Yesterday we received the following email from the Dempster Family Foundation:
Yesterday, our founder, Ryan Dempster announced that he would not play baseball in 2014.
Dempster isn't a Cub anymore, as most of you know. He's with, or not with, as it were, the Red Sox. He hasn't said that he was going to retire, just not play this season because of physical and personal reasons. You can see his press conference here. In 2015 he'll turn 38, so this could be it for his playing days.
Although his last weeks with the Cubs in 2012 were not pleasant, we have mostly very fond memories of his years at Clark and Addison. We immediately thought of the following very unlikely encounter with Dempster after the 2008 season, as described in the "Epilogue" of our book, Waiting for the Cubs. So both of you who have read the book will be familiar with the story.
On October 17, 2008, as we were about to leave our house in York, Pennsylvania, to pick up our youngest daughter Patricia at the Lancaster Amtrak train station, I stared into the front hall closet for an extra moment. Normally I would grab my green zip-up jacket on such a cool fall day. But at this moment, in spite of the Cubs’ horrible playoff disgrace, I defiantly pulled out my bright blue Cub V-neck pullover windbreaker (nylon exterior, 100% polyester lining) featuring a cubby bear climbing out of a huge Cub “C”. The Lancaster area is rife with Phillies fans, who at this point were well on their way to winning the World Series, yet another Series that the Cubs should have played in. The heck with them!
Patricia's older sister Anne Lise and her boyfriend Jeff were visiting and came along. Pulling up in front of the station we saw that there were no parking spots so we stopped at the curb in an illegal space and asked Anne Lise and Jeff to go inside and meet Patricia at the platform entrance while we waited in the car.
It was a glorious day. The late afternoon autumn light glowed with a subtle golden cast that made the 80-year-old station look positively monumental. The red brick and classical pillars of the two-story structure stood out in high contrast and detailed relief.
Patricia's mother Lucy’s cell phone announced the arrival of a text message. Surprised, she flipped it open and pressed the button: “It’s from Patricia. ‘Dempster. Look for him.’”
“Here,” she handed the phone to me. "Pretty strange little message."
"Dempster!!! look for him!"
“She can’t mean Ryan Dempster,” I said.
“No,” said Lucy. “No way. What would Ryan Dempster be doing on a train from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania?”
“Isn’t he from Canada or the Pacific Northwest somewhere?”
I opened the car door and stepped out onto the semi-circle driveway. Looking past the station building, I saw the train pulling in on the sunken tracks below us.
I was riding Amtrak’s Keystone train from Philadelphia to Lancaster, en route to York to spend the weekend at home, a break from classes at Temple University. Between dozing off and looking out the window I heard the voice of a small child two seats in front of me talking about whether he preferred train or airplane travel. His parents sounded genuinely interested and nice in their responses, and they asked him more questions. I didn’t think too much more about it until just before arriving in Lancaster I overheard a woman across the aisle and ahead of me striking up a conversation with the family. She asked if they had been to Lancaster before, and the mother said that she had grown up in the area but hadn’t been back in many years. The father said he had never been to this part of Pennsylvania.
Then the woman asked where the family lived, and they responded “Chicago,” which perked up my ears. The woman asked if they liked it and they said they loved it, which made me happy. But again, I didn’t think anything of it.
The train stopped and the father stood to gather the family’s belongings. I was looking forward, in his direction, because I myself was preparing to get off the train. I noticed he was tall and had red sideburns; then I noticed he looked a lot like Ryan Dempster. I kind of pieced together the info that I had just heard and realized that he was in fact Ryan Dempster. He moved into the corridor of the car and I lost sight of him.
Back to the curb in front of the station:
I leaned down and looked into the driver side window. Lucy handed me her phone.
"Ryan dempster on my train!!"
“What the …?”
Passengers filed out the three entrance doors, looking for loved ones or heading to the parking lot. But no Patricia, no Anne Lise, no Jeff and no Ryan Dempster.
Anne Lise’s story:
Jeff and I went into the train station to wait for Trish while Dad and Mom waited in the car. People started flowing out of the arrivals stairwell. Jeff and I moved back through the double doors to get out of the way.
We noticed a small, hunched figure carrying a backpack, weaving her way manically through the crowd.
I thought, I hope that’s not Trish. The person seemed totally crazed, darting here and there, bouncing on her toes, looking for who knows who or what.
But she looked too familiar and as she got closer, to our dismay, it was Trish.
I remember thinking we can’t send her back to Temple.
By the time I made it onto the platform, Dempster and his little family were nowhere to be seen so I raced past the slowly disembarking passengers, ran up the stairs, and speed-walked through the terminal, half-looking for Dempster and half-looking for a family member I could share the news with. I did not see Dempster, but I saw Anne Lise and Jeff off in the distance so I made a beeline for them and explained, without saying hello, who was on my train. They didn’t want to disbelieve, but with Dempster nowhere to be seen, I think they thought I was crazy.
Anne Lise’s story:
First words out of her mouth: “I was sitting two rows behind Ryan Dempster!”
It seemed an obscure enough person that she must be telling the truth, so we waited, and waited, and waited.
Finally, just as we were convinced of Trish’s insanity, out of the elevator pops Dempster with his wife and son, carrying their luggage. They and a station attendant were the only ones around.
The three of us stood at the end of the corridor shamelessly staring. We let him walk by, all of us too shy to say anything. He and his family stopped at the top of the stairs leading down to the station exit.
Sure enough, once all the other passengers had passed through the terminal, and the station was left almost empty, a group emerged from the elevator and we watched as the indistinguishable figures made their way towards us. As they came closer and closer, Anne Lise and I knew that it was indeed Ryan Dempster (not easily recognizable in his unremarkable long-sleeve t-shirt and blue jeans. No Cub hat!) The Dempster family passed us where we sat on one of the high-backed wooden benches in the ticketing lobby, too nervous to say anything. We stood up to exit the station and gawked from behind him. Jeff said something to us like, “You’re really not going to say something to him?”
Anne Lise’s story:
Dempster left his wife, kid and luggage at the top of the stairs and headed down. Jeff FINALLY asked: “Are you Ryan Dempster?”
He looked a little surprised, but smiled and said yes.
Jeff introduced himself and, pointing to me and Trish, said, “These are life-long Cub fans.” Jeff held back the urge to say: “Tough way to end the season, eh?”
Dempster seemed pleased and asked us if we lived in Pennsylvania. We told him we grew up in Chicago but some of us lived here now. We told him Trish was at Temple. He thought that was great and asked Trish about school. Super nice guy. Chatty. Obviously Canadian.
Back on the curb:
The front of the station was deserted. But I knew they were in there and at least our daughters and Jeff had to emerge. I stood watching and waiting.
The doors opened again and they exited the building – the four of them, looking like they’d known each other forever, or at least ten minutes. Ryan Dempster turned to his right and saw the blazing blue of my windbreaker, lit up like a neon sign by the brilliant late afternoon sun, and smiled broadly. I walked over and extended my hand. He spoke first.
“I, uh, recognized you. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Anne Lise, Patricia and Jeff stood nearby, none of us knowing exactly what to do or say next. Dempster (or, now that we’ve been properly introduced, should I call him “Ryan”??) glanced around as if looking for something or someone.
“Can I help you? Need a lift or something?”
“I’m supposed to pick up a rental car,” he said. “At Avis.”
Well this ain’t O’Hare, I thought. No Avis office attached to this small town train station.
“Where is it?”
“Mannheim Road,” he said, pulling out his Blackberry.
Mannheim Road? Melrose Park?
Then it dawned on me. “You probably mean Manheim Pike.”
“That’s it. They said it was about two miles from the station.”
And there were no cabs in sight. Again, this was Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“Uh, we can give you a ride.”
Not really, I thought to myself. We already had five in a five-seater, so we’d be breaking some kind of law. But it was RYAN DEMPSTER for God’s sake!
“No problem. We’ll squeeze four in the back. Right over here.” I gesture at our Accord where Lucy stood at the passenger side front seat with the door open, watching the whole thing.
Trish, Anne Lise and Jeff headed over to the car and I hopped out to give Trish a hug. As they piled into the back, Anne Lise and Trish giggled shamelessly, acting girly. I was excited to see Trish but also wondered if maybe Pops would bring Dempster over to the car – after all, I’m a Cubs fan too. Then they both headed over and Dempster reached out, shook my hand and said “Ryan Dempster.” I was completely charmed. He was big. He was cute. And he was Ryan Dempster!! There was some confusion now as he started to get into the car – the front seat of the car – and I realized that I had to stuff into the back seat or I would be left standing at the curb. Turned out we were giving him a ride to a rent-a-car office on Mannheim Pike.
There were four of us in the back seat and the Sullivan girls were acting like total dweebs, poking each other and laughing, and ogling Dempster. Anne Lise and Patricia texted furiously. Meantime Pops was conversing with Dempster, congratulating him on a great season and asking him why he was in Lancaster. He told us that he and his wife were expecting a second child. I thought to myself - we must be the first to know! At some point, he pulled out his Blackberry, put in our address and said he would send a souvenir ball. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy.
Back on the curb:
I wondered, who do we leave behind?
I hugged Mom hello and got into the car, thinking we would soon depart (probably after Dad got Dempster’s autograph). But before I knew it, Mom was getting out of the front seat and being stuffed into the backseat that was already filled with Jeff, Anne Lise and me. Ryan Dempster was getting into the front seat of our car.
In the car:
“I really appreciate this,” he said.
“No problem. It’s actually on our way.”
We spent the first few minutes figuring out the address of the Avis office and checking the numbers on the businesses that line Manheim Pike so we'd have an idea of how far we had to go.
Then I asked, “What brings you to Lancaster?”
He explained that during the season he promised his wife that when it was all over they would visit anywhere she wanted. She grew up in the area, so she asked that they come here. And he explained that she and their young son were waiting back at the station for him to get the car and return to pick them up. He also gave us the happy news that his wife was expecting their second child.
OH MY GOD! WE MUST BE THE FIRST TO KNOW! MAYBE EVEN BEFORE VINELINE!
“Are you from Pennsylvania?” he asked.
“No. We’re from Chicago.”
“Why are you here?”
“But,” I added, “it’s actually pretty convenient for Cub games. We go to see you in Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Pittsburgh a lot.”
“Really?” he replied, genuinely interested.
“Yeah. We’re part of that Cub nation you hear about, cheering for you guys no matter where we have to go. Cincinnati. Miami. We were at the game in Shea Stadium when Marquis hit his grand slam.”
Dempster laughed. “Oh yeah. Before that game, me and DeRosa were standing outside the hotel …”
DeRosa? He knows MARK DEROSA!?
Then reality set in. Of course he knows Mark DeRosa. I am a dufus.
“… and this guy recognizes us and tells us how he used to play with Marquis on Staten Island. And back then Marquis used to hit the long ball a lot.”
I told him about our son Steve and I chatting, sitting in our nosebleed Shea Stadium seats, discussing how Marquis had some pop in his bat and then there it goes, us watching the arc of his big blow to right field. Dempster enjoyed the story.
I looked back at Lucy, Anne Lise, Patricia and Jeff in the rear view mirror. They had four of the biggest shit-eatin’ grins in the world pasted across the entire width of the back seat. All giggly and jostling each other as if we had just picked up George Harrison, may he rest in peace.
“It was a great season,” I said. The elephant in the car was Game One of the playoffs. Dempster walked about a bazillion Dodgers and gave up a grand slam. But I couldn't bring it up. “It was great to watch. As a fan. The way you went from being the closer to being the top starter in the rotation. One of the best in the league.”
“I enjoyed being the closer,” he said. “But I think of myself as a starter, so I liked getting back to that.”
He pulled out his Blackberry again. “Let me get your address. I appreciate the help. I’ll send you an autographed ball, or something like that.”
I gave him our address and then thought, “WE ARE IN RYAN DEMPSTER’S BLACKBERRY!!”
We arrived at the Avis office and as he stepped out of the car he shook hands with each of us.
“Good luck,” we said. “And congratulations again on your second child.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“And we’re ready for Spring Training.”
He smiled. “The break is nice, though.”
And he was gone. In the office. Signing papers or whatever. Lucy got back into the front seat. We texted our oldest daughter Jeanne and son Steve and told our story.
Steve’s reply: “You should have made him walk. Like he walked all those Dodgers.”
I was disgusted and bitter at the end of the 2008 Cubs season. Not that I was surprised – it was expected – but for the Cubs to humiliate themselves so profoundly after having the best record in baseball for most of the season – it was hard to take. The 2003 season had ended in disaster, too, but everything that happened up to the Bartman game had been pure gravy. We had no expectations for the Cubs and there they were in a pennant race. As horrible as it was, and even though I knew then that the curse was real, I also knew that we were going to spring training. After the playoffs of 2008 I just wanted to forget that the Cubs existed.
There’s still the curse. The Cubs stink. Dempster was a bum in the playoffs. But after meeting him in Lancaster, everything changed. Or maybe became the same as ever again. We can’t wait for spring training.
We moved back to Chicago the following year. I ran into Dempster a couple more times and he was always very friendly and seemed genuinely glad to see me, remembering our brief drive through the Pennsylvania countryside fondly.
We chatted with his wife Jenny on several occasions when we ran into her at the ballpark. We would talk briefly about Pennsylvania, and how the Dempsters were sponsoring a group of Amish teens going through their Rumspringa.
The Dempsters' second child (whom we heard about in the car), a daughter named Riley, was born with DiGeorge Syndrome. As the family was looking for ways to give back to the community, the need to make the world more aware of this disorder (caused by a defect in chromosome 22, resulting in the poor development of several body systems) led them to create their foundation.
We wish all of the Dempsters nothing but the best in the future. We hope to run into them again at the ballpark, or maybe at another train station! Why not?
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