What is it about the Cubs?
Ryan Dempster didn’t hesitate to answer that question on Monday while putting on a Boston Red Sox uniform inside the visiting clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field. Those thoughts weighed on his mind last summer, when he didn’t necessarily want to waive his no-trade rights and leave the North Side. As he thought about his future over the winter, he still tried to find a way back, even after a 101-loss season.
“You’re playing in a great city,” Dempster said. “You’re playing in front of great fans. There’s passion that’s different than a lot of places, this desire for this unattainable goal, because of the World Series they haven’t won in over a hundred years. So you always feel like: ‘I want to be a part of that team.’”
Theo Epstein’s front office won’t be as sentimental across the next two-plus months. The Cubs might as well put up an “Open For Business” sign on Tuesday night at PNC Park when Matt Garza makes his first big-league start in 10 months and begins his auditions for playoff contenders against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
With more than 25 percent of the season complete, the Cubs are 18-25, with signs pointing to another big sell-off in late July. That means it will soon be fantasy baseball time for fans and reporters trying to invent trades.
The Cubs couldn’t make it through their second Cactus League game in late February before Curtis Granderson got hit by a pitch, fracturing his forearm and igniting speculation on Twitter: Would Alfonso Soriano approve a deal to the New York Yankees?
Carlos Marmol couldn’t meet with his agents last week in the lobby/lounge of his apartment building without someone taking photos, eavesdropping and sending information over Twitter to the publisher of a popular Cubs blog.
Simply put, Cubs players get taken care of in Chicago. They’re comfortable here. They’re not looking to leave. Remember that the next time you try to trade Soriano to Team X or Team Y or wonder if the Cubs could re-sign Garza.
On July 31 last year, Dempster headed over to the team’s Clark Street headquarters to check out the Golden Tee arcade game and talk directly with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.
Dempster wanted to be reunited with old buddy Ted Lilly on the Los Angeles Dodgers and play on the West Coast at a time that was difficult for him personally. But he expanded his list and signaled a willingness to go to the Yankees and Texas Rangers in the final hours leading up to the 3 p.m. deadline.
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When the Texas deal was finally done, Dempster remembered looking up at a TV and noticing the countdown clock on the MLB Network: 4 minutes and 53 seconds.
“It’s a treat to go to work every day when you play at Wrigley Field,” Dempster said. “It’s hard if somebody says: ‘Oh, we’re going to trade you. You’re going to go somewhere else.’ Like I said last year: (For) nine seasons, I was really, really lucky and really fortunate to be a part of that and then all of a sudden (I’m leaving). The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
“Chicago’s a really, really special city and I think just as much as playing for the Cubs, people fall in love with playing in this city, and rightfully so. It’s just a tremendous place and you can see why guys don’t want to leave.”
In recent years, Kerry Wood left before returning at a hometown discount. Where Derrek Lee evolved – rejecting a deal with the Los Angeles Angels in July 2010 before accepting a trade to the Atlanta Braves weeks later – Aramis Ramirez essentially used his doctrine of “No chance, papi.”
It took the perfect storm in January 2012 to convince Carlos Zambrano to waive his no-trade rights and go pitch for Ozzie Guillen’s Miami Marlins.
On July 23 last year, Dempster woke up from a nap at the team hotel in Pittsburgh and saw that his name had exploded all over Twitter. Atlanta outlets had first reported it was a done deal with the Braves, pending his approval, and other reporters jumped on the bandwagon, creating an environment where he felt it was difficult to make a decision.
While the fans and media sometimes only see the numbers on the back of the baseball card, or the salary figures and years of club control on a spreadsheet, it’s not like players are one-dimensional robots.
“That’s what was so funny about last year,” Dempster said. “Everybody was giving me (bleep) about my own stuff. It’s like: Wait, why can’t I (stay)? What if I just said: ‘I want to play in Chicago. I love it here. Why can’t I just keep playing?’
“And then (they) say: ‘Oh, well, the future of the Cubs…’ ‘OK, well, I’ll stay two more years and I’ll keep playing here. I’m going to keep making my starts and I’m going to keep winning games.’
“What do you want? I’m not trying to break the bank. (I’ve) always felt so fortunate to be able to put on a Cubs uniform. But that chapter ended and a new chapter began.”
Dempster – who’s 2-4 with a 4.27 ERA through nine starts – hung out with his young son, Brady, in the visiting clubhouse and in right field during batting practice on the South Side. He had kept in touch with the Cubs front office before signing a two-year, $26.5 million contract with the Red Sox last December.
[CUBS: No DH necessary]
“They obviously had a plan, with a guy like Anibal Sanchez and then Edwin Jackson and maybe if those things fell through they’d give me an opportunity,” Dempster said. “Once the (Red Sox) showed me how much they wanted me, it just kind of made sense to come here and I’m excited for the challenge.”
After all the fried-chicken-and-beer stories and drama surrounding ex-manager Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox remade their clubhouse by importing glue guys like Dempster, Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino.
“Truthfully, half the team wasn’t here for that,” Dempster said. “It does one of two things: A.) We weren’t there. We don’t know what went on. We don’t care. And B.) It takes the pressure off those guys that were here. It kind of gives them a fresh start.
“This team kind of stands on its own and we just have fun.”
Even with Monday’s 6-4 loss to the White Sox, the surprising Red Sox are still 27-18 and planning to make a run in the American League East.
As Dempster said: “They went after baseball players who also care about winning, having passion for doing things the right way and I think that’s super-important. (It’s been) great from Day 1 of spring training.”
That’s when Jeff Samardzija missed running up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix with Dempster, the guy who set the tone for the entire pitching staff. Before signing that life-changing contract, Anthony Rizzo had mentioned Dempster as one of the veterans who made him feel so welcome last summer after an over-hyped promotion from Triple-A Iowa.
In locking up Rizzo and Starlin Castro with long-term contracts that could run through 2021 and 2020, Epstein stuck with his club policy and didn’t include any no-trade provisions.
It reminded you of the classic line Dempster delivered last July: “It’s awesome being the hammer and not the nail.”