From the day I was back starting football, it was in my head," he said. "In class – I don't think I paid too much attention this semester. That's what I was doing. Thinking. What am I going to do?"

He consulted with his father, Sam, to whom he's grown even closer since the death of his mother, Deborah, six years ago. He talked with Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, an advocate of football, sure, but also a big Yankees fan. He asked for the advice of Paul Mainieri, the former Notre Dame baseball coach and close friend of Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, to whom he gave Samardzija his highest recommendation.

Ultimately, Samardzija asked himself what baseball had that football didn't and vice versa.

"It was just the feeling baseball gave me," he said. "I really can't explain it."

It was also the opportunity the Cubs gave him. In seven starts between short-season Boise and low-A Peoria last year, Samardzija showed them enough to devote a No. 1 overall-pick-sized bonus.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Samardzija can dial his fastball up to 98 and complements it with a slider that belies his baseball inexperience. Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild has devoted some extra time to him this spring – his first order of duty was to kindly tell Samardzija to get a haircut and wear his hat straight – and team brass would like to put him on the bullet train, or at least the Red Line, to Wrigley Field.

"He's a talented young man, there's no question about it," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "And he's got a plethora of physical skills. He's got a great arm. You know, he's going to need to go down to the minors and hone his skills a little bit. But there's no question that he's very talented, and with some hard work and a little luck he'll be in the big leagues fairly soon."

Samardzija would like to think he'll arrive about the right time. He grew up a Cubs fan in Valparaiso, Ind., and saw that in addition to the $10 million they spent on him, the Cubs threw nearly $300 million at other free agents.

Might just be that the Cubs do win the World Series before a baseball player runs the 40.

"I'd like to think," Samardzija said, "things just fell into the right place."

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