Cubs Reel in "The Shark"

A self-proclaimed Chicago White Sox fan growing up as a kid in northwest Indiana, Notre Dame's two-sport star Jeff Samardzija is heading to the major league baseball team from the opposite side of town.

"I've been playing this game for a long time," Samardzija said. "I've put a lot of hard work into it. It's nice for it to payoff."

The junior right hander was selected by the Chicago Cubs with the 149th overall pick in the fifth round of Tuesday's 2006 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. Samardzija's plan now is to play minor league baseball for the summer in the Cubs minor league system and then report back to campus in late July to prepare for the upcoming football season.

This year with the Irish baseball team, he went 8-2 with a 4.33 ERA. Samardzija, who possesses a mid-90 MPH fastball, allowed just three home runs in 97.2 innings pitched and went five-plus innings in all but one of his 15 starts.

"The Shark" had some good publicity going into the draft. Baseball America had him rated as the 20th best prospect in the draft and wrote, "Scouts covet his power arm and athletic body but scouts must deal with his commitment to play both football and baseball at a high level." The two-sport tango was the tricky part for Samardzija and teams interested in him. He dropped to the fifth round because of his adamant, 100 percent stance that he'd be in uniform next fall for the Notre Dame football team. Being picked in the fifth round was not a problem for Samardzija.

"Fifth round, first round, second round…what are you going to do?" Samardzija pondered. "Would things be different if I didn't play football? I think so. I think things would have taken action earlier. But again, it doesn't matter to me. I got picked up by a team I wanted to and I'm excited.

"I couldn't have asked for a more cooperative team for when it comes to my situation. There was no team in a reasonable doubt that was anywhere close to what the Cubs were. Hands down. It wasn't even close."

A person that might have been more excited than Samardzija was Irish baseball head coach Paul Mainieri. This is the second Notre Dame pitcher to be selected by the Cubs in the past three years. Grant Johnson was picked in the second round of the 2004 draft by Chicago and is currently in the Cubs minor league system.

There's a connection between Mainieri and the North Siders: general manager Jim Hendry is one of Mainieri's best buddies. Their friendship goes back many years and Hendry is even the godfather to one of Mainieri's kids. The Notre Dame skipper did not hesitate to fawn over Samardzija's ability, saying he's as good or better than current MLB pitchers and Notre Dame alums Brad Lidge of the Houston Astros and Aaron Heilman of the New York Mets.

"One of the truly great players in Notre Dame baseball history got selected today by the Chicago Cubs," a smiling Mainieri said. "Let me tell you guys something: you can throw his numbers out the window. I don't care what his ERA was or how many strikeouts he had. This guy is going to be a great major league pitcher if that's the route he chooses.

"He has all the ability to be a major league pitcher. He has the body, the arm strength and everytime he pitched, he just got better and better. The work (pitching coach) Terry Rooney did with him took Jeff to another level as a pitcher."

A busy schedule now awaits Samardzija. The tentative plan is to play minor league baseball this summer, report back to Notre Dame at the end of July, play football, go to the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis and then take it from there. It's anyone's guess as to what he'll eventually decide. NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. thinks Samardzija is a top-10 pick next April. For now, the two-sport stud wants to see where this hectic athletic lifestyle takes him and hopes to make a decision, whether it be one sport or two, sometime next year.

"If you go into a situation like this with your mind made up that it's not going to happen, then it's probably not going to happen," Samardzija said. "But if I go into the situation with an open mind and willing to put it out there for both organizations, then I think anything is possible. It's a busy time. But that's for me to worry about. I'm going to be flying around and doing different things."


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