Long before Opening Day, Samardzija felt weight of Cubs franchise on his shoulders

Long before Opening Day, Samardzija felt weight of Cubs franchise on his shoulders
March 31, 2013, 4:00 pm
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PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Samardzija felt the weight of the franchise on his broad shoulders from the moment he signed that big contract. So while there may be some symbolism and extra adrenaline on Opening Day, he’s always internalized that pressure.

When Samardzija decided to focus on baseball and give up his NFL dreams, he promised himself that there would be no turning back, no wondering what could have been. This is exactly what the Cubs envisioned, a potential No. 1 starter beginning the 200-inning journey with Monday’s matinee against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

It’s just that one of Jim Hendry’s “high-character guys” has become a billboard for Theo Epstein’s “foundation for sustained success.” 

There are no regrets, and apologize is probably too strong a word. But Samardzija did reach out to Hendry after the general manager was fired, saying how he wished he could have developed faster and become the difference-maker the Cubs needed -- and who knows what that would have meant for the organization.

“You’re the ones playing and you’re the ones responsible for the coaches and the front-office people’s jobs,” Samardzija said. “I definitely take it personally and I definitely felt like they had committed a lot to me and put a lot on me to do well. It wasn’t that I apologized to him. It’s just that I love and appreciated what he did for me. 

“It was just the fact that I thought I could have done more, especially there in those middle years. Obviously, it didn’t go as planned, with up-and-down and starting and relieving. But excuses are excuses. I felt like I owed a lot (and) I just didn’t feel like I returned it totally back to him. It ended up being a year late.”

The Boston Red Sox weren’t interested when Samardzija’s name came up during the Epstein compensation talks in the fall of 2011. The new president of baseball operations wisely listened when Samardzija lobbied to start during a meeting on the same day manager Dale Sveum had his introductory press conference at Wrigley Field.

But this had been a classic Hendry deal, working his contacts, using his charm, recruiting aggressively and going all-in with his bright-lights, big-city guy. Those skills convinced New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman to hire Hendry as a special assistant a few months after it was over at Clark and Addison.

Remember the old saying around the Creighton University baseball offices: Hendry could sell ice to Eskimos and make them think that they were getting a good deal.

The Cubs had inside information when they chose Samardzija in the fifth round of the 2006 draft.

Samardzija’s baseball coach at the University of Notre Dame happened to be Paul Mainieri, one of Hendry’s best friends (they’ll still talk several times a week). Mainieri played with assistant general manager Randy Bush –- and ex-manager Mike Quade -– at the University of New Orleans. 

Samardzija’s agent, Mark Rodgers, once taught and coached with Hendry at Christopher Columbus, a Catholic high school in Miami. Area scout Stan Zielinski stayed on top of the Fighting Irish.

“It wasn’t: ‘Let’s talk a big name out of football.’ This was a legit guy,” Hendry said. “At the time, everyone thought I was nuts for giving him $10 million. We knew the character inside and out.”

Tim Wilken –- the scouting director at the time and now a special assistant to Epstein –- remembered noticing Samardzija while scouting another player during his sophomore year and knowing the Cubs would have to take a closer look the next season.

At a tournament in San Antonio, Wilken used the 6-foot-5, 225-pound profile and thought of two pitchers he helped sign for the Toronto Blue Jays – Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay.

“Man, you could just see so much of what could be really good stuff, the athleticism to the delivery,” Wilken recalled. “He did have a little bit of a sling back then –- which is not even evident anymore –- so we kind of knew at the time that he was a little baseball naïve. There weren’t many innings in his arm. 

“All I could think about when I first saw him was like Carpenter, Halladay, the taller frame that just exudes innings, durability. Your mind starts wandering and running wild a little bit.”

Hendry dove into the Samardzija negotiations in January 2007 after Louisiana State University blew out Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Hendry, who’s tight with longtime NFL executive Bill Polian, had a window before the scouting combine.

The Cubs spoke to at least three NFL franchises –- the Bears, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers –- and each projected Samardzija as a potential late first- or early second-round pick.

Great expectations shadowed Samardzija, who showed up for the Wrigleyville block party in 2008 after beginning the season at Double-A Tennessee. The Cubs would win 97 games and everyone thought this could be “The Year.”

But Samardzija never gained traction and by the time the Cubs decided to send him back to Triple-A Iowa in late April 2010, then-manager Lou Piniella refused to deliver the message. Despite his volcanic temper and nose-to-nose, belly-bumping arguments with umpires in front of the TV cameras, Piniella also had a deeply sensitive side behind the scenes and hated giving players bad news.

“Lou didn’t tell me,” Samardzija recalled. “Lou said he wasn’t going to do it. He said: ‘We (expletive) with this guy too much and I’m not going to do it. If you want to do it, you can (tell him).’ I got sent out by (former pitching coach Larry Rothschild) giving me a phone call.” 

Samardzija was out at a diner for burgers and shakes when the phone rang. He went back to the team hotel, picked up his stuff and drove from Milwaukee to Des Moines.

“I don’t think you could ever recreate that situation where a guy comes up throwing hard and you’re in a pennant race and you need another arm in the bullpen,” Samardzija said. “And then it just kind of got caught in limbo for a year or two. But what they did in 2010 probably saved my career. It’s promotion by demotion, essentially. They sent me down, but they did it for the right reasons, to let me just pitch.

“We talked about it (and) realized we should have done this in ’09 and kept me in Triple-A as a starter. But hindsight’s 20/20. You’re always just trying to do what’s best for the team. And if none of that had happened, who knows where I’d be today? Would I still have the same mechanics I had before? A lot of times, you need to be kind of kicked around a little bit to figure out who you are.”

There were a lot of people in Samardzija’s ear giving him advice, but he wound up throwing 111.1 innings at Iowa that season. He had a good reputation as the kind of guy who would pick up the tab for all his minor-league teammates, and he didn’t take out his frustration by ripping management in the media.

“Through the trials and tribulations, he’s always been a team guy,” said Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason. “Off the record or on the record, you’ll never really hear him complain. Maybe that’s the football (mentality). Maybe that’s how he was brought up. But he wants to win every game regardless of personal sacrifice. That’s rare, but that’s what’s going to make him great.”

Samardzija is not a great pitcher yet. Going 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA again would probably be a disappointment. But this season begins where the last one ended. A complete-game, nine-strikeout performance against the Pirates last September became the exclamation point –- middle finger? –- to his innings limit (174.2).  

“We always felt this was the way it would turn out,” Hendry said. “And I don’t think anybody with the Cubs would mind me saying that there could be great, great days ahead for this guy. He’s a very talented guy that’s just about to kick the door all the way in to becoming really, really good.”

Like any good Catholic, Hendry was a Notre Dame fan as a kid in Dunedin, Fla. One of his brothers grew up to become a Jesuit priest (not that anyone would believe that, he joked). He’s aware of the misperception that he went with his heart and his gut. He doesn’t need any explanations from Samardzija. 

“You don’t go right into the starting lineup or make the Pro Bowl in our game right away after college,” Hendry said. “I’m sure he feels like it took a year or two longer. But the bottom line was I always felt like even if it took longer we’d be able to keep him there until it panned out. I’m not the type to get caught up in my regime or Theo’s. That’s really not the issue at all here. 

“He’s a wonderful young man that gave up a very storied other profession to take a shot at this. I did remind people many times that I had no regrets about the money, even when he wasn’t going well. Once you know him like we got to know him –- unless there was some terrible injury along the way –- this guy was going to overcome. No doubt.”    

Samardzija thought back to how he was recruited out of Valparaiso High School in Indiana by Tyrone Willingham’s staff and blossomed as an All-American wide receiver under head coach Charlie Weis. The Cubs believe he’ll once again take his game to a different level.

“I got recruited by Willingham and became Weis’ guy once I started playing good,” Samardzija said. “You tend to forget that. Willingham will never get the credit. It’s always the guy that has you. So as a player you never forget those guys that did sign you. (When) people put their necks on the line and their reputations on the line to sign you or give you a scholarship, (you) just always want to live up to that –- for those guys, too.”