Perhaps the most intriguing pick of the entire MLB Draft came in the 5th round, 149th overall, when the Cubs selected Notre Dame pitcher Jeff Samardzija. He has a good arm and also great size at 6'5", but recorded only a 4.33 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 97 and 2/3 innings this season. Samardzija's numbers are not bad, but they certainly are not great either. However, there is reason to believe that Jeff has lots of room to grow because he is a great athlete and has never fully focused on baseball.
But Samardzija's athletic prowess is a double-edged sword. He is a great athlete, so great he also plays football, and by play football I mean catch 77 passes for 1,249 yards and 15 touchdowns. In fact, if Jeff is able to even approach those numbers again this fall he is a lock to go in the first round of the NFL Draft. Samardzija stated before the baseball draft that he was going to play football this fall too, so I thought the Cubs were taking one of the stupidest gambles in the whole draft when they selected him. Then, word broke this weekend that the Cubs have signed Samardzija to a five year deal and that he will likely begin his pro baseball career in Boise, Idaho but still return to Notre Dame in the fall for football. Samardzija has said all along that he wants to play both sports as long as he can and at this point it looks as if he will atleast have the opportunity to become the latest athlete to play in both the MLB and NFL.
Playing one sport at an elite level is hard enough, but playing two simultaneously at a high level is exponentially harder. The most recent man to play both at the same time was Deion Sanders and before him Bo Jackson also pulled the trick, but that's it. Also, Brian Jordan was a successful football player for the Falcons but retired to focus on baseball. Jordan has put together a very good baseball career and is still playing for the Braves today.
A couple other college athletes faced potential MLB and NFL careers in the past few years but took different paths than Samardzija. Josh Fields was a star third baseman and the starting quarterback at Oklahoma State and was considered a pro prospect in both baseball and football. Then, the Chicago White Sox drafted him in the first round of the baseball draft and he dropped football to completely focus on baseball. It appears Fields made a good decision because he is currently hitting well in AAA, so well the White Sox want to bring him up to the majors, but his path is currently blocked by Joe Crede. The most analagous situation to Samardzija's in recent memory is that of Drew Henson's though. Henson played baseball and football at the University of Michigan and, like Fields, played third base in baseball and quarterback in football. However, Henson had a much harder time deciding between the two sports. When Henson first enrolled at Michigan Tom Brady was the starting quarterback and, though he is now an NFL star, he was not as beloved as you would anticipate by Michigan fans. In fact, once Henson arrived many felt he should be the starter ahead of Brady. When Brady graduated and was a mildly surprising late round draft choice of the Patriots (the rest is history), the path was finally cleared for Henson and the expectations were enormous. Henson was expected to be a major contender for the Heisman trophy and potentially be the first player picked in the NFL draft. However, the Yankees decided to draft Henson over that summer and eventually offered him too much money to refuse. He dropped football to focus on baseball and he reached the major leagues but flamed out quickly. Henson returned to football but is now a reserve quarterback for the Cowboys that is yet to show the form that made many believe he could win a Heisman.
Not many people have ever been in Jeff Samardzija's shoes. On one hand, he is a rather obscure professional baseball pitcher. On the other, he is among college football's brightest stars. Samardzija is clearly multiple years away from becoming a Chicago Cub, but he is even more clearly just a year away from becoming an NFL receiver. It is too early to say that Samardzija will be a quality professional football or baseball player, but what if he becomes an NFL star while still pitching in the minor leagues? He would have to attract special attention, maybe even generate sell-outs like Roger Clemens did on his recent comeback tour. Hundreds would show up to minor league parks with footballs, football jerseys, or maybe even helmets that they would beg him to sign. I still think the Cubs made a bad baseball decision by drafting Samardzija so early, but as a sports fan I am thrilled that he is going to get a chance to pitch. With his name and game(s), Jeff Samardzija could be one of the funnest athletes to follow in a long time.