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02-20-2007, 10:53 AM
Following His Heart, Samardzija Cuts Off Route to N.F.L. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/19/sports/baseball/19jeff.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin)

MESA, Ariz., Feb. 16 — Jeff Samardzija folded his 6-foot-5 frame into the stylist’s chair Thursday afternoon and stared at his reflection in the mirror. A month after making a life-changing decision, Samardzija was ready to face the consequences.

The Supercuts stylist raked her fingers through Samardzija’s thick, wavy, shoulder-length hair and asked him what he wanted done.

“Take five inches off,” he said, a request that surprised the woman, who asked why he wanted to lose his Fabio-like locks.

“I just said my job calls for a haircut,” Samardzija, a right-handed pitcher, recounted Friday as he sat in front of his locker at Fitch Park, the Chicago Cubs’ spring training home.

The $12 haircut served as a sort of rite of passage, with Samardzija cutting his ties to football after a distinguished college career as a wide receiver.

During his junior and senior years at Notre Dame, Samardzija gained national attention for his 155 catches — 27 for touchdowns — and the curls cascading from his helmet.

When Samardzija chose baseball over a career in the N.F.L., which he was widely expected to enter in April with the attendant fanfare of a first- or second-round draft pick, he surprised many people, including members of his family.

“I’ve definitely been defending my decision more so than elaborating on my decision,” Samardzija said, adding: “You can’t blame anyone for wanting me to play football. Heck, I wanted to, too, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

Ask Samardzija (pronounced suh-MARR-zhuh) what it is about baseball that captured his heart, and he nibbles the corners with his answer, as if there is no straight-down-the-middle explanation for love.

“I don’t know, it was just kind of an overall feeling,” Samardzija said. “There’s nothing that’s ever going to match a Saturday or Sunday in football. But I didn’t make the decision based on hype or attention or anything like that. I loved football. But I just felt as a whole, baseball was just a better fit for me.”

Samardzija, 22, had to strain to hear his inner voice last year over all the public chatter advising him to forgo his final year of eligibility at Notre Dame for the N.F.L. after he led the Irish as a junior with 77 catches and 15 touchdowns.

“Last year, after the football season I had, if you look back on it, I probably should have left,” Samardzija said. He punctuated the sentence with a laugh, lest people read any regrets into those words.

“Especially in the N.F.L., you’re supposed to get in there as fast as possible because who knows how long your career’s going to be?” he said.

“But a big thing for me was coming back to play my last year with my buddies at Notre Dame, and by doing that, it allowed me to make an open decision after the season.”

So instead of maybe beating out Santonio Holmes as the first receiver selected in the 2006 N.F.L. draft, Samardzija was selected by the Cubs in the fifth round of the baseball draft two months later.

Jim Hendry, the Cubs’ general manager, played a hunch in drafting Samardzija after being assured by Paul Mainieri, the Notre Dame baseball coach, that the pitcher with the toothy grin and the biting fastball really was passionate about the sport.

The Cubs’ scouts, Hendry said, were smitten by Samardzija’s raw talent. The cost of taking a chance on Samardzija — a $250,000 signing bonus, the going rate for a fifth-round pick — seemed a relatively small price for a potentially huge payoff down the road.

“I just figured if he ever played baseball full time, it was going to be after he gave football a shot,” Hendry said.

Samardzija said that if he had had to choose between the sports last year, the N.F.L. probably would have won out “maybe just because of the unknown.”

It was an alien existence that awaited Samardzija last summer, when he spent one month with the Cubs’ Class A affiliate in Boise, Idaho.

Instead of taking chartered flights, as he did with the Irish football team, Samardzija was introduced to long bus rides. He went from playing in front of tens of thousands to a couple of thousand.

In 19 innings, he was 1-1 with a 2.37 earned run average. It was impossible to quantify how much fun he had.

“Every day I was happy going to the park, happy being there for six, seven, eight hours,” said Samardzija, who also made two starts in Class A Peoria before returning to Notre Dame for fall football practice. “I wasn’t ever mad or bored or whatever. It was cool.”

During the lead-up to the Super Bowl in Miami last month, Chicago Bears running back Cedric Benson, who was drafted in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a senior in high school, said he had felt more comfortable in a pro baseball clubhouse than in an N.F.L. locker room because there were fewer egos and more camaraderie.

Samardzija, who was playing cards with three teammates Thursday when he was approached for an interview, said he understood Benson’s sentiment.

“I think if you just go around any professional baseball locker room and compare it to any other sport, it’s a whole different feeling,” Samardzija said. “You see guys taking other guys in, you know, more than in other sports.”

After making eight catches — including one for a 10-yard touchdown — in Notre Dame’s 41-14 loss to Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl, Samardzija walked off the field at the Superdome in New Orleans not knowing he had played his last football game.

Samardzija, who needs nine credits for a marketing degree, signed up to play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 27 in Mobile, Ala. He bought an airline ticket for travel on Jan. 20 to Mobile from Chicago. Five days before his departure, Samardzija and his agent met for dinner with Hendry and two other Cubs officials at a steakhouse in Chicago.

To Hendry’s surprise, Samardzija said he was ready to commit to baseball if the Cubs were prepared to commit to him. In short order, they agreed on a deal that will pay Samardzija $10 million over five years.

Samardzija, who grew up in Indiana rooting for the Cubs and the White Sox, asked for a no-trade clause so he could be assured of eventually playing in front of his father, Sam. Their bond was soldered by the death in 2001 of Deborah Samardzija, Jeff’s mother and Sam’s first wife. Hendry was happy to comply. In return, Samardzija said, he would pay back every cent of his $2.5 million signing bonus if he quit baseball in the next five years.

“I think it’s just untapped excellence in there when this kid plays this game year-round,” Hendry said, adding, “We think in a couple of years, he can be a high-level starter in this league, or even a closer.”

Samardzija seemed to make a good first impression on Lou Piniella, the Cubs’ new manager.

“I liked everything I saw but the hair,” Piniella said after the first day of workouts.

Samardzija did not mind getting a haircut. It was a small price to pay for being groomed for a new career.