Commentary

Samardzija: Tougher than the rest

Pitching with a bloody finger? Just a throwback to his Notre Dame football days

Originally Published: May 10, 2013
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Jeff SamardzijaAP Photo/John BazemoreJeff Samardzija brings a competitive spirt to the Cubs forged on the football field at Notre Dame.

CHICAGO -- Baseball players aren't as tough as football players.

When it rains, baseball players dash for cover in the dugout (unless the commissioner is in attendance and it's the World Series). If it snows, they might not even venture onto the field in the first place, instead staying in the clubhouse watching TV and sitting on leather couches. They sit out games after they injure themselves by sleeping in the wrong position or getting a "painful" tattoo or just plain sneezing too hard.

Football players, meanwhile, play without complaint in frigid, single-digit whiteouts that blanket the field. They suffer through vicious, blindside hits that crunch and bend bones and twist and tear ligaments. They play with broken ribs and punctured lungs. Playing through intense pain is simply part of the sport -- Ronnie Lott once had doctors amputate the tip of his finger so he could continue playing.

Which is why a mere bloody finger didn't stop Jeff Samardzija two weeks ago. He's a baseball player, yes -- a pitcher for the Cubs. But he's also a former wide receiver at Notre Dame. Facing the Reds in Cincinnati, the 28-year-old Cubs starter fielded a comebacker off the tip of his right index finger, which ripped a cut under the fingernail. He had to wipe the blood off on his uniform so frequently the rest of the game that he went through two pairs of pants and two shirts.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhIt'll take more than a bloody finger to get Samardzija off the mound.

"It wouldn't close up because it was under the nail," Samardzija says. "They couldn't suture it. They couldn't close it. All we could do is mask the bleeding. It probably stopped later that night or the next day. It was pretty nasty. … Yeah, it hurt like a bitch."

But what the heck. Samardzija is an ex-football player. He not only kept pitching, he also pitched well -- six innings, one run and eight strikeouts against one of baseball's best teams. And remember, this was a key finger on his pitching hand, one that came in contact with the ball on every single painful pitch. Let's see Aaron Rodgers throw 100 tight spirals with that condition.

"After the inning was over, he was running back into the dugout," Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio says. "They're doing everything they can to stop the bleeding. Powder. Pickle juice. Trying to dry it up with super glue. Every trick you could possibly do to stop the bleeding. And he just kept pitching."

Bosio called it one of the most impressive performances he's seen as a coach or a player. "That's his heart, that's his soul, that's his fire. That's Jeff Samardzija."<.p>

Even his opponents were impressed.

"If you're the next day's starter and you get hit with a line drive off your quad, or you tweak something, do you think you'll take yourself out of a game when this guy has been pitching with a bloody, ripped-open finger all game?" Reds pitching coach Bryan Price says. "There is no way you're taking yourself out after seeing what that guy did."

The Reds found Samardzija's performance noteworthy enough that they auctioned off a baseball stained with his blood last week. Granted, the ball sold for just $130.01, but give it time. This is only his third full season in the majors, and he's getting better. Samardzija memorabilia looks like a growth industry.


Growing up in Valparaiso, Ind., Samardzija was the sort of old-fashioned kid we don't see often enough anymore in these travel-team, single-focus days: a high school athlete who lettered in three sports. He played five sports in all as a youth, but the two he loved most were baseball and football, and he went on to play both at Notre Dame. He broke school receiving records at South Bend, catching 172 passes for 2,540 yards and 27 touchdowns in his All-America career.

Meanwhile, the Cubs drafted him in the third round in 2006. He signed with the organization and played Class A ball the summer before his senior year. And then in 2007, he had a choice to make.

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBetween starts? Sort of like between Saturdays or Sundays during football season.

"My whole senior year, I was taking notes down on the pros and cons of both sports," Samardzija recalls. "I knew it was going to be tough because I never had to choose between the two before. Whenever it was baseball season, I was a baseball fan; and whenever it was football season, I was a football fan."

Although awareness of the possibility of brain damage in football has risen in recent years, Samardzija says the risk of injury in football never was a factor in his decision. Ultimately, it just came down to which sport he thought would make him happiest.

In the end, he chose baseball. And bear in mind, he did so after a summer riding the buses in Class A ball.

A large part of baseball's appeal for Samardzija is that the sport is played every day. In the NFL, you play three hours each Sunday and spend the rest of the week attending meetings, watching films, attending meetings, running plays, attending meetings, getting treatment, attending meetings, listening to coaches and -- did I mention? -- attending meetings.

"I just felt that seven days a week in baseball, I was excited to go to work," Samardzija says. "I was excited to go to the baseball field, excited to do the little things that would make me a better baseball player than a football player. It was what made me happier every day."

Anyone forced to regularly attend office meetings can probably appreciate that view.

"I'm not going to say that I'm not one much for practice, but football practice seemed a little bit of overkill at times with the meetings," Samardzija says. "I'd rather go out and compete every day, whether I'm in the game or not."

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezThis sort of dugout moment might not happen for Samardzija on a football sideline.

The irony is that Samardzija's success at the major league level has come since he switched from the bullpen to the starting rotation, where he gets the chance to compete only once every five or six days. The set routine of a starter seemed to fit with his football background and provided him a comfort level. It also allowed him to catch up on time he lost in baseball during those seasons on the Notre Dame gridiron.

"Watching Jeff as a young pitcher while being on the other side of the field, I saw a thrower," says Bosio, who was a pitching coach in the Reds minor league system when he first saw Samardzija. "He was someone with good stuff and great athletic ability, obviously. Getting to know him [with the Cubs, we were] teaching him different pitches, getting him to pitch along in sequences you would use in a game as a starting pitcher. And then also having the ability to go away from that later in the game and being able to reach back and throw 95, 96 or 97 mph.

"He's pretty special."

One of the first things Bosio says he taught Samardzija right away last year was that he'd been tipping his fastball. Correcting that was a big help. Since then, he has steadily progressed as a pitcher, moving to the rotation last season and earning the Opening Day start for Chicago this season. He won then, but is winless since, mostly due to lack of run support. Heading into Friday's scheduled start in Washington against the Nationals, he is 1-4 despite a 3.09 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP and 52 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings.

Samardzija still looks like a football player. He is 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, with a haircut only Randy Johnson could love. (See any similarities?) His fastball touches 98. He throws a mean split-finger pitch, even when his finger is not literally split open. He cannot be a pleasant sight on the mound as you're standing in the batter's box.

"He's breathing hard, his hair is blowing all over the place. He's huffing and puffing and he's getting after it," Bosio says. "He's an aggressive, free-spirited, hardworking, tenacious guy. His hair is just part of the gig. That's his personality. This guy pitches like his hair is on fire. This guy is only going to get better."

The Reds' Price calls Samardzija "phenomenal, one of the better young starting pitchers in the National League."

[+] EnlargeJeff Samardzija
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicWho was tougher here? Samardzija or Pitt's Darrelle Revis, a future All-Pro?

"The difference from when I saw him a couple years ago is, No. 1, his command; and No. 2, he has three plus major league pitches," Price says. "He can throw his split for a strike. If guys miss it, he throws it under the zone. He has good command of his fastball. We knew he had great athletic ability because of his football prowess, and he has that demeanor and confidence. He just looks like one of the better starting pitchers in the National League."

When it comes to the excitement of a single game, Samardzija says football is the easy winner. On the other hand, in baseball he gets to take the mound with the ball in his hand and the game in his complete control. He loves that.

He also doesn't need to worry so much about long-term brain damage. He gets to go to spring training in Arizona rather than sweat through the humidity of two-a-days in August. And as hard as he works to better himself, he can enjoy baseball's more relaxed, often humorous atmosphere.

"There is a purity to baseball you don't find in other sports," he says. "It's as simple as catching a ball perfectly in your glove or squaring up for a bunt just right or striking out a guy on a called third strike. There are certain little pluses that come with this game that you can't find anywhere else.

"Obviously, scoring a touchdown is about as cool as it gets in sports. There isn't much better than that. But that's a very-few-and-far-between thing. In baseball, you get reinforced every day with certain things that happen, and there is a certain love for it you can't find anywhere else. And it's every day for you."

Of course, he doesn't hear the Notre Dame fight song when he takes the field anymore. But when he pitches well and the team provides adequate run support, there is always "Go Cubs, Go."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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