SAN FRANCISCO – With Alfonso Soriano back in pinstripes, Jeff Samardzija is now the only player left who experienced what it was like at Wrigley Field in 2008, the energy and the enormous expectations.
That begins to explain why Samardzija sees no gray area with Soriano’s $136 million megadeal.
“It needs to go down as a good sign,” Samardzija said. “Period.”
Starlin Castro and Junior Lake sat in folding chairs in the middle of AT&T Park’s visiting clubhouse on Friday, watching Soriano’s return to The Bronx. At least two flat-screen TVs were tuned into the New York Yankees-Tampa Bay Rays game as players and coaches checked for updates.
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No one in the room now has more tenure with the Cubs than Samardzija, who’d watch Soriano bounce back into the dugout after hitting a home run and hear him yell something like: “It is what it is! This game is too easy!”
“Sori was the epitome of bravado and machismo,” Samardzija said with a smile. “That’s what he was all about, man. But he did it in an unselfish way and that’s the most important thing. He always put the team first. And I don’t know if that ever got talked about enough.”
Soriano would walk into the clubhouse wearing sunglasses and earrings and dance to the music during batting practice. He would flip his bat, stand at home plate and admire the flight of the ball whether it was gone or not. But he was also meticulous in his routine, waving at Castro to come to the cage and walking back to his locker sweating after a postgame workout.
After a last-place finish in 2006, the Cubs and Tribune Co. executed a win-one-for-the-Tower business plan, signing Soriano to a back-loaded deal before putting the team up for sale and winning the National League Central in 2007 and 2008.
“They went to two playoff series,” Samardzija said. “Anything can happen in the playoffs. But you got to look at this dude: (He) came to play every day and did everything he was supposed to do.”
Soriano made the All-Star team in 2007 and 2008. He posted an .812 OPS in six-and-a-half seasons. He hit 181 home runs in a Cubs uniform, or seven more than Andre Dawson.
Soriano accounted for 32 homers and 108 RBI last season while vastly improving his defense in left field. He was never again a 40/40 threat after a series of injuries. He became a big-money player stuck in a time of organizational downsizing.
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“He lived up to the numbers of the contract,” Samardzija said. “That gets overshadowed. He was a 30/100 dude on a 100-loss team. That’s pretty remarkable. That means there’s not too many guys on base and you’re still driving in a hundred runs. You’re not getting much protection and you’re still hitting 30 bombs.
“That’s just one example of it. And I know for a fact that he played through a lot of stuff. He had a lot of pulls and strains and he wasn’t always feeling the best and that dude came out to play every day.”
That’s why Kerry Wood pointed out to left field last May while walking off the mound at Clark and Addison and into retirement.
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After years of trying to find his identity as a pitcher, Samardzija is now the longest-tenured Cub, ahead of James Russell and Castro, who both debuted in 2010.
“It is weird, but we’re just trying to stay ahead of the curve and keep everybody as a unit right now,” Samardzija said. “We’ve had a lot of guys come and go. So the core guys that have been here for awhile are going to need to stay positive and stay consistent.”