The team never recovered

Ryan Dempster was reportedly traded to Atlanta, but for now he is still on the Cubs’ roster.  The trading deadline is less than a week away, and there’s no reason not to trade him before then. Dempster can veto any trade he wants to, and his desire to pitch with Ted Lilly for the Dodgers seems to trump everything else right now. I might do the same thing if I were in his shoes, but as a Cubs fan I have to say that he’s not helping the team.

I’m no fan of Ryan Dempster. He might still be popular with some Cubs fans, since he’s been around for a while and does charity work in the community. All of that is fine and good. But there’s one moment that defines Ryan Dempster’s tenure in Chicago, more so than any other player I can think of since the “Sandberg game” back in 1984. And, whether he’s on his way out of town or not, I wanted to set forth what that moment was, and explain why it’s so important.

Ryan Dempster wasn’t with the Cubs when their 2003 collapse against the Marlins took place. In fact, he wasn’t with anyone at the time, having undergone Tommy John surgery in August of that year. Perhaps he may have watched that series as he was recovering from his surgery. But when Dempster signed with the Cubs the following January, he became one of the first Cubs in the “Win Now” era.

“Win Now” was the thinking that brought Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Milton Bradley, and some others whose names I don’t want to think about right now to the Cubs. But Dempster’s path with the Cubs was unique. He came to the team first as a closer, and then returned to his role as a starter for the 2008 season.

Ah, 2008. What a great regular season that was. The Cubs won their division going away, and since they had been swept out of the first round of the playoffs in 2007, bigger things were expected the next time around. Lou Piniella had the luxury of resting his starters, with the division title already clinched, and Dempster threw just 80 pitches in a five-inning outing the final week of the regular season.

Piniella had set his playoff rotation so that Dempster would start Game One of the NLDS at Wrigley Field. Everyone was picking the Cubs to get to the World Series that year, and Dempster’s job was going to be kicking things off.

The game started out well. I’ll never forget Mark DeRosa’s home run in the second inning. I was out driving around, and I started spontaneously honking the horn like a mad man. This is the way it was supposed to be, with the home team out in front.

But Dempster was struggling with his control. He issued a walk in the first, another in the second, and two more in the third. And in the fifth inning, it caught up with him.  He walked the bases loaded, and this brought James Loney to the plate. Loney fell behind 0-2 and then, well, you can see the picture above, can’t you? Rather than waste a pitch, which might lead to some increased wildness on his part, Dempster challenged Loney. And, sadly, Loney did not miss that pitch.

After Loney and the other three Dodgers came in to score, the Cubs failed to score another run in that game. In fact, the Cubs never again held a lead in the series, and were swept three games to zero. Much like Kirk Gibson’s dramatic walk-off home run against Oakland in the 1988 World Series, which also came in Game one of that series, Loney’s grand slam off of Dempster knocked the Cubs to the canvas, and they never got back up again. The year came to a screeching halt, much sooner than anyone had expected it to.

It’s not fair to put the disappointment of 2008 entirely on Ryan Dempster’s shoulders, especially since he didn’t even pitch in Games two and three. But I watched it as it all unfolded. The Cubs looked like Mike Tyson, and nobody expected that the Dodgers could be Buster Douglas. But that’s exactly what they were in that three game series.

Dempster may now be in the process of leaving town, but without any World Series appearances to show for his seven-plus seasons in a Cubs uniform. In the post-2003 world that Dempster has pitched in, he must be aware that’s not good enough. Fair or not, the World Series is now the only goal that matters to this Cubs fan, who doesn’t want to die before the Cubs finally do go all the way, as Eddie Vedder sang in a song released during that 2008 season. And though the song fizzled when the team did, I really like it, anyway.

I’d like to thank Ryan Dempster for something, but I can’t quite do it. I’ll just save my gratitude for the players who can finally take the Cubs to the National League pennant and beyond. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the post-Dempster era to begin.

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