Samardzija plays before smaller crowds in minors

Updated: July 21, 2006, 5:03 PM ET
Associated Press

EVERETT, Wash. -- This visit was very different from Jeff Samardzija's previous trip to the Puget Sound area, when he wore a Notre Dame uniform and raced past defensive backs at Husky Stadium.

Jeff Samardzija
Geno Aguilar/Boise Hawks Baseball ClubJeff Samardzija plans to done a more well-known jersey in the fall.

This time, Samardzija wore the red, blue and gray of the Boise Hawks, pitching before 1,472 fans in a stadium owned by the local school district, where a sign on the hand-operated scoreboard in right-center field read "Hit the sign -- win a suit."

This certainly wasn't the Fighting Irish wide receiver who caught eight passes for 164 yards and a 52-yard touchdown against Washington last September.

This was a right-handed starter, with a strong fastball, making his final start for the Chicago Cubs' Single-A short-season affiliate in the Northwest League.

Samardzija pitched his best game with the Hawks and picked up his first win by throwing five shutout innings, giving up three hits and striking out four Monday night in a 4-0 Boise win over the Everett AquaSox.

Samardzija next headed to Peoria, Ill., the Cubs' full-season Single-A team in the Midwest League, where he'll pitch a few more times before leaving baseball behind and returning to Notre Dame for his senior season playing football with the Fighting Irish.

"It's hard for everyone to understand what I'm doing because they're not in my shoes," Samardzija said. "They don't understand the love I have for both games. How I love going out and playing baseball, which is such a different sport than football, and how I love playing football, which is so different than baseball.

"Being able to be successful in both is tough to give up."

He wrapped up his monthlong stint in Boise 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA in five appearances. His impending return to South Bend, Ind., in early August only fuels the debate of whether Samardzija's future is on a pitching mound or lined up across from a cornerback. Or in his mind, both.

"If he really pursued this thing without the football interruption, there's no doubt in my mind that if he stayed healthy, he'd have the ability to pitch in the big leagues," Boise manager Steve McFarland said. "He's conveyed it to us that he's going to give it a shot. He loves baseball, I think he understands baseball, and he likes to compete, he likes to pitch."

That doesn't mean Samardzija isn't torn, and for good reason.

Last year, he set a Notre Dame record with 15 touchdown receptions and became quarterback Brady Quinn's favorite target in helping the Fighting Irish to a top-10 ranking and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl. He caught 71 passes for 1,190 yards -- a school record -- and was a second-team All-American.

At 6-foot-5 and with great hands, Samardzija is considered a solid NFL prospect by his coach, Charlie Weis. A few publications already have listed him among the top receivers for the upcoming season.

Despite those football credentials, Samardzija signed with the Cubs after he was drafted in the fifth round of June's amateur draft. He was 8-2 with a 4.32 ERA for the Irish baseball team this past spring in helping Notre Dame reach the NCAA tournament.

"It had nothing to do with money or dollar signs or anything," Samardzija insists. "It maybe had a little bit to do with the team that drafted me ... but after that, it was just about me wanting to get out and compete and play the game that I love."

"I guess you could stereotype as you thought he was going to be a little bigheaded just considering what he's done and where he's been and the kind of publicity he's gotten," said Rocky Roquet, his roommate on the road with the Hawks. "But he hasn't once offered up anything about how he's done this or how he's done that."

In his final start with Boise, Samardzija hit 92 mph or 94 mph, depending on the radar gun, while a small group of Notre Dame faithful watched in the bleachers. One fan wore Samardzija's No. 83 Notre Dame jersey and a Chicago Cubs hat.

He displayed two strong pitches -- a fastball consistently in the low 90s and a slider -- but scouts noted his fastball has little movement despite good location. Samardzija was pleased with the development of his changeup while with the Hawks.

Samardzija's quest to play both sports is nothing new to his manager. McFarland coached the likes of Quincy Carter, Patrick Pass and Josh Booty in his various minor-league stops, all of whom ended up going with football.

Only having to worry about pitching should make it easier for Samardzija in his attempt to play both sports, McFarland believes. All of his previous two-sport athletes were position players who struggled with being consistent at the plate.

"It's a unique situation, but I think he's got a better chance as a pitcher as long as he stays healthy," McFarland said. "He's got some nice options ahead of him, there's no doubt about that."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press