Good, better, best

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To be a two-sport star on the professional level, an athlete has to be in the upper echelon of the game’s elite in two sports. Imagine the odds of that.
Superior athletes such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were able to pull it off for a short period of time. Injuries curtailed Jackson’s quest while Hall of Fame coverage skills made Sanders’ decision a bit easier. Most of the time, however, an athlete excels in one sport over the other, thus making the decision a relatively easy one.
And so begins the odyssey of Notre Dame’s Jeff Samardzija, whose plan to pursue a career in professional baseball and football began in earnest a few weeks ago when he debuted for the Boise Hawks, a Single A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.
Here’s the plan in a nutshell: play for the Hawks through July, go to Notre Dame to begin preparation for the opening of camp on Aug. 6. Hook up with Brady Quinn for the next few months and receive All-American honors for the second straight year while hopefully pursuing a national championship. Prepare for and participate in the February NFL combine. Await the NFL draft. Go play some more baseball next spring. Embark upon a two-sport career.
The logistics become a bit entangled after the NFL drafts Samardzija next April. That’s when the Cubs’ organization and the NFL team that drafted him begin the tug of war. Certainly both organizations will try to work out an amicable compromise. But let’s face it, both will have invested a whole bunch of money in Samardzija and will start to become a bit territorial when it comes to his time.
But let’s put that on the backburner for now and simply look at the two sports and how Samardzija fits in. (The financial benefits of both sports also comes into play.) Is he better at one than the other? Is his upside/room for improvement greater in one sport over the other?
It would seem logical Samardzija’s room for improvement in baseball would be greater than football, simply because he has spent more time the last three years honing his football skills than his baseball game. One of the amazing things to me about Samardzija was that he changed two of his pitches between his sophomore and junior seasons. He scrapped his splitter and curveball and went with a slider and a changeup to go with a fastball that topped out at, according to one radar gun in the Big East Tournament, 99 mph. (Samardzija threw consistently in the low 90s at Notre Dame.)
Now there aren’t many top pitching prospects in the country who change from a splitter and a curveball to a slider and a changeup in between their sophomore and junior seasons. Yet Samardzija had the talent and, more than anything, the guts to make the move. The slider fits his arm slot better than a curveball does. That’s a logical move. So also is the development of a changeup, which can be an extremely effective pitch. Location and changing speeds might be the two most critical factors for a pitcher in professional baseball.
How well Samardzija develops those two pitches ultimately should decide how bright his future in baseball really is. Samardzija has not put up overpowering numbers on the mound for the Irish, which makes location and his pitches other than a fastball absolutely critical.
With the exception of his freshman year, when he was used mainly in relief, he allowed more hits than innings pitched at Notre Dame. Opponents hit .272 against him during his sophomore and junior seasons, which is a bit high. He’s was not a big strikeout guy for the Irish, fanning 42 in 64 innings as a freshman, 56 in 78 2/3 innings as a sophomore, and 61 in 97 2/3 innings as a junior. His earned run average went up after his freshman year from 2.95 to 3.89 as a sophomore to 4.33 as a junior. Those numbers indicate that he does not have overpowering stuff.
Now numbers are just numbers, especially when a guy wins 16 of his final 19 decisions in college. Samardzija is a winner, and he’ll find ways to win. He’s smart and intuitive, which will help his development as a pitcher.
In addition, now that Samardzija is a member of a professional baseball organization, his focus—at least through July—will be strictly on his pitching progress. Samardzija is a very intelligent young man who is extremely coachable. If anyone is going to make progress in a short period of time, it’s Samardzija.
But if I had to predict which sport Samardzija would eventually emerge in and be forced to choose, I believe football is his better sport and will prove to be his career path.
Samardzija is among the elite football pass catches in college football right now. He is a near-certain first-round draft choice who would step right into an NFL team’s receiver rotation. By the fall of 2007, he would be among the top four receivers on an NFL team’s roster.
Samardzija has the size, the speed and the athleticism to be among the elite receivers in the game. Those assets have much less of a bearing on his baseball prowess.
If he goes the football route, it means no six-hour bus rides to a baseball game that 284 people. No more trial and error with pitches that he’s been throwing for less than a year. No more waiting several games between appearances.
What makes Samardzija’s path in baseball particularly unique is that he’s a pitcher. Other athletes who have tried to do both generally were position players. Being a pitcher is to his advantage in this case.
Samardzija likes the nuances that go with the game of baseball. He enjoyed the camaraderie he experienced with the Notre Dame baseball team. He’s also pragmatic. He knows the wear and tear on the body in baseball is not nearly as great as it is in football.
But Samardzija is also pragmatic enough to know his strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, when he adds it all up, I believe he’s going to discover that football is his true meal ticket.
For the time being, there’s some money to be made in baseball as well, and knowing Samardzija, he’s going to make a good run at it. He’s been blessed with an extreme amount of competitiveness. Hey, he’s young, energetic and talented. Might as well go for it while the opportunity exists.
But when it comes to choosing one over the other, football will probably win out. He’s simply that good in football.
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