By Connor Buestad (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Whether you like it or not, the Bay Area has never quite been a hotbed for college football. Conventional wisdom attributes this truth to the fact that there is “too much to do” around San Francisco and Oakland to expect fans to spend every Saturday of the fall tailgating from dawn til dusk. Too many sunny days, too many trips to wine country or Tahoe, too many NFL teams to distract us a day later. Moreover, Cal has been rebuilding over the past few years (literally and figuratively) and Stanford is challenged to sell out their cozy stadium even during runs to the Rose Bowl. Any way you slice it, The Bay is never going to obsess over amatuer pigskin.
Neither is Jeff Samardzija.
Yes, he was an All-American wide receiver at football crazed Notre Dame University, but the 6 foot 5 inch Samardzija never seemed to take the game of football too seriously. He just happened to be really good at it. Kind of like every other sport he ever played.
“Yeah,” Samardzija told Dan Patrick in an interview earlier this year, sweeping aside a wavy chunk of his Serbian-influenced locks. “I don’t really watch a ton of football. I don’t always follow it. But I realize I have to while I’m on the Cubs, because people are constantly coming up to me in Chicago and asking ‘hey Jeff, how are we (Notre Dame) gonna be this year?’”
Now that Samardzija has been traded out to Oakland (for top prospect Addison Russell, et al) he can rest easy knowing that he won’t be bothered by golden domer questions any longer. And if he wants to try his hand at surfing or skiing (see Zito, Barry and Byrnes, Eric), he finally can.
“I’ve been begging for this for a while,” said Samardzija the day he arrived in the A’s funky, no-frills pressroom. “Begging” most certainly wasn’t the most PC word to use in such a press conference, but no one in Chicago or his hometown in Indiana seemed to mind, they knew Jeff was a nice guy who was just tired of losing. And if you look deeper, maybe Samardzija subconsciously knows he belongs out west.
Jeff grew up in Valparaiso in a household run by a former semi-pro hockey player named Sam. That tells you a lot about the upbringing of Jeff Samardzija. He played football and soccer in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and baseball in the spring. On Saturday afternoons, he did what every other kid in Indiana does growing up: watch Notre Dame football.
By high school, Samardzija had his sports choices narrowed down to three (football, basketball, and baseball), and according to Indiana lore, Samardzija started in 160 high school sporting events in a row without getting injured. To say Jeff Samardzija was a natural athlete would be like saying the Chicago Cubs were usually a bad baseball team. It went without saying.
Regardless of how well Samardzija’s persona would have meshed at a school like UCLA, CAL, or Oregon, there was no way he was going to escape out of Notre Dame’s backyard. And sure enough, he didn’t.
As soon as Samardzija arrived on campus in South Bend in 2003, he made an immediate impact on the football field, playing in 12 games as a freshman. It was at that point that most people expected Samardzija to finally put away his baseball glove and focus on football once and for all. But Jeff couldn’t stay off the baseball diamond. “I’ve always been a happy guy when I go to the baseball field,” Samardzija told Dan Patrick. If anyone had the athleticism to play both, it was Jeff, so he went for it.
It was in the spring of 2004 on Notre Dame’s baseball field when, according to Jeff, he first acquired the nickname of “Shark”. “It all started my freshman year,” explained Samardzija to UND.com. “I was new on the baseball team. I showed up, didn’t know anyone. I was talking to a fellow pitcher and out of nowhere they called me ‘Shark’ because they said I looked like the shark (Bruce) on Finding Nemo. It started during a game while I was pitching and they yelled at me from the dugout. Then coach picked up on it and it just snowballed from there. I guess I look like a shark.”
Turns out, Samardzija does indeed look like Bruce from the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. From Samardzija’s angular face, all the way down to his teeth, the Notre Dame benchwarmers were spot on. It would be Shark Samardzija from that day forward.
Despite a record setting career for the Irish football team, The Shark finally was able to let go of his multi-sport persona and focus on a professional career in baseball. Naturally, he was selected by the Chicago Cubs, keeping him in the midwest for yet another chapter of his life. And for the majority of his time in Chicago, he loved it, sometimes maybe even too much. Asked by Dan Patrick if he ever pitched a game at Wrigley hungover, he could not confirm nor deny. “You know, I never took a breathalyzer going out there,” laughed Samardzija. “Possiblé.”
Unfortunately, most games in Chicago past July don’t call for much sharp focus, as the Cubs are usually out of the race by then. Not the case in Oakland, where the A’s are consistently contending for and competing in the playoffs.
True to form, the 2014 version of the Oakland Athletics are most certainly competing for a playoff spot. In fact, they are the best team in baseball. The low-budget Swingin’ A’s even managed to send six players to Minnesota for the All-Star Game. Seven if you include Shark. But even despite the A’s hot start to the season, which included the best ERA among starting rotations in the A.L., Billy Beane still decided to double down in preparation for the inevitable battles with Justin Verlander and Miggie Cabrera come October. So excuse Jeff Samardzija if he is a bit thrilled about his recent move to the Bay Area.
Through four starts in the green and gold, Samardzija already holds a winning record of 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA. Compare this to a ten game stretch in Chicago earlier this year in which the Cubs lost 8 out of 10 games Samardzija started. Shark had a 1.68 ERA during said stretch (second best in MLB).
So when you see Jeff Samardzija galvanize the Coliseum crowd with a 95 per-hour strikeout followed by a Dennis Eckersley-esque fist pump, just remember he is probably just as happy as you are to be wearing an A's hat. No more lovable losers, no more polar-vortex, no more crazed Notre Dame autograph seekers. The Shark is finally out west on the pacific coast, pitching with one thing on his mind: the playoffs.