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Home on the Hill

Jeff Samardzija is that astonishingly rare breed—an ace on both the North and South sides.

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After a year in Oakland, pitcher Jeff Samardzija heads back to Chicago—this time on the South Side.

It’s been a crazy year for Jeff Samardzija, but now he has ended up exactly where he wanted.

The towering former Notre Dame wide receiver began last year as a stud pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, who traded him to the Oakland A’s in July. Then, in a stunning move after the season ended, the 30-year-old ace ended up back in Chicago—but this time with the White Sox, his favorite team when he was growing up.

We spoke with the Merrillville, Ind., native recently, and he told us what he missed most about Chicago when he was gone, how he relates to his childhood idols and that one crazy time on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

What are your favorite Sox memories from growing up?
Well, one time we were driving to a game—we had this old conversion van, and it popped a flat about 4 miles from the exit. So we’re on the Dan Ryan with cars going about 100 miles per hour past us, and me and my pops are down there on our hands and knees trying to fix the lug nuts. Then we went to the game, and they ended up beating the Blue Jays. That’s my first memory.

It’s kind of crazy that you were in Chicago, then California, and now back in Chicago.
It’s still sinking in. It’s really weird—when you go through the experience of being traded away from the team that drafted you, you kind of turn the page. You move on because you have to. You can’t hold those old ties because you have a new team, a new front office to perform for and new fans. And then just like that, you’re back in the same situation on a different team, but back home. So it’s still taking me a second to take it all in. I’m pinching myself to realize [if] it’s real.

What’s it like now, being on the same team as some of your idols?
I try not to let [manager] Robin Ventura know how big a fan I was, but he was one of them. Ron Kittle grew up and lived in my area, and I was always a big fan of Ozzie [Guillen], and the list goes on. There’s too many to list— all those fond memories of lying on the couch on a hot summer day and watching games—it goes a long way back. I’m excited.

What did you miss most about Chicago when you were in California?
Well, I sold all my stuff—I didn’t think I was coming back! But I missed driving in from the airport into the city. When you land at O’Hare and you come in from out West and you see the skyline, there’s a sense of excitement, like Christmas in the air. You don’t get it anywhere else. It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It feels like home.