Caveman with a van: Samardzija

Samardzija talks how life on the road is a mental challenge. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Editor’s note: Drummer Stefan Marolachakis is traveling the country in a black van with tinted windows, touring for his band Caveman’s eponymous second album. Every week, Stefan will hunt the nation to gather musicians and athletes to discuss the link between the two clans. This week: Stefan finds the similarities between rocker and athlete in Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija and Band of Horses lead singer Ben Bridwell.

Stefan here, reporting to you from the Wash ‘n’ Stop on Geary Street in San Francisco. Free time being quite the rarity on tour, the countertop at this here laundromat will be serving as my desk for the day. Now, since I last checked in, we’ve visited Albuquerque, Denver, SLC, Vegas, and San Francisco -- all fun towns in very different ways -- but, truth be told, things can sometimes blur together when you’re visiting this many places in such a short stretch of time. As I set about putting together this week’s column I got to thinking about what, if any, overlaps might exist between the daily lives of the touring musician and the professional ballplayer, and the first thing that came to mind was precisely this rambling, nomadic lifestyle.

“What’s today, Monday?” The first words out of Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija’s mouth sounded very familiar. I caught up with him yesterday as he was preparing to shake off the last remnants of that good ol’ offseason dust in the final days of spring training in Arizona and hit the road. He’s throwing Opening Day against the Pirates on Monday and, hearing him tell it, it couldn’t come any sooner.

“We have a few days, I’ve got to pack everything up at my house, get my dog out of here, do a few other things I’ve been putting off and then the season will start. I’m looking forward to getting out of here for sure.”

Samardzija loves the road, and while he has the concerns any normal person would about being away from home for long periods of time, he definitely also cherishes every moment of it. “There are people who work longer and harder hours than I do, I’m not complaining. But is it hard to be on the road for 12 days and not really see or talk to anybody? Yeah, that’s tough -- but you gotta look at the big picture. I feel we’re very fortunate to do what we do. As long as you surround yourself with the right people who help you out and allow you to live your life and still keep it on track -- with bills, taxes, things like that -- I think it could work. It’s just very easy to get off track -- it could become very unstable.”

I told him the “unstable” part was something I could relate to (at which point we both broke out in laughter). I mentioned that I’d even bought an old ashtray at a thrift store in Vegas the other day because I thought it would be nice to see something familiar on the bedside table each night in the hotel (you know, a good place to put my drum key, change, etc.), told him how I try to inject routine whenever I can.

“Yeah, I stole a red glass bowl from the Greenwich Hotel in New York and currently it operates as my girlfriend’s jewelry holder.” (More laughter here.) “You know, it reminds you of a place you’ve been, and there are definitely hotels that become your home in a different kind of way. It’s fun to do -- but you don’t want to take the TV or anything. Nothing too serious.”

Samardzija happens to be a big music fan, and I found that out after speaking with one of his favorite musicians, Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses. And after seeing them play in Chicago one night, Jeff and Ben forged a friendship. “Turns out we have similar interests -- we enjoy their music, and Ben happens to enjoy baseball and appreciates what I do too, so that’s cool.”

As for Bridwell, he was a baseball player in his younger days, playing Legion baseball in South Carolina. From the way he described it when I spoke with him, he definitely made his mark on the circuit. “I hung out in trailer parks and got really s----- tattoos -- tattoos were illegal then -- and I had my hair weird. In a small town in South Carolina, especially playing baseball, I remember it being really quite an event for a lot of the opposing teams. They were not only afraid of me as a bad influence or something, but probably also just slightly confused. I think maybe Dennis Rodman paved the way for me.”

Now that Bridwell’s brought Rodman into the conversation ... where does Samardzija land on the possible similarities between the musician and the athlete? “They’re both a pretty competitive type of person, you know? Definitely perfectionist in a certain way ... well, I guess, to the maximum of perfectionism on both ends. Also, you never see anyone that can do both, and even the ones that claim they can suck -- that’s just the truth. You’ve just got to like to perform, and there’s a certain love for it you have to have because it has to consume your life or else you’re not going to be very good at it.”

Life in MLB is obviously busy, what with the 162-game schedule and all, but Samardzija still tries to catch live music when he can. “Sometimes we get to go out and catch a band or two; it all depends on the weekend. We’re playing every day and usually our weekend games are at night, so if the game goes quick maybe you can catch the end of a show. I got lucky before the All-Star break last year. I pitched in a day game against the Mets, and I got tickets to Roger Waters’ Wall show at Yankee Stadium, so my day was pretty outstanding. We lost, but I actually pitched well. I hadn’t been pitching well at all for that month leading up to that, so it was actually a pretty sweet day. We didn’t win, but it was actually a really good game ... it just didn’t end the way we wanted it to. And then I got to go from that to running back to the hotel, grabbing a car and heading to the Wall show.”

His tastes may not be that of the majority of players in the league, but it sounds like he does have his share of partners in crime. “A lot of country in baseball, and a lot of classic rock. There are definitely a few guys who go to concerts with me. The last big group thing we went to was Kings of Leon at Red Rocks, which was sweet. The Whigs opened up for them, I love the Whigs, they’re good. It was a great show, and to be at that venue was outstanding. Been listening to Portugal the Man pretty heavy lately, that was my offseason kick. But I’m always rocking Modest Mouse, I can’t get off that usually. And I listen to Ben [Band of Horses] a lot. He’s my travel guy -- if I’m on the plane and I need to relax, I’ll put the Horses on.”

While Jeff’s listening to Ben’s music to relax on the road, Ben’s out on tour watching sports and stressing himself out. “It’s really tough. If it’s a Saturday in the fall and the Georgia Bulldogs are playing, I can guarantee you that Band of Horses is in some faraway podunk town that doesn’t have Internet or TV and I’m sitting there blowing up my data plan trying get updates on scores. I kind of expect it to not work, so in a way I’m not that let down -- but if it does, and I can get a live feed on the Internet, and it starts freezing on me, I start pulling my damn face off.”

The man is also no stranger to superstition when it comes to his Bulldog fandom. “Oh my God, dude, you have no idea. I almost burned this one shirt in a hotel room when Georgia lost to Boise State a couple years ago. I took my lucky shirt off and was going to set it on fire but I was worried about burning the hotel down. So all I had was plastic cutlery because I’d ordered pizza and salad -- so I started stabbing the shirt with plastic cutlery and ended up cutting my finger in the process. So my new ritual is I won’t wear any Georgia gear on game day. If we start winning, though, I will wear the same shirt. I’ll be sure to have the same shirt and socks for the next Saturday.”

And what of Jeff’s pregame ritual? “I go old-school gangster rap for my pregame vibe. I want a little swagger, but mixed in with a little old-school suave kind of thing. You’ll hear some Too Short on there, something with a little pace to it because I do want to get a little jacked up. Obviously Tupac and Biggie ... if you can name it from ‘90s rap, it’s on there.”

Check out Caveman on tour: 3/28 at Troubadour in Los Angeles, CA // 3/29 at Casbah San Diego, CA // 3/30 at Club Congress in Tucson, AZ // 4/1 The Parish in Austin, TX // 4/2 Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton, TX // 4/4 The Bottletree in Birmingham, AL