Samardzija reflects on passing of Cubs scout that signed him

Samardzija reflects on passing of Cubs scout that signed him

Cliff Floyd landed in Fort Lauderdale – the night before a gunman opened fire in a South Florida airport terminal – and could immediately sense something already went wrong by the way his phone started buzzing.

The news rippled throughout the baseball community last week: Cubs scout Stan Zielinski, 64, had died suddenly overnight at his home in Chicago's western suburbs. The sense of loss hit Floyd hard, because he placed so much trust in Zielinski as a Thornwood High School senior, believing what this guy from the Montreal Expos kept telling his family before the 1991 draft. 

"Not one lie ever came out of this man’s mouth," Floyd said. "Stan was so genuine, man, and just so real with everything that a young kid needed."

The Cubs will miss that presence in the Wrigley Field clubhouse this week when team officials hold their kickoff meetings for the 2017 draft – and remember Zielinski's invaluable contributions to a World Series champion before Wednesday's funeral service at St. John the Baptist in Winfield.

Zielinski spoke with conviction and authority, scouting for the last 38 years and working for the Cubs since 2001, fitting into front offices run by Andy MacPhail, Jim Hendry and Theo Epstein.

Zielinski could shift between the pro game and amateur scouting, recommending Hendry acquire Chris Archer from the Cleveland Indians in the Mark DeRosa trade and reinforcing what Epstein saw in Kyle Schwarber at Indiana University.

Zielinski, who went to Loyola Academy on the North Shore, could also make connections in South Holland with Floyd’s mother, Olivia, and father, Cornelius, convincing them that the Expos would take their son with the 14th overall pick, launching what became a 17-year career in the big leagues and a second act as a broadcaster with MLB Network and SiriusXM Radio.

"It's having the ability to be the calm in the storm," Floyd said, "in any environment. Whether you're in the hood or the suburbs, it doesn't matter, because you have to be able to change your vibe going to different households. You can’t just be one-dimensional.

"That's an ability or a quality that not a lot of people possess. And when you have it, you have it.

"I'm a mama's boy. Stan realized he had to put the full-court press on her, or it's not going to work.

"The rest is pretty much history."

It became a two-man operation. Floyd, the Chicago Tribune's 1991 Athlete of the Year, had committed to play for Hendry at Creighton University. Standing in the family's driveway, Hendry asked Floyd what he wanted to do – turn pro – and told him he would go inside and try to influence Olivia.  

Hendry explained how he couldn't promise that he would be at Creighton forever. That candid admission eventually caught the attention of Montreal general manager Dave Dombrowski, who would later help Hendry make the jump to pro baseball with the expansion Florida Marlins and make Floyd a part of the 1997 World Series team.

Zielinski arranged for the Expos to deliver a $290,000 bonus and a clause in the contract that included money for college, allowing Floyd to take some offseason business classes at DePaul University and please his mother.

"She was such a big advocate of education that she was like: 'You're going to college,'" Floyd said. "She was just so big on who was going to take care of her baby when I was finally out of her eyesight after 18 years.

"These two guys were literally godsend, bro. They were literally everything you could possibly want your kid to be involved with. Without one, maybe you couldn't have the other.

"But I think when you look at how it all transpired for me, it was crazy, because my mom was so strong-willed at getting you to see it her way or the highway.

"When he finally said, 'Your mom is on board,' I thought he was crazy. I go: 'Stan, get your ass out of here. There ain’t no way. She just told me last night she wouldn’t do it.'"

Fifteen years later, Zielinski helped Hendry put together a $10 million deal that infuriated Bud Selig – the Major League Baseball commissioner at the time – and priced a Notre Dame All-American out of the NFL draft.   

"I'm in debt to him big-time," Jeff Samardzija said. "The more I talked to (Stan), and the more I saw that he was watching me, (and) the more they really explained to me why they felt (it would work), it just started to make the option a little bit more realistic for me. Whereas before it was maybe just a long shot or a pipe dream to involve baseball in my professional life.

"Sometimes, it takes other people believing in you for you to really start believing in yourself. I know he saw me play more in college probably than any other scout or GM or crosschecker or whatever. I knew his opinion of me was pretty solid – and it wasn’t wavering."

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Down on the Farm: Q&A with San Jose Giants 1B/3B Jonah Arenado

Down on the Farm: Q&A with San Jose Giants 1B/3B Jonah Arenado

The Giants know Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado all too well. In 76 games, Arenado has a .308 batting average against the Giants with 20 home runs, his most off any team in all of the majors. 

Playing in Advanced Single-A, the Giants have their own Arenado. Brother Jonah Arenado plays first and third base for the San Jose Giants and hit 19 home runs in 2016. 

Before the younger brother went 2-for-4 against the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes on Thursday night, NBC Sports Bay Area spoke over the phone with Arenado. Below is the full transcript where we talk his hitting approach, frustrations with the Lakers, trash talk with Nolan in ping pong and much more. 

Dalton Johnson: “You guys are now three weeks in, but I want to actually go back to Opening Day real quick. I know you guys ultimately lost, but it was a 16-inning game. Was that the longest game you’ve ever played in?” 

Jonah Arenado: “No, the longest game I ever played in was 17 innings.” 

DJ: “Really?! Wow! When was that?” 

JA: “I played 17 innings in Lakewood. I was playing for Augusta at the time. We were playing in New Jersey. So we went 17 innings, but we didn’t even get to finish the game. The fog got so extreme that we had to just cancel the game.” 

DJ: “The fog? That’s just crazy. So you were out in Augusta for the GreenJackets?” 

JA: “Yeah.”

DJ: “I was actually out in Savannah for college ball. I’m not sure if you guys ever played against the Sand Gnats.”

JA: “Yeah we were there the last year they had that stadium.” 

DJ: “Grayson Stadium. That was a really fun park. But a 16 or 17-inning game, I’m going to guess that the dugout has to get a little weird at some point, right?” 

JA: “Yeah you're just getting like... it gets kind of monotonous you know. It’s kind of like okay, when are we gonna score or when are they gonna score. And obviously you don’t want to lose the game, but you just want something to happen.” 

DJ: “What are you guys bringing out the rally caps or doing anything different?” 

JA: “No, no rally caps, but there’s times where a couple innings go by and someone will come into the dugout and try get jacked up or excite everyone. When it doesn’t work, it’s like alright here we go again.” 

DJ: “Off the field, I think you’re a Southern California guy and this is your second year out in Northern California in San Jose. Obviously you guys are always busy, but do you ever get to go out and check the Bay Area scenery at all?”

JA: “I’ve been to Santa Cruz and the beach over there. I’ve been to San Francisco. I went to San Francisco on an off day last year to watch the Giants-Rockies game. But besides that, no I rarely ever get to go out to San Francisco or anything like that.” 

DJ: “Off day, or you a golf guy or more of a relax guy? What are you trying to do on an off day?” 

JA: “I’m just trying to relax. Maybe hang out by the pool, just relax and hang out. Go to the beach. And if you do get to relax, I’m not trying to do anything that’s like a workout.” 

DJ: “Are there any places in San Jose where if someone’s coming from out town, you say, ‘Hey, this is where you need to go.’ San Jose, where would you go for one day?”

JA: “Oh, San Jose...” 

DJ: “Just go to a game? Tell them to go to a San Jose Giants game?” 

JA: “Yeah, yeah go to a San Jose Giants game and if not, Santa Cruz is 30 minutes down the road. I’d go to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is nice.” 

DJ: “And then on the field, you’re someone who hits for power. You hit 19 bombs last year. With the way different people are starting to look at the swing now, are you someone that’s actually trying to swing for the fences a little bit? Are you trying to hit a home run? What’s your approach?”

JA: “No, I feel like the more I try to hit a home run, the more I don’t. When I go in thinking line drive to the middle or stay through the middle, I feel a lot better. I know last year I didn’t start off well, and I’m not starting off well this year either, but I know if I think like I have to drive this ball or I have to hit a home run then that never happens. Try to stay simple, try to stay short is usually when things start working out.” 

DJ: “Well there’s all these different advanced analytics and you can track everything now. Are you someone that actually looks into something like launch angle or exit velocity? Or is it more see ball, hit ball?” 

JA: “I don’t like thinking about those 40-degree angles. Hitting is hard enough. To think about all that stuff is too much. But I know that a lot of people, that’s the new thing. Launch angle and try to lift the ball, and that’s all great. It’s whatever works for that person. I know Donaldson preaches it and he loves talking about it, but that’s him. That’s what works for him. I know for me, trying to lift the ball doesn’t work. When I try to lift the ball, I usually pop up. So when I’m trying to hit a hard line drive, that’s when I usually can drive that ball.” 

DJ: “Yeah it seems like when you’re practicing, you’re on the tee or getting front toss or whatever, that’s when you can kind of work on those things. But I couldn’t really imagine taking that over to the game. Once it’s game time, it’s get a pitch, be aggressive, hit it hard. Are you just trying to make things, like you said, as simple as possible once it’s go time?” 

JA: “Yeah, when I’m in the game I’m just trying to be as ready as I can for that fastball. Just see it and hit it. There’s nothing more to it, honestly. Obviously, when you’re struggling you start trying to fix things. When I’m going well, it’s never thinking about what this guy is gonna throw or make sure your foot is doing this. No, I never think about that. I think about see the ball and hit it as hard as I can.” 

DJ: “In the minor leagues, are these tracking systems as prominent or is that more available the higher you go?” 

JA: “I think it’s more available for the big leaguers. It’s hard to watch our swings on video because sometimes our games aren’t taped. We watch our home games because they are streamed, but besides that it’s hard to get all that stuff done.” 

DJ: “Can that almost be an advantage at the same time though? When you’re younger I think if you look too far into then you might press or try to do too much. If you’re just figuring things out on your own, that might even be a little better. Am I right or wrong there?” 

JA: “I think you’re both wrong and right. There’s times when you think too much and sometimes you think it’s your swing and it’s really not your swing, it’s your approach. I think that’s when it can hurt you. When you’re looking at it on video, but that was never really the problem, so then you’re changing a swing that was actually working, but your approach was what’s messed up so now you’re changing your swing and your approach. So that can hurt you. But it can also help you because if there is something mechanically wrong, you can fix it. If you can’t watch it, then how are you gonna know? When you’re in the box, you feel completely different. You never feel like that’s your swing. When you’re in the box, everything is different. When you see it on film, you see I’m dropping my hands, but in the box I’m telling myself to stay on top of the ball so you don’t think you’re dropping your hands, but you’re still dropping your hands, you know what I mean?” 

DJ: “It’s almost like a best of two evils.” 

JA: “Yeah, yeah.” 

DJ: “Back on the field, clearly you’re obviously from a very athletic family. For you, was it just baseball all the time?” 

JA: “My older brother played soccer, my oldest brother played basketball too and Nolan just played baseball. He played soccer for a little, but then went with just baseball. For me, I played basketball also. Basketball is my favorite sport.” 

DJ: “Oh, really?” 

JA: “Yeah, it was. Basketball is just so much fun. You go out and shoot down the street by your house and technically that’s practicing, you know what I mean?” 

DJ: “Oh yeah. Baseball obviously you can go hit off the tee, but basketball, I mean I shot for 20 minutes at the gym today and you feel great.” 

JA: “Yeah, you can work on so many different things. If you’re hitting like crap that day, then it’s really hard to fix it that day. Basketball, if you’re shooting and keep shooting, eventually it’s going to go in.” 

DJ: “So, who’s your team?” 

JA: “Oh, the Lakers. Unfortunately, yeah.” 

DJ: “Are you feeling good about the rebuild or how are you feeling about all that?” 

JA: “I don’t, man. Magic Johnson’s in there, so I hope he’s the answer. But they need to get a superstar. The Lakers are my team, they have always been my team, but the players on the team are bothering me lately.” 

DJ: “I’m sure you and your brother Nolan and all of your brothers competed against each other all the time growing up. Whether it be shooting hoops or playing video games or anything else, what was the one thing, especially with Nolan, where you knew you could beat him no matter what?” 

JA: “Oh man, that’s tough. It’s really hard to beat him. Him losing to me is like death, but he’ll do anything he can to not lose to me because he knows if I win I’ll talk. I’ll just keep talking about it. It’s hard to say. There’s days in ping pong, I’m not gonna say I’m a better ping pong player, but we’re both pretty competitive. If I beat him in ping pong, I mean, it’s over. He’s distraught and then he’ll just want to rematch me until he can beat me.” 

DJ: “If you beat him, you said you’re a talker. What’s your go-to angle when it comes to trash talk?” 

JA: “I just never let him forget it. If I beat him in ping pong that series or that day, you better believe all day I’m gonna wear it out.” 

DJ: “Were you guys video game guys at all or more outside?” 

JA: “We played video games here and there. Mostly it was outdoors. Wiffle ball was always big with me and my family. We still play to this day. We still play wiffle ball all the time.” 

DJ: “Wiffle ball, you’re in the backyard 1-on-1. Who wins between you and Nolan and if you have one pitch, what are you throwing him?” 

JA: “Throwing him? I’m throwing fastball at his face.”

DJ: “Fastball at his face?!?” 

JA: “I’m just kidding, just kidding.” 

DJ: “That might be the only way the Giants can slow him down.” 

JA: “I’ll throw some chin music and then try to throw a little changeup away.” 

DJ: “I got you there, I got you. One last question. Video game wise, if EA Sports could bring back college baseball or college football, what are you picking?” 

JA: “Baseball.” 

DJ: “That was the go-to right there.” 

JA: “I forgot, but there was a college baseball game. I forgot which one it was that we played all the time, but it was one of the best games we ever played.” 

DJ: “I remember they had Texas on the cover or something like that—”

JA: “Exactly! That’s exactly the one.” 

DJ: “They have to bring it back.” 

JA: “That game is the best.” 

Krukow: Belt needs to make mechanical improvements, 'it's a concern'

Krukow: Belt needs to make mechanical improvements, 'it's a concern'

Brandon Belt is hitting .238 with four home runs and nine RBI.

He has struck out 23 times in 80 at-bats.

"I just don't think he's hitting the fastball," Mike Krukow explained on KNBR 680 on Friday morning. "I think they're coming at him with a lot of fastballs at the belt, and until he turns some of those fastballs around, he's gonna get a continued steady diet of the same pitch.

"Go back and take a look at his home runs -- they're curveballs down and in ... this is something that's been a weakness of his for awhile. And teams are on it. They're telling him what's coming, and he's unable to hit it."

Belt has drawn 16 walks this season and his on-base percentage is .365.

"That's outstanding ... but he has to start beating that fastball," Krukow added. "And his best defense in most instances is just to take the fastball. But he can't do that. You see a belt-high fastball, a little bit above, you're thinking 'I gotta hit this.' And he's not hitting it.

"And until he starts making some adjustments, and you say, 'Well, how do you do that?' Well, you gotta flatten out your swing someway, to be able to take that loop that you have when you're swinging at that high fastball, out. And I think that's the way that you try and beat it."

"They're continuing to pound him with fastballs, and he's not doing anything with them. So it's a concern and he's got some work to do to try and solve that. He's gonna have to make some mechanical improvements."