MESA, Ariz. – The “(Bleep) the Goat” T-shirt is almost falling apart. The hair still flows to his shoulders. The hat is on backwards when he strides through the clubhouse saying, “What’s up, dude?”
Jeff Samardzija doesn’t own the room. But at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, he’s hard to miss. He’s not going to anoint himself the leader. But he does recognize the changing of the guard and feels a certain sense of responsibility.
“I don’t believe in rah-rah locker-room stuff,” Samardzija said. “That doesn’t get anything done. As long as you show young guys how to do it in the weight room and on the field and when the game’s going on – that’s the best way for them to learn.”
Samardzija isn’t a No. 1 starter yet, but the Cubs think he has the potential. He will start their Cactus League home opener on Sunday at HoHoKam Stadium against the San Francisco Giants, an organization that rode the wave of homegrown pitching to two World Series titles in three years.
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Ryan Dempster isn’t here to run up Camelback Mountain or sort of make guarantees about winning the World Series.
End of an era: Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were the bookend speakers at last month’s rookie-development program, telling the prospects about what it takes to make it in Chicago. Wood roams the fields here as a spring-training instructor.
The legend of Ted Lilly lives on through stories about his “guts,” though people use a different word. They remember how he ran over St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and once dove head-first into second trying to steal a base – on a rehab start in 2010, at a Class-A game in Peoria, some five months after shoulder surgery.
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Carlos Zambrano comes up when the beat writers are killing time, entertaining themselves with old money quotes. But otherwise the only real reminder is the blue folding chair in front of Barret Loux’s locker with the inscription: “THE BULL 38.”
Samardzija took it all in and modeled his offseason throwing and conditioning programs off Dempster’s plans.
“(Now) that role’s reversed and you’re the person being watched,” Samardzija said. “You got to work the right way. That’s the way you be a leader. There are certain times when certain things need to be said. But 99 percent of the time it’s just how you do things on the field and off, (how) you prepare.”
Samardzija broke into the big leagues at an interesting time in franchise history, with a legendary manager (Lou Piniella) looking for one last big score and the room filled with big names and big egos.
This was the magical summer of 2008, when the Cubs won 97 games and their second straight division title. This was an absolute win-now team, approaching 100 years without a championship, the mandate coming from Tribune Tower. The bubble hadn’t burst yet.
The Notre Dame All-American was less than two years removed from catching a touchdown pass in a blowout loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl.
While Theo Epstein’s front office has created space for prospects during their multi-year rebuilding project, Jim Hendry’s administration couldn’t afford to give Samardzija the same room to grow. The breakthrough came last year, when Samardzija went 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and 180 strikeouts in almost 175 innings.
The Cubs stashed Samardzija at Triple-A Iowa for part of the 2009 season and most of the 2010 season and moved him back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen. If the blue-collar guy from northwest Indiana felt bitter or disillusioned, well, he did a good job of hiding it.
“It just doesn’t get you anywhere,” Samardzija said. “There were some times where I could have (expletive) about stuff and complained. But the way I was raised and the people I surround myself with – they don’t do that stuff. They take responsibility for what they do and understand that it’s easy to make excuses, especially in this sport.
“But ultimately, if you play well, your numbers are going to speak. Your numbers are going to put you where you want to be. I knew it was my fault. Essentially, you’re the one with the ball making all the plays. If this is something you don’t like, then just play better.”
That quote might as well run in “The Cubs Way” manual as the hype begins to build around the next generation of prospects, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Albert Almora. Samardzija is going to fill this leadership void.
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“His whole background leads to that,” manager Dale Sveum said. “It’s being one of the best football players in the country and playing on that stage, and now being on that stage last year for the first time as a starter. He’s just got all the intangibles: Leader on the field, off the field, vocally, work ethic and obviously being one of your best players.”
Jonathan Papelbon made headlines this week when he told The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., that since joining the Philadelphia Phillies, “I haven't seen any leadership.”
Octavio Dotel had to apologize and put out the fire in the Detroit Tigers clubhouse after telling Yahoo! Sports that Miguel Cabrera – the American League’s reigning MVP – isn’t a leader.
Samardzija understands that talk is cheap. He’s going to judge himself on whether he throws 200 innings or not. The buzz around this team is very quiet. ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” tour skipped Cubs camp, and you could probably count on one hand the number of national writers who’ve been here the past two weeks.
But at least someone in the room remembers what it was like when the Cubs were the story. The day is coming where they’re going to matter again, and Samardzija says “it’s closer than we think.”
“We have the personalities in this clubhouse to be the team that we want to be and do the things we want to do,” Samardzija said. “Being the Cubs, you’re already in the spotlight. Everybody’s always paying attention to you, good or bad. You might as well make it for good reasons instead.”