Ailene Voisin

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Ailene Voisin: ‘Pretty eccentric’ Samardzija fits in with A’s

07/09/2014 6:15 PM

07/10/2014 12:10 AM

There have been scooters in the clubhouse, pies in the face, and enough facial hair to keep the local barber in business if the players sporting the unruly beards and hairstyles suddenly decided to practice good grooming habits.

These are the A’s, so, no, they won’t. The wild bunch even expanded its membership with the acquisition of Jeff Samardzija, the former Chicago Cubs right-hander with the imposing 6-foot-5 frame, expansive repertoire of overpowering pitches, chronic smile, all topped off appropriately with … a mullet.

“I think he fits our mold pretty good,” catcher Derek Norris said earlier this week. “He’s crazy, outgoing, has that hair. Fits perfectly in our clubhouse.”

Personality traits weren’t part of the discussion that led to the acquisition of Samardzija and fellow Cubs starter Jason Hammel, but when you trade for a player, you sign off on the total package. And wait until the A’s get a taste of the Full Samardzija. He is not, as his older brother suggests, from the cookie cutter mold.

“There are not many like him,” said Sam Samardzija Jr., who also doubles as his brother’s agent. “He’s not just a big, hulking guy who throws hard. He snowboards, surfs, loves the high dive. Old-school classic rock. He’s really pretty eccentric.”

The A’s are quite satisfied with the big, hulking guy description. Billy Beane’s willingness to part with three minor-league prospects, including prized shortstop Addison Russell, is still causing tremors in the Bay Area. The A’s of Lew Wolff have been sellers, not buyers. Their philosophy was to draft wisely, stockpile young talent, build around starting pitching, then dump the emerging stars before the need to pay their price.

But Friday’s acquisition of Samardzija and Hammel signaled a dramatic, unexpected change. The sense within the organization is that Wolff, 78, has tired of watching the A’s lose six of their last seven American League Division Series, that he wants his team to win a World Series while he’s still around, the reason he took the fiscal handcuffs off his general manager.

After doing handstands and coming back down to earth, Beane pursued the two starters he hopes can help the league-leading A’s sustain their momentum and advance beyond the opening round.

“Up until this point, we have pitched very well,” Beane said during a teleconference Saturday, “but I also think as time went on, we were putting more and more stress on our bullpen.”

The rotation of Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jesse Chavez, Samardzija and Hammel is almost enough to make Beane forget the season-ending injuries to starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin and the season-long funk of high-priced closer Jim Johnson.

Though Samardzija, 29, was only 2-7 with the last-place Cubs, he arrived with National League All-Star credentials and a 2.83 ERA, and he has wasted little time impressing his new teammates. Mixing fastballs that reached 96 mph with cutters, splitters and sliders, the Indiana native overpowered the Toronto Blue Jays, limiting them to one run and four hits and striking out five in his successful home debut Sunday. He is scheduled to make his second start with the A’s on Friday in Seattle.

“When I was in Washington, I got to see (Stephen) Strasburg, just a big, physical body,” Norris said, “but there’s only a handful of those guys in the league. Strasburg relies a lot more on his breaking pitches. Samardzija’s splitter has got to be in the upper 80s, and he throws it hard, not for deception. I was talking to (Brandon) Moss, and he said he faced Samardzija once when he was coming out of the bullpen, throwing a split 100 mph. He said it was impossible. So he definitely has plenty in his tank.”

Catcher Stephen Vogt said Samardzija was “unlike anyone I’ve ever caught. He’s a power pitcher who pitches.”

Many of Samardzija’s relatives emigrated from Serbia, a country known for its love of soccer and basketball, not baseball or American football. But his father, Sam, played semi-pro hockey and nudged his two sons toward football and baseball.

A standout pitcher-center fielder and wideout at Valparaiso High School, not far from the steel mills where many of his relatives worked, Jeff was heavily recruited by USC, Illinois and Notre Dame, among others. Before he could make a decision, tragedy struck. His mother, Debora, died abruptly from a rare respiratory disease.

“That one summer changed our life,” said Sam Samardzija. “Jeff was only 16. I was playing baseball at Indiana and driving home weekends to spend time with my dad and to help Jeff out. We all realized how short life is. I think that’s where Jeff gets his attitude. Mom always told us to do what makes you happy and live your life to the fullest.”

Admittedly still grieving, Samardzija accepted a football scholarship to Notre Dame because it was close to home and his tight-knit extended family, and also because former Irish coach Tyrone Willingham allowed him to pitch for the baseball team. “I will always be grateful to coach Willingham for that,” Samardzija said. “That’s my guy. He didn’t have to let me play baseball.”

Willingham remembers Samardzija as a free-spirited but fierce competitor with terrific speed, excellent hands and a sharp mind. There also were a few moments, the coach said, when his good-natured wideout would be overtaken by sadness and become uncharacteristically quiet.

“You could sense the loss, the feeling, the love he had for his mother,” Willingham said. “But he never let his emotions become a distraction.”

After Samardzija was selected for several All-America teams and named a finalist for the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver in 2005 and 2006, it was widely assumed that his future would be in the NFL.

That changed when he was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round in 2006.

“We literally put up an eraser board and drew a line down the middle, listing the pros and cons,” Sam Samardzija said. “Baseball was still seen as a long shot. Jeff was perceived as an athletic kid who was going to play football. But in his heart, he loved baseball, and what people don’t know about him … it goes back to the influence of our Mom. Do what makes you happy.”

Samardzija, who learned to surf while playing Class-A ball in Daytona Beach, Fla., loves classic rock, likes long hair, and speaks the language of an earlier generation; his pregame interview on Comcast on Monday was peppered with references to “appreciating my aura” and his new teammates as “great dudes.”

“I’m really happy to be here,” Samardzija said later with a wide, easy smile. “I can’t complain about too much, you know? I have always lived close to home except for a short time (Daytona Beach, Boise, Idaho), so this is crazy. The first 48 hours were nuts. But I enjoy doing what I do, and that’s the basis for everything. It’s all good.”

About This Blog

Ailene Voisin, who has been with The Sacramento Bee since 1997, writes columns on a variety of sports, from the NBA, NFL and baseball to local high schools. Voisin previously worked for the San Diego Union, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has been a beat writer covering the Dodgers, Angels and Clippers. Contact her at avoisin@sacbee.com or 916-321-1208. Twitter: @ailene_voisin.

 

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