Heading into his final year as a wide receiver at the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 2006, very few people could have imagined that less than eight years later, Jeff Samardzija would be taking the mound as the Chicago Cubs 2013 opening day starter. Being one of the many who had followed the 6’5 Indiana native’s football career at Notre Dame, I too thought that Brady Quinn’s favorite target would at the very least, bounce around the NFL for a few years. The fact that he not only was pitching for the Irish’ baseball team, but was a baseball player first and foremost, never seemed to factor into the equation.
It was during the fall of 2006 that ”Shark”, as he became known on campus, was entering his final season in South Bend. After his first two years as a reserve wideout for the Irish during which he caught just 24 total passes, Samardzija had a breakout year in 2005, with 77 receptions, 15 touchdowns for just over 1200 yards. Being named to numerous collegiate All-American teams following his success in ’05, Samardzija entered his last year as a full-fledged, two sport star.
While a member of Notre Dame’s baseball program from 2004-06, ”Shark” had finished second in the Big East in both ERA [2.95], and opponents batting average [.209]. Samardzija then went on to have another productive year on the gridiron for the Irish and caught a touchdown in each of the team’s first eight games. For the majority of NCAA student-athletes, the prospect of a pro football career would be more than enough to focus on. Samardzija however, had other plans after being selected in the fifth-round [#149 overall], of the 2006 Major League Draft by the Chicago Cubs.
Many Major League franchises were weary of possibly wasting a valuable draft pick on Samardzija, fearing that he would leave baseball in order to have a career in the NFL. Fortunately for the Cubs, baseball was his first love and playing professional baseball was what Samardzija felt would make him truly happy.
Finishing his football career at Notre Dame as the program’s all-time leader in receiving yards with 2,593, Samardzija announced in January of 2007 that he would skip the coming NFL Draft in order to pursue his dreams of playing professional baseball.
After choosing to pursue professional baseball, Samardzija joined the minor leagues and prepared himself to put in the work and dedication that it took to reach the majors.Initially, Samardzija struggled which in turn, made many who were familiar with ”Shark” doubt that he made the right career choice. Armed with a 95 mph fastball, Samardzija soon found himself in Iowa, playing for the Cubs triple-a affiliate. On July 25, 2008, Samardzija made his Major League debut in relief and as a possible sign of things to come, struck out the first batter he faced. The dream of playing in the big leagues as an everyday player was finally becoming a reality.
During the 2008 season, Samardzija was with the Cubs for just 26 games but had managed a very respectable 2.28 earned run average. Starting just five games during the 2009 and 2010 seasons combined, the skinny kid from Valaparaiso had his best year in 2011. That season was, from a statistical standpoint, his most productive as Samardzija went [8-4], pitching out of the bullpen.
The turning point in the young hurler’s career came midway through the 2012 season. Starting consistently for the first time in his career, Samardzija took the hill 11 times, posting an impressive 2.58 earned run average along the way before being ”shut down” for the remainder of the season in early September.
Coming into this season’s spring training with hopes of pitching in the front of the rotation, the Cubs did him one better and named him the team’s opening day starter. Not wanting to let this opportunity pass him by, Samardzija struck out nine and allowed no earned runs while giving up just two hits. In his second start of 2013, Samardzija had a career high 13 strikeouts before being pulled after just 5 2/3 innings in a loss to the Braves.
It isn’t likely that this is the Cubs year to erase the curse of the billy-goat once and for all. I’m also guessing that this isn’t the year that the Wrigley faithful invite the infamous Steve Bartman back to their castle. For Cub’s fans who in reality haven’t had too much to cheer about for some time now, getting a front row seat to watch not only one of the games best athletes, but one of the best young arms in baseball, will just have to do for now.