The chosen few eventually choose
Notre Dame's Samardzija the latest of multi-sport stars
Some athletes become so good in more than one sport that one of the most important decisions they'll ever make is deciding which sport to pursue professionally.
A few are so talented, and strong-minded, that they can play two pro sports at the same time. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders come to mind. But, for the most part, there comes a fork in the road and the multi-sport player must decide which path to take.
That is a decision Notre Dame star athlete Jeff Samardzija, a star pitcher for the nationally-ranked Irish baseball team and sensational pass receiver for the nationally-ranked Irish football team last season, might soon be facing.
He is regarded as a potential second-round pick in the First-Year Player Draft, which will be held June 6-7. Samarardzjia has won 21 games during his collegiate career, has a low-90s fastball and probably would be a first-round draft choice if he wasn't so darn good at catching passes.
"That's a strike against him, as far as baseball is concerned," one American League talent evaluator said. "An organization that drafts him might be wasting a draft choice because of the way he catches a football. If he has a senior year anything like his junior year, he could go in the first round of the NFL draft."
Those words should sound familiar to Florida Marlins outfielder Joe Borchard.
He was a baseball and football standout at Stanford University in the late 1990s, a quarterback for the football team and right fielder for the perennial powerhouse baseball team.
Similar in size to Samardzjia, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Borchard came off the bench to throw five touchdown passes in a game against UCLA during his sophomore season, and then switched uniforms and batted .372 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs. As a junior, he batted .333, hit 19 home runs, drove in 76 runs during the regular season and added seven home runs and 18 RBIs in the Cardinal's 23-game postseason.
Borchard also was drafted in the first round (12th overall) by the Chicago White Sox, received a $5.3 signing bonus -- the highest in MLB history until Justin Upton received $6.1 million from the Arizona Diamondbacks last year -- and kissed football goodbye.
"I thought it was the right decision at the time, and certainly it still holds true today," Borchard said. "I chose baseball because of the opportunities that were available. I couldn't help but consider the compensation that was being offered."
There is no telling how far Borchard might have gone had he stuck with football, but he's making a nice living hitting a baseball. He reached the Major Leagues for the first time in 2002, but his career has never taken off the way he expected.
Atlanta Braves outfielder Brian Jordan is another two-sport star that had to eventually choose between baseball and football. He was the St. Louis Cardinals' first-round draft choice in 1988 and became a National League All-Star in 1999, his first season with the Atlanta Braves.
He also was a defensive back and return specialist for the Atlanta Falcons from 1989-91 before becoming a full-time baseball player.
It is unlikely that anyone these days will follow in the same footsteps as Jordan, Jackson or Sanders.
"I used to believe that it was possible to play two sports at this (Major League) level," Phillies general manager Pat Gillick said. "But I don't believe that anymore. You can't have two part-time jobs."
There is no doubt in Gillick's mind that Jackson would have been a "super, super star" if he had committed all of his time and energy on baseball.
"I think he could have been a Hall of Fame baseball player," Gillick said. "He was that good."
But Bo knew two sports well, and played both extremely well. In baseball, he batted .250 with 141 homers and 415 RBIs in 2,393 at-bats in eight seasons as an outfielder and designated hitter with the Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox and California Angels. He hit 107 homers for the Royals from 1987-90.
In football, he was a running back with the Los Angeles Raiders and ran for 2,782 yards on 515 carries, and scored 18 touchdowns running and receiving. He was the first player in NFL history to have two rushing touchdowns of 90 yards or more, and is the only athlete to play in both an MLB All-Star Game (1989) and the NFL Pro Bowl Game (1990).
A football injury in 1991, at age 29, basically ended Jackson's athletic career, although he remained in baseball until the players' strike in August 1994.
Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield, who was drafted in baseball, basketball and football in 1973, agrees that Jackson could have been a baseball player a lot longer than he was if he had concentrated on a baseball-only career.
"There are a lot of virtues choosing baseball as a career and longevity is one of them," Winfield said. "It's easier to reach the NFL or NBA faster than the Major Leagues, but the chances of staying there longer are much better in baseball."
Or, as one AL scout put it, "There is less of a chance tearing an ACL throwing a baseball than catching or running with a football."
Sanders, meanwhile, danced his way into the hearts of millions on the football field, and used his speed and bat control to have a decent MLB career. He was drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of high school, but elected to attend Florida State. The New York Yankees drafted him in the 30th round in 1988, but he returned for his senior season in college and eventually was drafted in the first round (fifth overall) by the Atlanta Falcons in '89.
In his nine-year, part-time baseball career, Sanders played in 641 games with four teams. During his most productive year, 1992, he hit .304 for the Braves and stole 26 bases in 97 games. Three years earlier, he hit a home run and scored a touchdown in the NFL in the same week, the first player to do so. Sanders is the only player to have played in a MLB and NFL game on the same day, and is also the only player to play in both a Super Bowl and World Series.
And that is a distinction that could last a long time.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.