This past spring, a Major League Baseball player who grew up in my area of Indiana made a generous donation to his hometown. Jeff Samardzija, pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, donated tickets to approximately 7,000 students in the Valparaiso Community School system so they could attend a game this season.
Samardzija starred in football and baseball for the University of Notre Dame and has been playing professional baseball since 2008. I recently sat down with him to learn about his journey to becoming a starting pitcher in the majors and to find out what motivated him to make such a thoughtful donation to the kids in his hometown.
As a kid, Samardzija did not get to attend a lot of White Sox games (Valparaiso is about an hour’s drive from Chicago), so when he did it was a special occasion. “I wanted to share that with the kids in my hometown,” said Samardzija, who is serious about sharing the game of baseball with as many kids as possible. “The more young kids that you get involved in enjoying the sport, the better hands the game will be in.”
I wanted to know what it feels like to be playing professionally just one hour from his hometown. He likes the fact that it’s easy for people to come see him play and that he can get back and visit his family frequently.
Some of Samardzija’s favorite memories as a young boy were watching his high school team playing and having success and also playing baseball with his older brother, Sam. Sam has always been a big part of his life, and they have always supported each other in the sports they played growing up.
Samardzija had more than one option coming out of college. He could have played in the NFL as a wide receiver, but instead he decided to continue his baseball career. According to him, it was not an easy decision. He played both sports his whole life but chose baseball in the end because there was such a sense of fun to it. He spent a lot of time playing football growing up, so baseball was a nice release from what he called the “rigors of the football life.”
Even though Samardzija has been playing baseball since he was seven, he still experiences pre-game jitters. “I don’t think I would be playing anymore if I didn’t get pre-game jitters,” he said. He tries to relax and stay as calm as possible before the first pitch because he doesn’t want to be “too fired up” before a game.
He often eats chicken tenders and fries before a game to give his body the energy but acknowledges it may not be the healthiest choice.
Samardzija was willing to offer advice for young players who dream of making it to the major leagues. I was rather surprised at what he said. I figured that he would say that one would have to practice every day for numerous hours, but his advice was for young players to just have fun playing the game and to learn how to play the game the right way. “You grow up quickly, so have as much fun as you can now with the game, and develop your skills.”
It was refreshing to spend time with a professional athlete who is genuinely committed to giving back to his community and who also has a deep passion for growing the game of baseball. It was clear to me that Samardzija credits others for his success in Major League Baseball, and he is more than willing to give back so that others can experience the love he has for the game.
Photos: Hannah Fosilen/Getty Images (White Sox), Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated (Notre Dame), Matt Collins (dugout)