Thursday, March 31, 2011
Posted: 5:14 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
Its hard to remember now, because you can see his image on the front of the building, next to the Wrigley Field marquee. But Ryan Dempster was essentially damaged goods when he first signed with the Cubs.
Dempster hadnt yet turned 27 and he was already on his fourth organization. He was almost six months removed from Tommy John surgery by January 2004. It would have been difficult to envision him as he is today the face of the franchise.
But at 1:20 p.m. on Friday, Dempster will stand on the mound at Clark and Addison as a billboard for everything the Cubs are trying to project. He is a family man, a trusted teammate, a good citizen and lets not forget their most reliable pitcher.
There is the Opening Day assignment against the Pirates. But April 1 also marks the second birthday of Dempsters daughter, Riley, who has battled DiGeorge syndrome, a developmental disorder that impacted her ability to swallow. It will be time for the family to reflect.
Shes come a long way in two years, man, thats for sure, Dempster said. Its been pretty special to watch what shes been able to do and do for other people. It will be a fun day.
On a cold December night, Dempster and his wife, Jenny, hosted a fundraiser for their charitable foundation inside a Lakeview pizza joint. There Kerry Wood and general manager Jim Hendry reconnected hours after Ron Santos funeral.
Before leaving, each went up to Dempster separately and essentially said the same thing: If hes serious, Im serious. The 1.5 million deal to make Wood a Cub for life was in sight.
Dempster never carried the same weight of expectations as Wood once did, but hes also grown up before our eyes.
All about winning
Dempster will turn 34 in May and has reached that point in his life where hes become almost corporate. When ESPN visited Fitch Park during spring training, he climbed aboard the bus and did his impression of Matt Foley, Chris Farleys old character on Saturday Night Live. But that wacky side isnt seen as often anymore.
Im a husband and father of three now. I find that a lot of my free time is with them, Dempster said. My little guys not even five yet and he does his little Harry Caray in the backseat its pretty funny. (But) there is definitely greater responsibility as you get older. I leave that up to the younger guys now to have that kind of fun.
The work is its own reward. Dempster keeps himself in excellent physical condition and has accounted for at least 31 starts and 200 innings in each of the past three seasons. But personal numbers dont consume him.
Dempster volunteered to defer part of his 12.5 million base salary last year so that the Cubs could add another player. Though its believed that he was paid the entire sum in 2010, the offer said everything about his priorities.
I was just going to get the money one way or another, said Dempster, who seemed reluctant to talk about it. It just seemed like if we needed a little bit extra, (then) you give me mine a little bit later and help the team get a little bit better.
It didnt quite work out like we were supposed to. But I think you see that with guys as you get older. You (just) want to win. When youre younger you want to win, too, but youre trying to establish yourself in your career. As you get older, really the only thing that matters is winning a World Series.
That focus doesnt surprise Hendry, who never viewed Dempster as a risk. As a high school kid in British Columbia, Dempster once signed with Notre Dame to play for Paul Mainieri, one of Hendrys best friends and the current LSU coach.
The Cubs knew Dempster had a strong family background and would bring intangibles to the clubhouse.
When you take chances on people that (are) coming off injuries, Hendry said, the work ethic and character of the guy plays huge. (We) liked him as a pitcher before he got hurt, and we knew enough about him as a man that he was certainly worth taking a gamble on.
The Rangers chose Dempster in the third round of the 1995 draft and he never wound up playing for Notre Dame. He turned pro in every sense of the word.
Pitchers on other teams are jokingly called punters, because they are viewed as specialists, situational players completely divorced from the daily rhythms of the game.
But theres no doubt that Dempster has become a team leader, the veteran that young pitchers model themselves after.
In Arizona Dempster led a group of teammates on a hike up Camelback Mountain. And one free afternoon he finished playing Xbox with James Russell and suggested that they get off the couch and drive over to Tempe to watch Cubs-Angels in the rain. No one does that in the Cactus League.
You got to keep it fun and relaxed, Russell said. Thats what Ryan does so well. (For) four days hes joking around, having a good time. (But) when its his fifth day, you see him (and) its like a different person.
Even with a higher public profile, Dempster still shows that Canadian sense of humor. After a recent start in Arizona, a reporter mentioned how Matt Garza likes to work on different pitches in spring training. Dempster was asked if he also likes to experiment.
I try to stay away from that kind of stuff, Dempster said. Oh, youre talking about baseball.
Dempster said he hasnt decided what hell do with his 14 million player option for 2012. The Cubs love the joy Dempster takes out of competing, how his work habits impact the rest of the clubhouse. But they also felt the same way about Ted Lilly, and hell be wearing a Dodgers uniform this season.
Id like to play here and win here, Dempster said. (Ill) just keep going out and doing my job. Wherever the cards fall, they fall. (I) dont really care to go anywhere (else but) thats a long ways down the road.
Its a business that Dempster tries to remember as a kids game. It's clear he wants to stay on the North Side. How much longer does he want to pitch?
Until I cant get anybody out anymore, Dempster said. What am I going to do? Work?
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.