MLB.com Columnist

Terence Moore

Samardzija could have starred in NFL, excelling in MLB instead

Samardzija could have starred in NFL, excelling in MLB instead

Here's another reason baseball remains our national pastime: Jeff Samardzija operates more often than not as a productive member of the Giants.

That's the San Francisco ones.

The New York ones play in the NFL, where they and their brethren had a chance, nearly a decade ago, of watching this gifted athlete of 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds prosper in their league.

"For me, I just felt like, regarding my ceiling in baseball, there was just more there," said Samardzija.

The 31-year old ranks among the leaders of Major League pitchers in games started. Plus, despite a rough stretch as of late (10 earned runs during his last 10 innings), his 7-4 record and 3.33 ERA contribute to giving the Giants one of the game's premier starting rotations.

"I'd given a lot of my time in early childhood to football with camps and trying to get recruited and seeking a scholarship," Samardzija said. "Baseball took the back burner for a lot of years, but I always knew I had a good arm, and it always intrigued me to see what I'd do if I gave it a fair chance."

Now we know. Hitters really know.

Let's start with Samardzija and that football thing. Since I was born and raised in South Bend, Ind., home of the University of Notre Dame, I devour every millisecond of Fighting Irish football, which means I'm also a Notre Dame historian. So I'm still pleasantly stunned that Samardzija pursued his passion of flinging baseballs with his right hand instead of his hobby of catching footballs.

Samardzija would have flourished in the NFL, too. Trust me. He was an extraordinary wide receiver.

Actually, he was better than that.

Now consider this: Since the 1960s, I've seen a slew of highly celebrated pass catchers at Notre Dame, starting with Jack Snow, Jim Seymour and Tom Gatewood. They were followed by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown and the magical hands of Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. In recent times, Michael Floyd was as efficient as they come, and so was Golden Tate. Even these days, the Irish have standout Torii Hunter Jr., whose father, Torii Sr., was a perennial baseball All-Star, mostly with the Twins.

None of those mentioned holds the Notre Dame record for most receiving yards and touchdown receptions in a season, or for most consecutive games (eight) catching a touchdown pass, or for most receiving yards during a career, or for most improbable catches in the clutch. Samardzija still chose baseball over football.

That said, for the longest time, he contemplated pulling a Bo Jackson and a Deion Sanders by doing both.

"Yeah. When I was 20, your ideas are a little expanded with a little less restraint, so my original plan was to play football mostly full-time, and hopefully, the Cubs or whoever ended up drafting me -- and it ended up being the Cubs -- would allow me to show up once the season was over," said Samardzija, who grew up in the northwestern Indiana city of Merrillville as a Chicago sports fan. "I really didn't have much of a plan about what I wanted to do, because playing two sports at the same time hadn't been done that much before."

When it was done, it wasn't done for long.

Yes, Jackson became the only person to make All-Star Games in both MLB and the NFL. But his pro football career lasted just four years with the Los Angeles Raiders, and he spent nine injury-filled seasons in baseball with three teams.

As for Sanders, he was the only person to play in a Super Bowl and a World Series. Not only that, but with 14 seasons in the NFL and nine in baseball, he had more longevity than Jackson along the way to an NFL Hall of Fame career. It's just that Sanders mostly was only a speedy journeyman baseball player with a lifetime batting average of .263.

Then there was Brian Jordan, with 15 seasons as a Major League outfielder and three as an NFL safety.

"I grew up right around that time when [Jordan] and those guys were playing, and I was trying to imitate them in the yard," Samardzija said. "Bo. Deion Sanders. But I really took a close look at Jordan, because he started out playing those three years in football and then went back to baseball. Then I looked at other guys who tried to do two sports at the same time, and it just seemed like they were just OK at both. I wanted to make sure I didn't get stuck in that middle ground. Whichever one I did choose, I wanted to go all in with it."

You know the rest. In January 2007, fresh from a career filled with all-everything football honors at Notre Dame, Samardzija signed a five-year deal with the Cubs with options. He later pitched for the A's and his beloved White Sox before he signed with the Giants this past offseason. Prior to arriving in San Francisco, he had a mostly steady career until he spent his first and only season with the White Sox in 2015, when he allowed more hits and earned runs than any pitcher in baseball. He also gave up an AL-high 29 home runs.

Then, after Samardzija joined the Giants, he received tutelage from manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti. Specifically, they cured his habit from last season of tipping his pitches. Now, all is well for Samardzija, who also stopped doing something else years ago -- wondering "what if" regarding football.

"Actually, I quit thinking about football when I flipped a coin," said Samardzija, chuckling, referring to a moment in his apartment near campus at the end of his Notre Dame career. "After I flipped it, it came up football, and my immediate gut reaction was ticked off. So, I said, 'Well, I must want to play baseball."

No kidding.

Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.