MESA, Ariz. — It might be too early to start writing the obituaries for Ryan Dempster’s baseball career.
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but Jeff Samardzija wouldn’t be surprised if Dempster makes a comeback in 2015. Dempster decided to walk away from the Boston Red Sox — and $13.25 million — so he can get healthy, sort through some personal issues and spend more time with his family. Samardzija — one of Dempster’s closest friends in the Cubs clubhouse — didn’t see it coming.
“Totally blindsided,” Samardzija said Monday at Cubs Park. “Demp’s a smart guy. He doesn’t make any rash decisions. So obviously it was calculated and he understood that maybe it was his time. From what it sounds like, it doesn’t seem like he’s totally done — just maybe taking a break.
“I know how much of a competitor he is, so sitting around watching is probably not going to be the easiest pill to swallow. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s coming back.”
Dempster had a good sense of humor, made himself accessible to the media and put new teammates at ease. But he could flip the switch, throwing dugout tantrums and getting into screaming matches with ex-managers Mike Quade and Dale Sveum.
That intensity spilled over into the offseason. Samardzija and Dempster own homes in the same Mesa subdivision and used to work out together, playing ice hockey or running up Camelback Mountain in Phoenix.
“For three, four years, I was down here with him and he was dragging me out of bed at six in the morning,” Samardzija said. “He really showed that it might be November, December, but there’s still things you can do to prepare for the season and improve.”
Dempster — who would have gone to the University of Notre Dame if he hadn’t signed with the Texas Rangers in 1995 — showed an All-American wide receiver what it takes to throw 200 innings.
“Demp’s a great dude,” Samardzija said. “He’s the type of guy where if he doesn’t feel that he has that same passion and he can’t give it all, then he feels it’s better to let someone else do it. You wish him the best.
“I owe a lot to Demp, just from being a young guy and him showing me how to work and how to prepare for the season. (I) learned a lot from Demp, so hopefully he’s not done — he’s just taking a little hiatus.”
Dempster made his big-league debut with the Florida Marlins in 1998. He may have closed his career last October with a strikeout to end a Game 1 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. He turns 37 in May and will have to decide if his mind and his body can handle the grind again.
Dempster loved organizing golf outings, trips to the United Center and Super Bowl parties at his house. Samardzija, 29, is now the longest-tenured guy in a Cubs clubhouse that seems to be lacking veteran leadership.
“That’s our job to make it not be missing,” Samardzija said. “There’s that time when the page turns on your own career when you have to change. Those guys aren’t around anymore, so you have to become that guy yourself. What a great mentor to have, to see how to do that, how to relate with different players and new guys and integrate the team and get everyone on the same page. Dempster was great at that.”