GLENDALE, Ariz. - The rivalry had lost all its juice.
No Ozzie Guillen loving every minute in front of the cameras. No Carlos Zambrano or Milton Bradley time bombs in the drama-free clubhouse. No Lou Piniella holding court in the dugout or ripping Steve Stone.
At least that was the Cubs-Sox conventional wisdom last May - before Jeff Samardzija smashed Paul Konerko's face, Dale Sveum got ejected and Kerry Wood walked off into retirement.
"That's usually how it works, right?" Samardzija said with a smile. "When you least expect something is when you get the best."
The Cubs will bus to Camelback Ranch on Friday and play the White Sox before a weekend trip to Las Vegas. We'd love to ask Guillen about the Wrigley Field renovation plans and where the rats should be on the artistic renderings. And we'll miss South Side antagonist A.J. Pierzynski, who looks weird in a Texas Rangers uniform.
But at this point we probably shouldn't underestimate the potential for fireworks - even if the Cubs and White Sox will only play four times this season. The dude who grew up in northwest Indiana and went to Notre Dame gets it.
"That's unfortunate," Samardzija said. "I'm sad about that big-time. Those are some of the most exciting and fun games you play, just because of the atmosphere and the feeling of the park when you walk in with the fans and everything. I like playing down at Comiskey, too, just because that was pretty much in my backyard. You could smell the steel mills and all that. It's just like being at home. Both places are so much fun."
The fatigue is understandable since the Cubs and White Sox have played 90 times since interleague play began in 1997. But the intensity and unpredictability on May 18 last year showed you that the buzz won't completely fade away.
A New York Times "Super PAC" report had just put the Ricketts family in damage-control mode and in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's crosshairs during a bitter presidential campaign.
That morning, there was a will-he-or-won't-he vibe in the clubhouse as Wood prepared for his final game in a Cubs uniform. Sveum didn't even get to take the ball from Wood in the eighth inning because the low-key manager had already been thrown out for arguing a call. Kid K heard the roar of the crowd, hugged his son by the dugout and soaked in the cheers at Clark and Addison.
Back in the interview room/dungeon, Samardzija felt bad about the 85 mph splitter that drilled Konerko - two innings after the White Sox captain had blasted his 404th career home run.
"There are lot of superstars in the league that put up big numbers, get paid a lot of money," Samardzija said that day after a 3-2 loss. "Paulie's one of those guys that does (it) the right way. There's not too many of (them) out there. He's not about show. He's not about himself. ... If I could take it back, I would."
Samardzija had met Konerko through Ryan Dempster. They all have homes in Arizona and had played a little ice hockey together. But Samardzija - who grew up watching Ron Kittle and Frank Thomas - mostly said that out of professional respect, not because of a personal relationship.
"As long as I can remember, Paulie's played the game the right way," Samardzija said. "He has been the face of (the franchise) through a few coaches and a few managers and a couple different situations. He's a great dude. You just look at how his career's gone - it hasn't been gravy the whole time."
It's easy to forget now, because he's a 2005 World Series hero and a virtual lock to get his own statue on 35th Street. But Konerko was traded twice before he finally landed on the South Side, where he will begin what could be his 15th and final season.
"He's got great hands," Samardzija said. "You don't throw a fastball by him ever. Regardless of age or anything, those will always be there. (And) his defense gets overlooked, too. He's great over there at first."
Konerko grinds away and works at his craft. Samardzija pointed out how he scuffled in a season like 2003, hitting .234 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs, before coming back the next year with 41 homers and 117 RBI.
Konerko recently turned 37 and has heard all the jokes about being the old man in the clubhouse. This is the last year of a contract that will bring his career earnings to more than $110 million, according to Baseball-Reference.com. He's told reporters that he hasn't decided whether or not he'll retire. Cubs-Sox won't be the same without him.
Samardzija said that he isn't much of a skater and needs to use a hockey stick to help keep his balance. Next time he plays some pickup with Konerko, he might want to keep his head up.
"I wouldn't play serious against those guys - they'd kill me," Samardzija said with another laugh. "He's waiting to get me back on the ice. I'm going to show up with a black eye and a puck mark on my face."