MESA, Ariz. – The best Ryan Dempster stories can never be printed, but here’s one that showed why he commanded such respect inside the clubhouse, why he will be missed by teammates.
Cubs reliever James Russell heard the Dempster news while stretching before Sunday’s workout. It popped up on Blake Parker’s phone: Dempster will sit out the 2014 season after telling the Boston Red Sox he needs to spend more time with his family and let some physical issues heal.
“I remember my first camp I had a rollaway locker right in front of the shower and I was terrified,” Russell said. “The first person to actually come say something to me was Demp. He goes: ‘Hey man, they gave me an open locker next to me. Why don’t you just get out of that rollaway locker and come put your stuff in here?’
“I wasn’t going to do it. And then the next day I come in and all my stuff’s right next to him. The stuff he does for young guys and just the team is amazing.”
While Dempster’s decision to walk away from $13.25 million surprised people at Cubs Park, they also understood that personal issues had been building. Family considerations complicated the no-trade drama in July 2012, when he was nearly dealt to the Atlanta Braves before getting shipped to the Texas Rangers minutes before the deadline.
Inspired by his daughter, Riley, Dempster’s foundation has also raised money and awareness for children born with 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. He talked about his family during a news conference at the Red Sox complex in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as the pains in his neck that made it more difficult to throw a baseball.
Dempster, 36, had spent most of the offseason in Chicago, getting ready for what would have been his 17th season in the big leagues. He was still riding the high from the worst-to-first team that won the World Series and represented a city after the Boston Marathon bombings.
“Just to even think of him not taking the ball,” Russell said. “He’s one of the guys that, no matter what, if he’s hurting, he’s out there grinding and trying to do what he can to help the team.”
If this is it – and Dempster didn’t call it a retirement – then he leaves with a 132-133 record, a 4.35 ERA, 2,075 strikeouts and around $90 million in career earnings. He saved 87 games in a Cubs uniform, made two All-Star teams and accounted for 2,387 innings. He earned a forever spot in Boston’s rivalry with the New York Yankees when he drilled Alex Rodriguez last season.
“Just one of the more stand-up guys in baseball,” Russell said. “He keeps it loose and fun and he would make sure everybody is included in stuff. He’d always have guys come over to his house and watch the Super Bowl if we’re out here early (in Arizona). We’d cook out and hang out and just play video games.”
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Dempster had an unpredictable sense of humor, but he also prided himself on being reliable, making 30-plus starts for the Cubs every year between 2008 and 2011. Russell remembered Dempster showing up one time for a Kerry Wood bowling event.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen ‘Kingpin,’ but he came dressed as Bill Murray’s character,” Russell said. “I mean, to a T. And it was just one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. And of course he made us rookies do the ‘Cubs American Idol,’ which was a big hit with everybody.”
Dempster, who will go on the restricted list, doesn’t know what will happen next and seemed to leave the door open for 2015.
“He’s a hard worker, so you know he’s doing it for the best interests of his career,” Russell said. “I’d love to see him come back and play. He’s still got plenty of years (left in) his arm. It’s sad to see that happen to a guy that’s so well-respected around baseball, (especially) in the city of Chicago and by all the guys in the locker room.”