June 6, 2006
Notre Dame two-sport standout Jeff Samardzija has been under the media glare throughout the past 10 months and that continued to be the case Tuesday afternoon, as he met with the media to discuss the Major League draft and his plans to pursue both baseball and football on the professional level. Samardzija – a northwest Indiana native from Valparaiso – was the fifth-round pick of the Chicago Cubs, a team that actually had only one pick earlier in the draft due to free-agent signings from the previous offseason.
Notre Dame 12th-year head baseball coach Paul Mainieri and pitching coach Terry Rooney also were on hand to offer their comments for the media. With upwards of 32 rounds still left in the 2006 MLB draft, Mainieri now has seen 34 of his Notre Dame players be selected in the past 12 drafts while 12 others have signed free-agent contracts. Samardzija is one of 18 Mainieri-era players to be selected in the first 10 rounds and becomes one of seven Notre Dame players during the past 12 years to be picked in the 1st-5th rounds.
Rooney essentially has been the primary influence on Samardzija’s development as a pitcher and previously helped another former Notre Dame standout – Grant Johnson – return from 2003 shoulder surgery en route to being selected by the Cubs with their 2nd-round selection in the 2004 draft.
Paul Mainieri – shown during the BIG EAST Tournament – now has seen 46 of his Notre Dame players be selected in the Major League draft, including 16 who have been picked in the first 10 rounds and seven 1st-5th-round selections (photo by Pete LaFleur).
Samardzija – who was rated by Baseball America as the No. 20 overall prospect for the 2006 draft but fell back due to his dual football commitmet – could graduate from Notre Dame following the 2006 fall semester and just topped the 3.0 GPA mark during both semesters of his junior year, including a 2006 spring term in which 24 of the 32 players on the Irish baseball team registered a GPA of 3.0 or higher (helping the Notre Dame baseball program compile a 3.28 team GPA for the ’06 spring semester).
Comments from Samardzija, Mainieri and Rooney follow below, with most of the quotes taking place at the post-draft press conference (some followed later, in other media interview sessions):
NOTRE DAME HEAD COACH Paul Mainieri “One of the truly great players in Notre Dame history got selected today by the Chicago Cubs. 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 of the ability that it takes to be a Major League pitcher. He’s got the body, he’s got the arm strength. Every time he pitched, he got better and better and I think the work that [ND pitching coach] Terry Rooney did with him took him to another level as a pitcher. I’ve had some good pitchers around here – Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman – but Jeff is as good as or better than those guys. He’s going to pitch in the big leagues for a long time and at a very high level.
Jeff Samardzija’s old-school approach to the game made a big impression on Irish head coach Paul Mainieri.
“Why I have such confidence that Jeff is going to do this is because of all the intangibles that he brings. I told him, `Not only are you the greatest athlete that I’ve had the privilege of coaching, you’re also the greatest competitor that I’ve ever coached.’ He just loves to play and compete and he’s not going to be afraid of anything.
“If he ever dedicated himself to baseball, I think this guy would go to the big leagues and be a great pitcher for the Cubs and hopefully for many years.
“[Cubs GM] Jim Hendry not only is my best friend but he’s also the general manager of a very storied franchise. Jim did not select Jeff Samardzija because he’s my best friend. Jim can tell you that everybody in the Cubs organization that saw him pitch this year absolutely loved him. And there’s no question who they wanted and I think they were really nervous that he wasn’t going to get to them in the fifth round.
“I feel a little nervous because that’s two guys from our program [also 2004 draftee Grant Johnson] that can help make the Cubs a very formidable team in the Major Leagues for years to come.
Cubs GM Jim Hendry has seen plenty of Notre Dame baseball games in recent years.
“I had heard Jeff Samardzija tell every organization that there was no dollar amount they could give him that would buy him out of coming back to play football at Notre Dame. He was 100-percent dedicated and determined to come back and felt that he owed that to his coaches and his football teammates. That’s a pretty awesome thing for a kid to say when someone is willing to give you literally millions of dollars.
“His plan is that hopefully this will get negotiated quickly and allow him to play minor-league baseball until the end of July. Be back here for football camp and hopefully he’ll lead us to a national championship. And then probably go the NFL combine in February and then report to spring training in March. And then just see what happens after that – what the NFL draft tells him and what his experience is like in professional baseball. I just don’t think he has to make that decision right now, to pick one sport over the other.
“I don’t think anything is impossible for this guy. He has defied the odds already. But at some point, probably, he is going to have to choose but I don’t know when that point is.
“He was an all-state outfielder when he was at Valparaiso [High School]. His freshman year, we were struggling offensively and we were down in San Antonio with a practice day. I wanted to send a message to our outfielders that they needed to kick it into gear. So I called Samardzija over and said. `Grab a bat, jump in here and take some swings.’ I think he took about 15 swings and hit about five balls out of the ballpark in that double-A stadium.
“I have often said this that if Jeff was totally dedicated to baseball, he probably would have been our starting centerfielder and probably would have been a first-round draft choice as a centerfielder. He’s that kind of athlete.
“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of kid that you get to coach. When he stands out there on that mound, he is absolutely fearless. He doesn’t care who he is facing. He absolutely believes he is going to beat the other guy.
“The other thing about him is that he’s the least impressed guy in the world about himself. During the football season, I would give him a stack of newspaper articles about himself. I don’t think he ever looked at them, he just gave them to his dad. I don’t think he reads about himself. I don’t think that stuff matters to him. The kid just loves to play sports and loves to compete, like a kid on a vacant lot. Anything is possible with him, really.
“[Back in 2003] I was reading about all the different football recruits and half of this one article was about Jeff talking about how much he was looking forward to playing baseball at Notre Dame … I had never talked to him. And I said, who is this guy? So I walked to Ty Willingham’s office and his exact words were, `I would never bet against this kid.’ So I asked him if he minded if Jeff played baseball and he said he was encouraging him to play.
“So we called him up, introduced ourselves and he told us when he was pitching, against Penn High School. I sent my pitching coach at the time, Brian O’Connor, to go see him pitch and Brian came back and said he was worth taking a look at – and the rest is history.”
Paul Mainieri has seen many of his players develop into top major-league prospects during the past 12 years (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“He’s one of the most unique athletes I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching. He’s a tremendous athlete, he’s so humble and is a wonderful teammate. He’s a very coachable player and to watch him develop before my eyes has been one of the real joys of my coaching profession. He started pitching in his freshman year and was throwing 86-89 miles-per-hour. This spring he topped out at 99 and pretty much sat at 93-94. He developed a really good slider and changeup just in the last year. If he ever dedicates himself to baseball, I think you’d see him at the front of a staff in the big leagues.
“All it takes is to be around Jeff for a few minutes before you realize he’s a special athlete.
“If he was totally dedicated to baseball, you are talking about one of the top talents in the country. Now if you add to that with all of the requirements that the NFL has, obviously that takes a very special athlete. It also would take a lot of cooperation between the two organizations to make it all happen.
NOTRE DAME PITCHING COACH Terry Rooney
“His pitches have made a dramatic improvement in the past year. Last year, he threw a straight 12-6 curveball and a split-finger fastball. This year, he went to a slider instead of a breaking ball and went to a straight changeup.
Terry Rooney oversaw Grant Johnson’s return from shoulder surgery to becoming a 2nd-round draft pick before helping shape Jeff Samardzija into one of college baseball’s top prospects (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“So, this year he went to pretty much two totally different off-speed pitches from what he had the first two years. And I think those two pitches are part of the reason that has contributed to his success.
“I think that his slider is a much better pitch because it’s a natural arm-slot and he doesn’t have to force it. And his changeup also is a very good pitch, he just didn’t have to throw it every pitch. But with his athleticism, the more he throws it the better it’s going to be.”
NOTRE DAME JUNIOR PITCHER JEFF SAMARDZIHA
“I’ve always been a fan of any team in the area, the Sox, Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks. It’s a dream come true to be able to have this opportunity.
“I got a call from [Cubs GM] Jim Hendry and he was excited. We had talked the day before. It was exciting just to get everything going in the right direction. A lot of crazy things can happen on draft day but they were going to sit and wait and it came down to them in the fifth round.
`My original plans are to go out and play ball in the summer and then come back in time to get ready for summer football camp. I plan on being back probably by the 30th of July, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s about a week before football starts and – I’ll be conditioning all summer – but to finetune and be ready for the season. Beyond that, there might be a class I want to take.
“I think (being a Major Leaguer) is always on a player’s radar but that’s about as far as it goes. You’ve been re-enacting different games since you’re a little kid so it’s always in your head. But until the day you realize that it really could happen, you don’t think about it too much. It’s a long way coming, I’ve been playing this game for a long time and a lot of hard work goes into it.
Only four pitchers in Notre Dame history – including current big-leaguers Brad Lidge and Aaron Heilman – have been drafted higher than Jeff Samardzija (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“I’m very in range [of earning a degree]. Depending on what I take care of this summer, I could graduate in December, in three-and-a-half years, which would make a lot of people happy, including my father. That’s the one last thing he can be on my back for and then I can actually consider being out of the house.
“When I first came here, I just had a strong arm and naturally things just sort of worked for me in high school. I didn’t practice too much, just kind of went out and played. But when you come to this level, that doesn’t cut it – whether it’s getting in the weight room and putting some pounds on that 6-5 frame that weren’t there before or getting my arm in shape. And on top of that, working with a [pitching] coach that has an idea, because coming up through high school it was either my dad or high school coach, who was more of a hitting coach. So it really helps when you can get someone on your side that’s in your corner, understanding your schedule and where you come from and working with you basically form scratch.
“Coach Rooney did a lot for me, whether it’s mechanics or the mental approach to the game. There’s so many things that go onto that list. I was just thankful to be put in a situation where there’s people around you that will help you. I was very excited with the situation I was placed into.
Jeff Samardzija joined the Notre Dame baseball program in the spring of 2004 as a raw – and cropcut – talent who had been an all-state centerfielder at Valparaiso High School (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“[Getting to bat again has] been a long time coming but it’s like riding a bike. If I can pick that lumber up again, it will be amazing. Try to get out of that 9-hole spot, that would be exciting.
“With football going into this, it was kind of a double-edged sword. Obviously, there is a negative that might scare teams. But there’s also a lot of positives and there’s not a lot of kids doing what I was doing. There’s other things you learn from football on the field and certain personality traits that go along with football that you can apply to baseball which I think are a positive.
“We will take care of what we have to take care of but money is not the issue. The issue is just me getting into a system, meeting the coaches and proving myself as a baseball player this summer. If I was in it for the signing bonus or the contract, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now talking about two sports. It’s not even a thought in my mind about the dollar signs. If it was, I’d be doing it for the wrong reason. I love playing baseball and am just trying to become the best baseball player I can. Usually, if you do things the right way, they will take care of themselves.
“I usually don’t try to rank days. I think I have a good idea about what I’m good at and what I’m pretty terrible at and I try to surround myself with the things I’m good at. This is a great day that I’ll remember forever. It’s exciting, but what makes it more exciting is that I had those people to share it with. When you know that those people around you are just as excited because good things are happening, that makes is just as special. Hopefully in the next few days I’ll get to celebrate with everybody.
“All my buddies are Cubs fans. So they probably are just as excited as I am.
“[My dad] is more excited than anyone. It’s a big relief for him. It’s tough because this is the one time when he feels it is out of his hands and out of his control. He’s just hoping the best for me and is more than happy with the way things turned out.
“It’s going to be as realistic as I make it. If you go into a situation like this and come into it with my mind that it’s not going to happen, then it’s not going to happen. But I think if I go into the situation with an open mind, willing to put everything I have out there for both organizations – and, again, it’s going to take cooperation on their sides, too – then anything is possible. It’s going to be a busy time but that’s for me to worry about. I’m the one that’s going to be flying around doing different things.
“That was one of the positive things that turned out from this draft, that the Cubs took me. I couldn’t have asked for a more cooperative team when it comes to my situation. There was no team that comes close to what the Cubs were, with being on the same page as me doing what I want to do when it comes to two sports. Hands down, it wasn’t even close. That’s the reason, beyond the rounds, beyond anything else – that level of commitment that they have towards me.
“I had a good idea that they wanted to pick me but it’s a crazy day and you never know what is going to happen.
Despite playing just three seasons with the Irish, Jeff Samardzija ranks 13th in Notre Dame history with 21 career wins (photo by Pete LaFleur).
“I felt I did everything I could do up to this point to put myself in the situation to make good things happen on draft day. Would things be different if I didn’t play football? Yes, I think things would have taken action a little earlier but it didn’t matter to me. The fact that I got picked up by a team that I’m very excited about and wanted to get picked up by is the most important part of it. Whether I went in the fifth round or the 30th round, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I still would have been playing ball this summer and just trying to keep going.
“My last break since now was July three years ago. It’s not going to make a difference to me, it’s what I do. That I will graduate from school and have that out of my way is a big release from the weekly schedule. [After graduating], instead of it being football, baseball and school it’s going to be football and baseball but a little bit more of both.
“I wish there was more to the story aside from the fact that we sat down and realized that the splitter and curve were terrible pitches to be throwing for me. We were just kind of living off my fastball. They worked for what I needed to get done my first two years but really, to take my pitching where I wanted it to go, it was a necessary change.
“[The shift] for the curve to slider was my arm-slot. I was a slider slot throwing a curveball. With the splitter, it was kind of tough to go down to three-quarters and throw the splitter and still keep it down and not letting it run up into righties. I had more control with the changeup almost immediately and throw it a lot like my two-seam fastball. Maybe it was a little late to make the change but I felt – with the extra time we had, with not doing as much with spring football this year – that we were able to make a switch and make it work pretty quickly.
“I’m 100-percent confident in [the changeup]. The more we threw it during the season, the more confidence you get. That’s the biggest part as a pitcher is just throwing it is situations where it means something, You can throw it in the bullpen as much as you want but until you get a guy in there, full-count with a runner on first, threatening to walk the guy for first and second with no-outs. That’s a different situation than when you’re throwing a pitch in the bullpen.
“Coach had faith in me to throw it in tough situations and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t but I’d like to think it worked more times than not. I have total confidence in all three of my pitches.
“I’ve been in touch with [ND football] coach [Charlie] Weis the last couple of days. He is someone that it’s great to talk to, someone that’s had so much experience in a situation like this. I’ve been using all my sources trying to pull everything together and make the best decision. He was real excited for me.
Jeff Samardzija helped Notre Dame win the BIG EAST Tournament in 2004, ’05 and again in ’06 (photo to Pete LaFleur).
“As a pitcher, the times I look to are the big moments, the playoff games and the conference tournament. I take a lot of pride in knowing that some of my best outings came in regionals and the BIG EAST Tournament. Those are times when you need your best starts and that’s the way I like to describe myself as a pitcher, pitching the best in the big games.”
“I’m a big Chicago fan, no matter what. Where I grew up, the Sox were closer and we attended a few games and it was a little tougher to get up to the northside. It’s a team that I’ve watched on WGN growing up.
“Anyone who thinks I’m not serious about baseball, just come out and watch me play. Anyone that has come and see me practice and pitch in a game and see how I approach the game would completely prove all that wrong. With the situation I have in football, if I didn’t love baseball, I would have stopped playing a long time ago. It’s not really a question of whether I’m going to play. I love baseball and am going to be playing as long as a I can.
“My favorite [sport] is whatever season it is.”
“Everything I have said is from the heart and what I truly believe. I think I can do it and if things on the outside take care of themselves and if I’m given the opportunities, then I think I’ll be able to play both.
“From day-one, there has not been a bigger supporter with what I do in baseball than coach Weis. And vice-versa, in what I do in football with coach Mainieri. That’s one aspect, having people around you that coach you who are supporting you and they both definitely have done that.
“My favorite Cub is Carlos Zambrano. Just watching him pitch, I can kind of relate to how he pitches. I know he’s got that `dirty’ two-seam fastball He doesn’t miss starts and has been a staple in the rotation, a guy the organization can go to when they need something big.
“If teams are worried about my commitment, then I probably don’t want them drafting me in the first place. A team that shows the same commitment to me, I’m going to show back to them and the Cubs showed exactly that. It goes a long way when a team shows a lot of respect for you and I’m very excited. I’m going to try to give a lot to the organization and try to bury any doubts that anyone has about me playing baseball.
“The first game I was able to attend was when I was in high school and it was a Cubs-White Sox inter-league game, which was incredible. Carlos Lee – El Caballo – hit a home run out to Waveland Avenue. Attending Wrigley Field is a great feeling and it definitely adds to what happened today.
“Shark Night” at Eck Stadium was part of the season-long hoopla that surrounded Samardzija’s pitching outings, both at home and on the road (photo by Mike Bennett).
“After being involved in both sports and playing both [professionally], then I’ll have a better idea whether I can do both – and if I can’t, then which way I’ll want to go. It’s hard to say right now. Maybe I’ll get into it and say that I can do both and can do it for a good amount of time. The deeper you get into it, the more you know.
“It will be incredible because there will be no school and no football, it will be just baseball day-in and day-out, which will be amazing. Just to see the strides I made [this spring] just from missing a few football practices, I’m excited to see where it goes and it will give me a good idea of what I can do with my career.
“I understood going into this whole thing what I was doing by still playing football, and I was willing to take the consequences. It meant a whole lot more just to find a team that was the right fit and that was along with me in what I was doing. That was more important than what round I was in and personally I am happy with how it worked out.
“When you talk baseball, you talk the Cubs so it’s amazing to be associated with them. And the fact that they are so close to home is even more amazing.”