MESA, Ariz. — This was beginning to feel like a farewell tour for Jeff Samardzija.
But after a quiet offseason and a sleepy camp, this franchise finally created some buzz with Thursday’s grand opening of Cubs Park. Fans tailgated and started drinking before noon. Fireworks exploded during the national anthem. A sellout crowd of 14,486 set a new Cactus League record. Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins stood on top of the home dugout during the seventh-inning stretch and sang “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” WGN showed the scene to a national television audience.
Everyone’s supposed to be optimistic at spring training, and there’s still that July 31 expiration date. But Samardzija doesn’t expect to be traded before Opening Day.
“I would be surprised,” Samardzija said. “From what it sounds like right now, we’re going head over heels for the season with this team.”
Samardzija threw two scoreless innings during a 5-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, ringing the opening bell for trade speculation. The longest-tenured guy in the clubhouse — who has played for Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Dale Sveum — will be putting his faith in new manager Rick Renteria.
“Rick’s made it very clear that we’re here to win,” Samardzija said. “I love to hear him talk about his excitement for winning, not development. Obviously, development’s part of it. But Rick’s No. 1 goal is winning. (We) are 100 percent on the same page when it comes to that. We want to win. We want to win here. And we want to win now. That’s the only goal.”
If only it was that simple. Samardzija is 29 years old, two seasons away from free agency and playing for an organization that doesn’t expect to contend before 2016. Talks about a long-term extension that began after the 2012 season haven’t gained any traction.
“Would I be surprised?” Renteria said, repeating back part of a reporter’s question about Samardzija getting traded this spring. “I’m not even thinking about Opening Day and him not being here. Right now, I’m thinking about today.”
Everyone else is thinking about the future. Scott Smith, the Mesa mayor who’s chasing the Republican nomination for governor, threw out the first pitch. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, board member Laura Ricketts and president of business operations Crane Kenney made pregame appearances on the field. Eleven rows behind home plate, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein sat next to general manager Jed Hoyer and watched their most valuable trade chip.
Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers — who made a run at Samardzija last summer and again this winter — showed up at Cubs Park. So did the group of scouts beginning Cactus League coverage, including representatives from the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants.
“You’re not really worried about it too much,” Samardzija said. “You’re assuming they’re there every game, regardless of the situation. You want to put on a good show for ‘em.”
Samardzija laughed at that last line. He threw the first pitch at Cubs Park at 1:10 p.m. and the crowd cheered when the public-address announcer gave the temperatures in Mesa (75 degrees) and Chicago (9 degrees).
Samardzija walked leadoff guy Gerardo Parra and gave up a sharp single to Martin Prado, but he worked out of the jam by getting a flyball from MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt and striking out Aaron Hill and Eric Chavez swinging.
Afterward, Samardzija stood outside the clubhouse, surrounded by reporters, and listened to a question about whether he ever thought about the possibility of playing for the Diamondbacks.
“No,” Samardzija said. “I’ve only played for the Cubbies, so I only know one team to play for, and that’s here. I don’t worry about that too much.”
A guy who used to wonder whether he’d even make the team or have to pack for Triple-A Iowa now gets to focus on his craft in spring training. He thinks he’ll discover the consistency and efficiency he couldn’t find last season (8-13, 4.34 ERA). He already knows the blueprint for putting up 200 innings and 200 strikeouts. Wherever that may be.
“If anything, it just puts a chip on your shoulder,” Samardzija said. “It makes you want to go out and prove yourself even more and that’s the thing about this game: You’re constantly having to prove yourself. It doesn’t matter what your contract situation is or anything like that. The only thing that matters is proving yourself that day against the team you’re playing.”