Cubs potential Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija used to spotlight
BY GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org January 18, 2013 11:30PM
Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cub pitcher. works the crowd during opening ceremonies at the 28th Annual Cubs Convention, Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers. Friday January 18, 2013. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times
Updated: July 18, 2013 12:48PM
Like most people following the story, Jeff Samardzija doesn’t know what to make of what’s going on at his alma mater with Manti Te’o.
‘‘Until enough information comes out that you can say who was right and who was wrong,’’ said the Cubs’ pitcher and former Notre Dame All-America receiver, ‘‘you can’t say too much about it.’’
About the only thing he knows for sure is that there was no sign of Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend while Samardzija hung out with old teammates in South Beach during BCS national championship week this month.
‘‘She wasn’t there, actually,’’ he deadpanned.
He also knows this: When you play football at Notre Dame, you’d better be prepared for the most intense scrutiny you’ve ever faced in your life.
‘‘You’re under a different spotlight,’’ he said, ‘‘and if things do go great, it’s a great place to be and you get tons of accolades for it. But then if something doesn’t go well, you pay for that, too.’’
Which brings Samardzija right back to this year with this baseball team. This spotlight.
It was six years ago at the Cubs Convention that fans swooned as the fresh-faced, $10-million draft pick was first introduced to the masses as a Cub.
It was two years ago at the convention that he faced questions about being out of contract options and whether he could put together a strong enough spring to avoid becoming a $10-million bust and getting waived.
And Friday as this weekend’s convention opened, he talked about long-term contracts, the Cubs’ plans for him becoming a cornerstone of a rebuilt contender and about wanting to earn the Opening Day starting assignment 10 weeks from now.
‘‘That would be a 180, for sure, right?’’ he said. ‘‘Go from maybe wondering if you’re ever going to put a Cubs’ jersey on again two years ago at this event to maybe being Opening Day starter means a lot to me.’’
Samardzija, in the first year of arbitration eligibility, spoke Friday about an hour after his $2.64-million, one-year agreement for 2013 was announced.
The right-hander from northwest Indiana could have had a multi-year deal in his pocket long after the Cubs approached him and his agent last fall.
Not that he doesn’t want to be a Cub for life. ‘‘I’ve said 1,000 times this is where I want to be.” But he wants to ‘‘stay hungry,” he says; doesn’t want to ‘‘get complacent,’’ he says.
What he won’t say in so many words is he’s not willing to take a hometown discount when he believes he’s on the brink of proving he’s one of the more valuable frontline pitchers in the league — which, incidentally, the front office was hoping to bank on.
In fact, as recently as last month, Samardzija was the only starting pitcher the Cubs felt was reliable enough and entrenched in their plans enough to project into their 2014 rotation — which was the reason they pursued a long-term free-agent addition, landing Edwin Jackson for four years.
‘‘We want it to be the right situation, and I want to prove to them also on the field that I’m not just that guy for this year,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m that guy for a long time down the road.’’
By all accounts, the relationships between Samardzija’s people and team officials are strong, and the lines of communication remain open.
But if anybody thought there was pressure in all of the management talk last year about this guy’s ability to become maybe the most important building block in this rebuilding plan, consider the brass it takes to raise the stakes by going year-to-year on his contract.
‘‘That’s what you signed up for,’’ he said. ‘‘If you don’t want those expectations yourself, then you might as well go play somewhere else. To be here in Chicago and to play under the expectations you have in a big organization and a big-market organization, that’s just the way it goes.’’
And why the Cubs think he’s the right guy for the long-term job they envision.
‘‘If you don’t want that to come along with it, then you might as well go do something else,’’ he said.
He learned that much in college — where, sources say, the girlfriends were more legendary than mythical.
And at least as real as his chance to become the Cubs’ next Opening Day starter.