The Jeff Samardzija story: From All-American ‘catcher’ to All-Star pitcher

As unshorn A’s right-hander Jeff Samardzija absorbs the spectacle of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game this week in Minneapolis, he’ll do so, in a way, as a man without a team.

Traded from the Chicago Cubs to Oakland earlier this month, Samardzija won’t be eligible to play for the National League, as the deal forced him to change leagues. He also won’t be pitching on behalf of his new home in the American League alongside his six A’s teammates already named to the squad.

Instead, Samardzija will wear a generic “National League” jersey and enjoy the game from the dugout or the bullpen. It’s a frustrating banishment for one of the league’s most competitive players in a game that could play a role in his team’s World Series chances but still a momentous honor for a one-time wide receiver who many thought would never play professional baseball at all.

Long before he was hurling fastballs to the tune of a 2.78 ERA over the course of 19 starts this season, Samardzija was catching passes at Notre Dame, where he was a Biletnikoff Award finalist and All-American for the Fighting Irish.

After two seasons as a reserve under Tyrone Willingham, wilting in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, Samardzija blossomed under then-new coach Charlie Weis, putting himself on every draft board in the NFL with his mix of size, speed and pass-catching ability.

“I don’t think it was necessarily out of nowhere because I think we all knew that Jeff was really, really good from practicing with him and playing with him all the time,” said former Notre Dame running back Darius Walker, who played alongside Samardzija for three seasons.

“But there was some sort of switch when Charlie got there. Maybe it was just Charlie seeing what we all saw with Jeff at practice, but it was a switch that really made a difference. Then he started getting targeted all the time with the stuff we were doing on offense, and then the 1,200-yard season really changed everything for him.”

What football stardom couldn’t possibly change, however, was Samardzija’s love of baseball, a passion that would ultimately lead him to spurn the NFL in order to live out his dreams.

A three-sport star at Valparaiso High School in Indiana, the 6-foot-5 Samardzija was willing to give up basketball when he arrived in South Bend but was set on at least continuing his baseball career under coach Paul Mainieri. As a freshman, Samardzija made an immediate impact, mostly out of the Irish ‘pen, going 5-3 with a 2.95 ERA. During his sophomore year, Samardzija went 8-1 with a 3.89 ERA in 15 appearances, including 10 starts, but his football schedule left him unable to truly commit to his other team despite his intense passion for the sport.

So after Samardzija’s junior football season, in which he reeled in 77 passes for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns, making him one of the most in-demand pass catchers in football, Mainieri approached Weis about allowing Samardzija to focus on baseball that spring instead of football. However, the immediate response from Weis, who had  led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl in his first season in South Bend, was not necessarily favorable.

“Charlie looked at me like I had three eyes and said, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ ” said Mainieri, now the coach at LSU. “And I said, ‘Because I think you owe it to this kid to give him the chance to be the very best baseball player that he can be, to find out what he can do in baseball.’

“Because if he’s running pass patterns and getting beat up in spring football practice and then we’re asking him to go out there and pitch on the weekends when he’s not able to do all of the proper side work and preparation, like a true pitcher would be doing, he’s never going to fulfill his true potential. So I thought we needed to let (Jeff) find out if he was good enough to compete at the highest level.”

I just thought the kid kept getting better and better and better and by the end of the year, he was a legitimate first-round draft choice for Major League Baseball. It’s just that nobody picked him there because nobody thought he’d give up football.

Paul Mainieri

Eventually, Weis relented, and that baseball season, Samardzija made a career-high 15 starts, going 8-2 with a 4.33 ERA. Though his numbers were actually down slightly that year from his sophomore campaign, Samardzija had begun to make the transition from thrower to pitcher, as coaches often put it, increasing the velocity on his fastball and adding a slider to his repertoire.

“Early in his career, particularly his freshman and sophomore year, he had a great arm, but he was still learning how to pitch,” said UCF baseball coach Terry Rooney, Samardzija’s pitching coach at Notre Dame. “He was an outfielder-pitcher out of high school and he was learning how to pitch his first two years of college, but he would pitch well and his statistics would be good because he just had the ability to rise to the occasion.”

Others seemed to be able to see past Samardzija’s ERA, as well, as Baseball America ranked Samardzija its No. 20 overall prospect going into the 2006 MLB draft. So the challenge, at that point, was no longer going to be convincing teams that Samardzija could play — clearly he had first-round talent — but rather, assuring them that he would forgo a lucrative career in the NFL to do so.

“He wanted to learn, he was a sponge for knowledge and Terry, I thought, did a really nice job with him as the pitching coach,” Mainieri said. “I just thought the kid kept getting better and better and better, and by the end of the year, he was a legitimate first-round draft choice for Major League Baseball. It’s just that nobody picked him there because nobody thought he’d give up football.”

The general sense was that there was no way Samardzija would rebuff the glitz and glam of the NFL to ride buses around the minors, but fortunately, Samardzija had an in with the Cubs. His coach, Mainieri, happened to be close friends with then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who, at Mainieri’s convincing, went on to select Samardzija in the fifth round, with the 149th overall pick, one pick behind current Orioles slugger Chris Davis.

“I told Jim that this kid was the greatest athlete I’d ever coached and more than that — I don’t know how you define the word ‘it’ but he has it,” Mainieri said.

“I had so much faith in this kid that I told my best friend that he’s worth taking the risk on, and so Jim did it. The other clubs probably thought Jim was crazy. Nobody wanted to draft Jeff because nobody believed that Jeff was willing to skip going to the NFL and the big money to go through the minor league system. But I knew this kid, and I knew that he was willing to do it.”

Samardzija, in a surprising and even foolish move to some who still doubted his intentions, would then hold true to his word and agreed to sign a deal with the Cubs, provided that the team would let him play his senior football season at Notre Dame. And Samardzija did just that, returning to South Bend to catch 78 passes for 1,017 yards and 12 touchdowns after playing minor league ball the previous summer in Boise, Idaho, and Peoria, Ill.

At that point, though, it was clear to those in the football program that Samardzija’s senior season was for the love of the sport, not the pursuit of a career playing it.

“We went through that season and we went to the Sugar Bowl, and we had kind of decided as a program that he wasn’t really going to broach that subject until we finished our season,” former Notre Dame receivers coach Rob Ianello said. “But my gut was that he was going to go play baseball, and I approached him in a kidding way at the Sugar Bowl saying, ‘This is going to be the last time we’re going to do this, so let’s make it our best one.’ ”

That commitment to baseball was no surprise to his football teammates, either, as even they encouraged him to follow his dreams of being a professional ballplayer.

“I was very honest with Jeff when I spoke to him and he asked me my thoughts on it,” Walker said. “I told Jeff, I said, ‘Listen, if you have a chance to go play baseball, there is not a doubt in my mind or a conflict in my mind that you shouldn’t do that.’

“… I told my friend that because I realized that baseball was something that had a longevity attached to it that football just didn’t have. So I felt like it would be a lot less abuse on his body and he’d be able to play a lot longer and he’d make a hell of a lot more money. So I told Jeff, ‘If you were me and I were you, I’d play baseball hands down, no questions asked, no issue, no discussion at all.’”

Granted, while baseball offers longevity football can’t, football could provide Samardzija, a likely first-round pick, with a larger, more immediate payday. But even those concerns were soon quelled by Hendry and the Cubs, who offered Samardzija — he of seven minor league starts to that point — a five-year, $10 million major league contract that included a $2.5 million signing bonus.

“When Jeff was drafted, I knew that he had everything it took to be a major league pitcher, without question,” Rooney said. “It was just a matter of time for him to get the innings and get the experience. That’s all Jeff needed because he had everything else. When you talk about the intangibles and you talk about the qualities that it takes to be a successful athlete, the qualities that it takes to be a successful pitcher, he had them all.”

Early in Samardzija’s career, the Cubs’ gamble on the righty was looking questionable, as Samardzija went 3-8 with 4.95 ERA and allowed nearly 12 hits per nine innings during his first 24 appearances with Daytona of the high-A Florida State League. But that was a matter of motivation, said Mainieri, not ability.

“I remember I happened to be in Florida recruiting and Jeff was schedule to pitch in Jupiter … and so I went over to watch him,” Mainieri said. “There were like 50 people in the stands, and I’m watching him throw and I called Jim Hendry up after the first inning and I was like, ‘Jim, what is this kid doing in A-ball? Seriously.’

“Jim was like, ‘Well, he hasn’t been pitching that well,’ and I told him, ‘Jim, there’s 50 people in the stands. This kid’s used to playing football in front of 80,000 at Notre Dame. He needs an adrenaline rush, and he needs to get pushed. He needs to have expectations of him.’”

A short time later, Samardzija, then 22, was promoted to the Double-A Tennessee Smokies. True to his coach’s word, Samardzija got better as the stakes got higher, and by the end of his second full professional season, Samardzija had reached the big leagues as a reliever, making his debut on July 25, 2008.

Over the nearly six years since, Samardzija has been a mainstay on big-league mounds, with only a couple demotions to Triple-A as he struggled to adjust to the majors early in his career. By 2011, Samardzija had worked out the issues that plagued him early on, and by 2012, he’d been successfully converted back to his natural position as a starter.

The last three seasons have seen Samardzija improve steadily, with his first All-Star selection coming as a result of a breakthrough season this year. And the hope for his new team in Oakland is that Samardzija’s reputation for excelling when the stakes are high will work to its advantage now that Samardzija has left the NL Central cellar for a team with true World Series aspirations.

“If there’s one thing I know about Jeff Samardzija it’s that the brighter the lights, the better he will do,” Mainieri said. “He wants it to matter, and he’s not afraid of pressure; he thrives on pressure. He wants to win so badly, it’s just in his DNA. He wants to go out there and compete and win, and the more pressure, the more he has to focus, the better he’s going to be.”

There will always be questions, of course, about what Samardzija might have become had he decided to pursue football over baseball. It’s only natural when talking about a player with Samardzija’s exceptional size and skills on the gridiron, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that Samardzija could have been a Pro Bowl talent on the football field, too.

“I think he would have been a top-level wide receiver in the NFL,” Ianello said. “He had the speed, he was deceptively fast, and he had length to him. He had terrific hands and body control and he always excelled at it. He would have been a front-line receiver in the National Football League, I have no questions about that.”

I think he would have been a top-level wide receiver in the NFL.

Rob Ianello

Added Walker: “One of the things that I knew about Jeff was that no matter what sport it was — football, basketball or baseball — he was going to dominate. He’s been blessed to have a lot of God-given ability, but he also works his tail off in whatever he’s doing, so I think if he were to play football, he probably would have been a first- or second-round draft pick, and he’d probably still be playing now.”

Even with all that considered, though, there’s still little question Samardzija made the right call by going with his gut. And though he won’t have a chance to play in his first All-Star appearance, the feeling among those who know him best seems to be that this year’s selection won’t be his last.

“I honestly believe that Jeff’s best days are ahead of him — that the next seven to 10 years, you will really see the greatness of Jeff Samardzija,” Mainieri said. “I think the sky’s the limit for this kid. He’s going to continue to get better, he’s going to continue to be consistent, he’s going to be an amazing player in Major League Baseball. I believe that wholeheartedly. Nothing this kid will ever do will ever surprise me.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.