SAN DIEGO -- It is doubtful anybody ever compared storied Notre Dame Stadium with Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field ... until Tuesday.
Jeff Samardzija did it and without a hint of irony as the right-hander, giddy with emotion, continued to process the trade that took him from the Oakland Athletics to the Chicago White Sox, the team that was his favorite as a boy.
Samardzija poured his heart and soul into the Chicago Cubs for 6½ seasons. Before that, it was four years at Notre Dame, where he was better known for his football skills. Now, Samardzija gets to put on the White Sox pinstripes and the Valparaiso, Indiana, native was beaming.
“I can't tell you how many times I drove by that stadium on the Dan Ryan coming home from Valpo to Chicago,” Samardzija said Tuesday shortly after his trade to the South Side became official. “It reminds me a lot of being at Notre Dame, and being on a recruiting trip and passing Notre Dame Stadium and really thinking about possibly playing there but nothing ever came of it.
“And then you get the scholarship, or you get traded in this case, and all of the sudden in a blink of an eye, you're a part of that now, and all those thoughts and ideas you had of what could happen if you ever got an opportunity to play there, it becomes real. That's where I'm at now. It's still kind of sinking in. It's been a crazy experience and for it to work out this way, it's even more mind-blowing. I'm still here soaking it all in and thinking about all the old ties I had and how fun it's going to be to go back.”
The team that claimed Samardzija was No. 1 on its wish list all along acquired the one pitcher that wanted to be with the White Sox probably more than anybody else. We will find out now if “happily ever after” really does exist.
“This was the guy we wanted; this was the guy that fit for us,” general manager Rick Hahn said when asked why giving up four players for Samardzija was a better option than signing a free agent. “This was the guy we felt was a perfect complement to [Chris] Sale and [Jose] Quintana and at the same time has the ability to fit in seamlessly within our clubhouse. Obviously knows the market, has had success in the market. It might be a little bit of a gamble, but we’re optimistic we’re able to extend his stay as well.”
Samardzija knows he will be linked in some people’s minds to Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley, Chris Bassitt and Rangel Ravelo, the four players who were sent to Oakland in the deal. The Whte Sox also received promising but injury-prone right-hander Michael Ynoa in the deal.
But neither the desire to show he is worthy of that type of haul, nor his thrill of playing for the team he loved as a kid, is expected to snuff out his desire to hit free agency next offseason when his arbitration-eligible years are complete.
Samardzija has always said he would rather explore free agency than accept the comfort and security -- and perhaps the discount -- that comes with a contract extension. He’s not backing off that now.
“I’ve been pretty adamant about being a free agent, you know,” Samardzija said. “I think it’s really something you shoot for. You are so close to it and you really want to experience it. Like I said before, when the situation is right, it’s right. When the numbers are right, the numbers are right.”
Perhaps that makes Samardzija a risk taker, or a free spirit supremely confident in his own abilities. Perhaps all of that is an apt description of a player who grew up in the Chicago area and has played at Notre Dame, as well as with the Cubs and now gets to experience life with the White Sox.
Why stop with three local sports institutions.
“Being a Chicago guy, that’s one of the craziest things I’ve thought about,” Samardzija said. “I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Now do I really have to get my cleats on and go play for the Bears?’ If I could skate, maybe the Hawks. My jumper is garbage so the Bulls are out of the question. But what else can we do?”
Well, winning with the White Sox would probably be the best project to undertake next.
How deep does Samardzija’s White Sox love go? He says one of the first things he wants to do now is to get his own White Sox jersey with “SOX” across the front, which the club wore in the 1980s and has worn each of the last two seasons on Sundays.
“Those are the ones Ron Kittle used to wear back when he was hitting homers out of the park,” Samardzija said.
But he is also well versed with what the White Sox are doing now. And it’s not necessarily the struggles of the last few seasons that he recalls, but rather the offseason moves the club has made, other than the one that brought him aboard.
“Ever since they signed [Adam] LaRoche, who I have the utmost respect for playing against him in the National League for a long time, you put him and [Jose] Abreu back-to-back, as a pitcher you look at it from the outside: Oh man, that's not a 1-2 combo you want to run into.
“From that pickup alone, I knew how this team would play it out and that was before I was a part of it. You add [Zach] Duke in the bullpen and [David] Robertson and it doesn't seem like they're done. It's exciting. It's always exciting to be a part of an organization that wants to win today. They're not worried about the future and they want to do it now because they know the time is now.”
If that sounds like a knock on how the Cubs were conducting business when he was there, it’s probably because it was.
Samardzija has a way of being raw and honest, mostly about his own performances, and the White Sox think he can adapt quickly to his new setting and be a player his teammates can look up to.
“You see what he is on the field, He’s a great competitor, playing football, and all the reports, guys I’ve talked to you love that makeup and he’ll be a leader,” manager Robin Ventura said. “You want to bring in good makeup guys who are good players. He’s excited. He’s excited to come back. Anyone grows up rooting for a team there is a certain excitement about that.”
But this move wasn’t about reuniting a pitcher with his favorite team. Two aspects of Samardzija’s game seemed to stand out most to the White Sox. In a half season with the A’s, Samardzija proved his stuff can play in the American League as he posted a 3.14 ERA over 111 2/3 innings for a contending team. Then there is the heavy sink on his fastball that is ideally suited for a cozy ballpark like U.S. Cellular Field.
“We’ve talked about that before,” Hahn said. “It’s important to be able to play in our ballpark to have that kind of movement. His arsenal is deep enough that even without that he’d have success, but that makes him that much stronger.”
That cozy ballpark is Samardzija’s home now, at least for one year, and is something that actually is as revered to him as the place he played football in college.
“It's been a wild ride,” he said. “To come full circle and end up back in Chicago after taking a trip out West, and just to be on the outside also looking and listening to everything that's a possibility, you kind of play all the options out in your head and what can happen and it ends up happening and you can't be more excited with the outcome. I'm really ecstatic right now. It really turned a normal Tuesday in the offseason into an exciting day that I'm happy for and I look forward to.”