Samardzija loves being in the middle of Cubs-White Sox rivalry

Samardzija loves being in the middle of Cubs-White Sox rivalry

May 26, 2013, 6:15 pm
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CINCINNATI – Ozzie Guillen won’t be there kicking and screaming, and no one’s going to punch A.J. Pierzynski. 

Lou Piniella won’t be there taking shots at Steve Stone, and no one’s going to have to restrain Carlos Zambrano from attacking his teammates. 

If there’s going to be a new face to this rivalry – even Alfonso Soriano and Paul Konerko have expiration dates – it might as well be the dude with the long hair flowing out of his backwards hat who grew up going to Cubs-White Sox games and riding on the Indiana Toll Road. 

It’s the “Chicago Tough” guy – Kenny Williams trademark – who found out what it was like to be loved and hated while playing for Notre Dame. It’s the fearless go-across-the-middle receiver Da Bears once projected as a potential late-first- or early-second-round pick.  

The crosstown circus has been around since 1997, and the Cubs and White Sox have already played each other 90 times. But the novelty hasn’t worn off for Jeff Samardzija, who starts for the Cubs on Memorial Day on the South Side.

“I think they’re the best games of the year, personally,” Samardzija said. “It’s unfortunate we’re only playing four. It’s really a bummer. They’re fun. They’re exciting. I love playing at The Cell.”

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The format is different – two at U.S. Cellular Field and two more at Wrigley Field this week – and Monday night might just be television filler in between periods of the Blackhawks game. But it’s been fun to watch Samardzija develop as a potential No. 1 starter, marketing vehicle and clubhouse spokesman.

Samardzija became a go-to guy for reporters when $30 million Cuban prospect Jorge Soler made headlines for all the wrong reasons in April, grabbing a bat during a bench-clearing incident. (Maybe Soler is ready for crosstown madness?) 

Samardzija spoke thoughtfully about handling your emotions in a big market and understanding you’re going to get everyone’s best shot when you’re a big name in the minors.

That’s how Cincinnati Reds third baseman Todd Frazier looked at it when he faced Samardzija in the old Big East. The fast-talking guy from Rutgers mimicked his stance inside the home clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.

“You get all amped up because it’s the receiver guy,” Frazier said. “I was fired up: ‘I’m gonna get this guy. I don’t care who he is. Let’s go. Bring that…’ 

“I think the first time I faced him, he walked me on four pitches, like 96 or 98 (mph). It kind of scared me at first, just because they were zooming by me pretty high. I’m like: Damn!”

Frazier credited Samardzija (2-6, 3.25 ERA) for his evolution as a pitcher – “one of the best in the league” – and there could be a chapter in “The Cubs Way” for how someone went from a roster-fringe pitcher to a contract-extension target. 

Before signing with the Boston Red Sox, Ryan Dempster would run with Samardzija up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. A few years ago, they trained together at an indoor facility in Northbrook.

“I’d leave my house at 5:30 a.m.,” Dempster recalled. “I’d go down Southport, turn around, pull up in front of where he was staying and not one time did I ever have to even honk the horn. He was there (already).

“He’s got a work ethic. (That’s) the reason why he’s been so successful. His experience is catching up with his stuff and he’s just going to get better and better. I really don’t see a lot of right-handed pitchers out there who are as good as he is. 

“Baseball-wise, he’s actually younger (than 28) because he wasn’t pitching all those innings in high school and college and the minor leagues. He was too busy scoring touchdown passes on NBC. It’s really, really awesome to see.”

Samardzija didn’t know if his on-camera impersonation of Hawk Harrelson last year got back to the White Sox broadcaster: “I’m sure it did. He kind of hears everything.” 

But if the Cubs are going to have “The Will to Win,” maybe the environment that caused Ozzie and A.J. and Sweet Lou and Big Z to reach their boiling points can be a kick-starter for a team that wakes up on Memorial Day knowing the July 31 trade deadline is looming.  

“It’s got a playoff atmosphere to it,” Samardzija said. “You just look for some rowdy fans and hopefully we get some nice weather and it will be a good time.”