Dempster's determination shows on and off field
Cubs right-hander unlikely to wilt under Opening Day spotlight
Jeff Samardzija wanted to get a head start on his offseason work, so he came to Arizona after Thanksgiving to train with Ryan Dempster. The first thing they did was climb Camelback Mountain. Then, they did it again.
"We do the mountain a lot," Samardzija said of their cardio sessions. "That thing is tough. It's no fun, and he flies up it."
Mountains, Major League hitters, rare disorders that prevent his daughter from being able to swallow -- it doesn't matter. Dempster deals with it all, and he'll kick off the Cubs' season on Thursday when he faces the Nationals at Wrigley Field. It's his second straight Opening Day start and fourth of his career.
Last year's rough start is over. Dempster has deflected talk about it. You can check the stats: He was 1-3 with a 9.58 ERA in six April games, which led to a 10-14 season. He totaled 200 innings for the fourth consecutive season but that's about the only bright spot. Now, with a new front office, a new manager and a new attitude, it's up to Dempster to set a good tone.
W: Clippard (1-0) L: Marmol (0-1)
SV: Lidge (1)
"You go out there and show how you're going to play from the get-go," Dempster said. "I'll be ready to do my job and be as prepared as I can and hopefully start the season the right way -- that's with a victory."
He's already established himself with his teammates.
"He's one of our leaders," catcher Geovany Soto said. "The most important thing that all of us see is that he leads by example. He's one of the hardest working pitchers I've ever seen. Whenever he says something, you better pay attention. This guy is not messing around. He comes to work every day."
Samardzija saw Dempster's work ethic up close. Samardzija has made it clear he wants to be a starter. Dempster's advice has been to be patient.
"Of people to bounce ideas off of, he's a great person to do that," Samardzija said. "He's been that guy since the first day I got here. It's not like he wants to help because I want to be a starting pitcher."
The two motivate each other. Samardzija prefers weight lifting, while Dempster likes cardio workouts, which include some "crazy stuff" such as running up mountains and stadium steps.
Dempster drew the Opening Day assignment in 2001 and '02 with the Marlins and did not get a decision in either game. Last year, he took the loss as the Pirates spoiled the Cubs' opener, scoring six runs on six hits and four walks off the right-hander, who lasted 6 2/3 innings. It just made him work harder.
"You see a lot of veteran guys who have been successful and still are successful and there's a reason why," Samardzija said. "It's not just dumb luck. [Dempster] mentally has an approach to the game that a lot of people don't have, good or bad. It's really hard to do. It's really hard to be the same guy the next day after you start, good or bad.
"If you do really well, you can be really happy and outgoing, and if you don't do well, some guys can go into a shell, which affects your work ethic and messes up your schedule," Samardzija said. "He's the same guy every day and as a starter in the big leagues it's very important to be consistent and not be on a roller coaster."
By now, you've probably seen a video of Dempster, 34, doing his Harry Caray impersonation. He also has a serious side. His daughter, Riley, celebrated her third birthday on Sunday. She has DiGeorge syndrome, a chromosome abnormality that can cause a wide range of health and developmental issues. Also known as 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome, it has affected how Riley swallows, breathes and talks.
For the most part, professional athletes live very gifted lives. Riley's situation turned the Dempsters' lives upside down, and then they tackled it head on. Dempster and his wife, Jenny, created the Dempster Family Foundation to support other families who have children with 22q. Since its inception in January 2010, the foundation has raised more than $1.1 million.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
Events in 2012 will range from fundraisers at a Wrigleyville pizza parlor to the third annual Casino Night at Palmer House Hilton Chicago on May 9. There will be a "22q at the Zoo Day" on April 22, and a March of Dimes "March for Babies" walk on April 29 in Chicago. There will be a bus tour to raise awareness of 22q in June and July. The foundation will have a representative at the International 22q Foundation Conference and in October, a Dempster team will run in the Chicago marathon to raise money.
The Casino Night includes a live auction. Among the items this year will be a ball autographed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, which was donated by Steve Sutherland of Naperville, Ill. Last year, he donated a ball autographed by Ruth which sold for $21,000.
"I figured we had to top that," Sutherland said.
He had never met Dempster before donating the baseballs to the foundation.
"I can do this or [the ball] can sit in my house," Sutherland said. "It can do much more for them."
It's Dempster's "can do" attitude that's very contagious. On March 24, Dempster spent an hour with some kids affected by 22q before the Cubs game at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz. He'll do the same in Atlanta this summer.
Somehow, Dempster is able to handle whatever life throws at him.
"He's just a problem-solver," Samardzija said. "If there is an issue, 'Demp' can come up with an idea of how to fix it and then execute that plan. He's a calculated person and that's what I appreciate about him. He's not like a chicken with its head cut off running around, just going day to day. There's a plan -- what are we doing today to help tomorrow?"
On Thursday, Dempster will be focused on the Nationals and young starter Stephen Strasburg, who has 92 big league innings so far. Dempster totaled that many in his first season as the Cubs closer in 2005.
"I hope we score a bunch of runs off him and win the game," Dempster said. "We're trying to beat those guys. That's our goal and for me, the easiest way to do that is to do my part."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.