By any measure, Calvin Johnson is a football star. Since he entered the NFL in 2007, no one has gained more yards receiving, in total or per game. No one has caught more touchdown passes. If his career ended tomorrow, he would be ushered straight to Canton, Ohio, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, arguably the best wide receiver of his era.
By some measures, Jeff Samardzija is just a so-so baseball player. Since he became a full-time starting pitcher, in 2012, his ERA ranks 63rd of the 90 men who have thrown at least 500 innings. Last year, as he approached free agency, he allowed more hits and runs than any pitcher in the game. His career record: 47 wins, 61 losses.
These two, it would seem, have nothing to do with each other. Except in the fall of 2006, they were two of the best wideouts in college football, each voted an All-American by the Football Writers Association of America.
And one other thing: Through this season, Johnson will have collected $113,816,086 in earnings, making him one of the wealthiest non-quarterbacks in league history. Samardzija, by virtue of the five-year contract he just signed with the San Francisco Giants, is guaranteed to have earnings of $122,725,000 – and have another chance to dip into the till in 2021, when he’ll turn 36.
So a run-of-the-mill, if reliable, baseball player surpasses a generational football talent in money paid? That’s reality, even in a world in which football has surpassed baseball in almost every measure of popularity.
In this baseball offseason, when each day seems to bring news of another baubles-and-diamonds contract, it’s worth discussing the paths to athletic success. Samardzija, back in 2006-07, was the rare athlete who had the choice between two sports — an exception, no doubt. But dozens of others could make that choice at an earlier age. And though weighing the potential earnings in the NFL, NBA and MLB is folly for most, it’s clear where the smart choice lies if it’s there: baseball — and that’s not even taking into account the long-term health implications.
“There’s always the thought that a football player goes straight to the major leagues and gets paid, whereas a baseball player has to go through the minor-league system and ride the buses,” said Paul Mainieri, who developed Samardzija on the Notre Dame baseball team then, and now is the coach at LSU. “But we spent time talking about the length of the career and potential earnings, and he was getting good advice from several people. At the end of the day, he chose baseball, which he was passionate about.”
Samardzija’s five-year, $90-million deal is perhaps the best recent example of baseball’s financial health and the direct line of that money to the players. According to the Web site Spotrac, which analyzes professional sports contracts, Johnson’s career earnings with the Detroit Lions through the 2015 season make him the 13th-wealthiest football player of all-time. But go back just three offseasons, to the end of the 2013 World Series, and baseball owners have issued 16 contracts that exceed that total.
NFL’s All-Time Top Earners
|Player||Years||Total earnings (as of 2015)||Avg. annual salary|
|Peyton Manning||18||$244.7 million||$13.6 million|
|Eli Manning||12||$187.8 million||$15.6 million|
|Tom Brady||16||$162.8 million||$10.2 million|
|Philip Rivers||12||$151.9 million||$12.7 million|
|Drew Brees||15||$150.4 million||$10 million|
|Julius Peppers||14||$148 million||$10.6 million|
|Ben Roethlisberger||12||$140.5 million||$11.7 million|
|Carson Palmer||13||$138.1 million||$10.6 million|
|Larry Fitzgerald||12||$129.2 million||$10.8 million|
|Michael Vick||13||$121.1 million||$9.3 million|
|Tony Romo||13||$118.9 million||$9.15 million|
|Matt Ryan||8||$118 million||$14.7 million|
|Calvin Johnson||9||$113.8 million||$12.6 million|
|Mario Williams||10||$111.9 million||$11.2 million|
|Aaron Rodgers||11||$111.2 million||$10.1 million|
Richest MLB Contracts Since 2014
|Name||Years||Total value||Avg. annual value|
|Giancarlo Stanton||13||$325 million||$25 million|
|Miguel Cabrera||8||$248 million||$31 million|
|Robinson Cano||10||$240 million||$24 million|
|Joey Votto||10||$225 million||$22.5 million|
|David Price||7||$217 million||$31 million|
|Clayton Kershaw||7||$215 million||$30.7 million|
|Max Scherzer||7||$210 million||$30 million|
|Zack Greinke||6||$206.5 million||$34.4 million|
|Jason Heyward||8||$184 million||$23 million|
|Masahiro Tanaka||7||$155 million||$22.1 million|
|Jon Lester||6||$155 million||$25.8 million|
|Jacoby Ellsbury||7||$153 million||$21.9 million|
|Mike Trout||6||$144.5 million||$24.1 million|
|Freddie Freeman||8||$135 million||$16.9 million|
|Shin-Soo Choo||7||$130 million||$18.6 million|
|Johnny Cueto||6||$130 million||$21.7 million|
|Elvis Andrus||8||$120 million||$15 million|
Indeed, the top 30 contracts in the history of team sports – ranked by total compensation – all went to baseball players. Johnson’s career earnings would rank 64th in baseball, just behind retired pitcher Carlos Zambrano. And this isn’t just about starting pitchers. Joakim Soria and Tony Sipp, relief pitchers who even attentive sports fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup, each signed three-year deals this month, Soria’s worth $25 million, Sipp’s worth $18 million, nice wages for perhaps 60 or 70 innings of work annually.
So it’s worth going over, then, Samardzija’s decision-making process lest your son face such a conundrum. (We know, no one has this choice. Just play along.) He was recruited to Notre Dame by football coach Ty Willingham, who approached Mainieri about allowing Samardzija to play baseball as well. “That was so atypical of a football coach,” Mainieri said. “They usually want to dominate your time.”
Yet in his first two years, Samardzija was underused, the Irish struggled, and Willingham was let go. Samardzija developed as a pitcher, and he told Mainieri that if the new football coach wouldn’t let him play baseball, he’d quit football – which provided his scholarship. Yet new coach Charlie Weis not only agreed to allow Samardzija to play baseball, he opened up the Irish’s offense. Samardzija emerged from an afterthought to an All-American, catching 77 passes and 15 touchdowns as a junior in 2005.
The next spring, he made 15 starts for the Notre Dame baseball team, and though his ERA was just 4.33, some pro talent evaluators loved his 6-foot-5 frame, the sink he got on his fastball, his competitiveness. Stan Zielinski, a veteran scout with the Chicago Cubs, gave him a first-round grade.
“I always believed that Jeff liked both sports the same,” said Jim Hendry, then the Cubs general manager.
Hendry had good reason to believe it. He got his start coaching high school ball in Miami. His assistant back then: Paul Mainieri. The two have remained best friends for decades, even as their careers in baseball diverged, Mainieri to college, Hendry to the pros. So when Mainieri told Hendry, “This kid wants to try to play baseball,” Hendry believed him.
After Samardzija’s breakout junior year in football, Mainieri again impressed upon Weis the importance of letting Samardzija play baseball that spring — he might just bolt for the NFL early. (The top wide receiver taken in the 2006 draft, Santonio Holmes of Ohio State, earned $34.6 million in nine years in the league, was the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII — and is now out of the game.)
The Cubs selected Samardzija in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, paid him a $250,000 bonus, sent him to Class A Boise, but then allowed him to return to Notre Dame for his senior season of football.
“That was the carrot that we were using, hoping he’d stick with baseball,” Hendry said. “But I told him, ‘Go back and play football. Follow your dreams. We’ll get together after the season.’”
After Samardzija caught 78 more passes as a senior, Hendry realized the pressure was on. He knew NFL personnel evaluators, and they told him Samardzija would be a first-round choice in the football draft, likely between 20th and 32nd. So Hendry gave his young right-hander a five-year, $10-million contract – just the start of his earnings in baseball, even before he reached the majors.
“I didn’t get into any of the injury factors, and concussions weren’t really being talked about as much then,” Hendry said. “But I did talk to him about, ‘If you’re a durable starting pitcher, which I think you could be, there’s a lot of money you could make over 10 or 15 years. If you like both sports the same, I think you could pitch a long time.’”
That, as much as anything, is what Samardzija is being paid for with the Giants – pitching a long time. In the last three seasons, only five pitchers in baseball have thrown more innings than Samardzija, who pitched for the Cubs, Oakland Athletics and Chicago White Sox in that span. The industry values durability, even if it’s not accompanied by elite performance.
“As much as this contract is about performance, it’s about going to the post,” Giants executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean said at Samardzija’s introductory press conference.
Which brings us back to Johnson. Next year, according to Spotrac, he is due $15.95 million in cash, and he will cost $24 million against the NFL’s salary cap. There has been lots of discussion in Detroit about whether the Lions would be able to restructure Johnson’s deal, essentially paying him less as he grows older and, presumably, less effective. He will turn 31 at the beginning of next season, and it’s possible he’ll only play another few years.
“I’ve got a lot of mileage on me, I can say that,” Johnson told the Detroit News before this season. “I’ve got a lot of miles on me. Over time, it takes its toll.”
The Lions could, in theory, cut him – another reason why, when an NFL team announces a seven-year, $132-million contract extension, as the Lions did with Johnson in 2012, it’s financial semantics. It’s unlikely the player will ever see all that money. The important number is what’s guaranteed, in Johnson’s case, $60 million — certainly not pocket change, but not $132 million, either.
Samardzija – along with every other baseball player who signs a deal this offseason – is guaranteed the money, each and every cent, in sickness and in health. In the history of the NFL, only 25 players have earned $90 million in their careers – exactly what Jeff Samardzija will earn for five years of work in San Francisco, whether or not he improves on his career ERA.
That number, since he threw his first major league pitch in 2008, is 4.09. The ERA of all pitchers across the majors from 2008-15: 4.03. Yet in the here and now, it’s worth $90 million.