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Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija chose baseball over football, and he has never looked back

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzijpitches before workouts begTuesday February 28 2012 Spring Training camp MesArizona. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija pitches before workouts begin on Tuesday February 28, 2012 at Spring Training camp in Mesa, Arizona. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 10, 2012 11:03AM

MESA, Ariz. — Jeff Samardzija’s second and third seasons with the Cubs were underwhelming, and if the word “underwhelming’’ is insulted by that description, it probably has a right to be.

In 2009, Samardzija had a 7.53 ERA in 342/3 innings. The next year, he had an 8.38 ERA in 191/3 innings. He spent a lot of time in the minors both seasons.

He was putting a lot of pressure on himself, above and beyond the pressure a young pitcher normally piles on. He felt more than the need to prove he belonged. He felt the need to prove he hadn’t been wrong. Wrong about what?

Wrong about the sport that involves facemasks, touchdown dances and, apparently, bounties. Wrong about the f-sport.

“At times I was playing against myself, trying to be so good at baseball that it justified not playing football, which is tough to do,’’ he said. “You’re putting a lot on your shoulders to have a lot of success to balance it out when ultimately it needs to be two separate things.

“You’re playing baseball because you’re playing baseball, not to prove that you should be playing baseball.’’

Samardzija’s path to baseball is well-documented: from All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame to the Cubs, thanks to a nice contract from then-general manager Jim Hendry that made the All-Big East pitcher forget about the NFL.

You’ve read this kind of story before. It seems to always end with the former football star struggling in baseball and eventually skulking back to the gridiron. But if there’s one thing the 27-year-old Samardzija would like you to know about him, it’s that he was never going to return to football. Never, as in never ever.

He and baseball were married, until death did them part.

“I didn’t want to get in that second-guessing game,’’ he said. “From Day 1, I decided whatever choice I made, football or baseball, that was going to be ’til the day I die.’’

Sure, now that you’re coming off an 8-4 record and a 2.97 ERA in 2011, it’s easy to stick to a vow of non-violence, sports-wise. That’s what a skeptic would say. But a skeptic doesn’t know that Samardzija believes other former dual-sport athletes have given up on baseball too soon.

“I’ve seen guys in the past play baseball and play football and not really give their complete time to baseball before they went back to football,’’ he said. “I didn’t want to be that guy. I wanted to go all in on one sport and wherever it took me, it took me.

“I just thought there’d be a problem with having a backup plan: ‘Well, if this doesn’t work, then I’ll go play football.’ I always thought that wouldn’t allow me to become as good a baseball player as I could.’’

That’s the thing about baseball: It doesn’t normally reward the impatient. It takes time. It takes sweat equity. It takes repetition.

“It’s just elbow grease, man,’’ said Samardzija, who had been projected as a first-round NFL pick in 2006. “People ask me what the biggest difference is [between baseball and football], and it’s hard to come up with a physical answer. Is it mechanics? Is it this? It’s a little bit of everything, but, ultimately, it’s punching your ticket every day and getting comfortable with who you are as a baseball player.’’

Football took up most of his time at Notre Dame. He practiced pitching once a week. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s blossoming now. He had a lot of catching up to do.

After parts of four seasons as a reliever, he badly wants to be a starter. He looks the part. He’s 6-5 and athletic. With his beard and long hair, he’s somewhere between Randy Johnson and Buffalo Bill Cody. It could be worse. He could be a cross between Pete Rose and Annie Oakley.

He’ll make his first spring-training start Wednesday against Kansas City.

“He’s on a mission, and he’s been as good as you can imagine up to this point,’’ Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.

Samardzija doesn’t look back on 2009 and 2010 fondly, but he sees they served a purpose.

“To have that struggle really kept me hungry and kept me driving to improve and get to become the baseball player that I thought I could be,’’ he said. “We still have some work, but I definitely like the direction it’s going.’’

And if he should regress? Would regret over a lost football career ever seep in?

“I’m pretty stubborn,’’ he said. “Usually the decisions I make, I take them to the well and stick with them regardless.’’

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