By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
CHICAGO A young man in a black polo and cargo shorts pushes through a small crowd of people waiting for rides home outside Wrigley Field's employee exit and steps into the cool sunshine of a glorious late afternoon, hanging a left on Waveland Avenue. It is late September, the Cubbies are on the verge of clinching the division, and Wrigleyville is swollen with pennant fever. It spills out of the bars at the corner of Waveland and Clark, rising into a constant, piercing din. And then suddenly the fever breaks. Calm prevails. The young man walks on.
As Ryan Dempster crosses Clark, his steps interrupted only once by a group of fans who have recognized him as the Cubs' winningest pitcher and who do nothing more fanatical than shout encouragement, Wrigleyville, the teeming collection of beer joints and souvenir shops outside the old stadium, gives way to Wrigleyville, the yuppie enclave of towering brownstones and shady trees. This is Dempster's neighborhood. This is baseball's American dream.
Dempster, 31, is nearly halfway through the four-block walk from his office to his home, and there is no getting around the notion that, at this very moment, it is quite possible no one in the entire universe has it better than he.
"My office is Wrigley Field," he says, as if in disbelief. "I walk to work. I pitch for the Cubs. We're going to the playoffs."
There is nothing quite like the North Side of Chicago in a pennant race, with all those day games in the crisp autumn sunshine, the way God intended, and the stately old stadium in the middle of a stately old neighborhood, with fans filling every seat in both the stadium itself and the surrounding rooftops, and with Ron Santo up in the radio booth, living and dying on every pitch.
"I walked in here for the first time in 1960. I was 20 years old," says Santo, a nine-time all-star third baseman and now the Cubs' radio analyst on WGN-AM. "I was walking in with Ernie Banks, and it felt like I was walking on air. The electricity, the atmosphere. I tell you, there's nothing like it.
"Yankee Stadium may be gone now, but they can never get rid of Wrigley."
This is the Cubs' third National League Central title in the past six years, a run of fortune that hasn't occurred for this beleaguered franchise in nearly a century, but there is also a sense that this team is unlike the ones that came up short in 2003 and 2007. With 95 wins entering Tuesday, these Cubs have a good shot at becoming the franchise's winningest team since the 1945 NL champs won 98 games. That was also the last year the Cubs made it to the World Series.
And with any luck at all -- luck, in absentia, being one common thread tying together the last 100 years of Cubs history -- this will be the team that finally does it, that brings a World Series title to the North Side for the first time since 1908, that puts to rest, once and for all, all the silly talk of curses and billy goats and black cats. Steve Bartman, front and center. Your redemption is nigh.
"It's Gonna Happen!" say the signs in the windows of the bars and restaurants.
It was Dempster who said back in February, "I think we're going to win the World Series" -- a statement that was met with gasps and shudders from many Cubs fans, conditioned as they are to never, ever tempt fate. He also said, "Enough of the 'curse' this, 'curse' that, the 'goat' this, the 'black cat' that, the 100 years, whatever it is."
And if the Cubs eventually make good on his prediction, Dempster himself is likely to have much to do with it. After a three-year stint as the Cubs' closer, a change brought about by an arm injury that robbed him of his durability, Dempster, an all-star eight years ago at age 23, returned to the starting rotation this year and has been the Cubs' most consistent starter. A victory Sunday -- one day after the Cubs clinched the division -- left him with a 17-6 record and a 2.99 ERA, numbers that will garner him some Cy Young Award votes.
The Cubs are likely to start ace Carlos Zambrano, who threw a no-hitter last week, in Game 1 of the Division Series -- which they will open at home -- and Dempster could be the choice for Game 2, owing to his 14-3 record this year at Wrigley.
Dempster is "the difference between last year," said Santo, referring to the flawed Cubs team of 2007, which won 85 games, then was swept by Arizona in the first round of the playoffs, "and this year."
As he walked home after a recent game -- a thrilling, extra-inning win for the Cubbies two days before they clinched the division -- Dempster blended seamlessly with the crowd of 20- and 30-somethings divided into those who were already inebriated and those who were on their way.
"No one ever gives me any trouble, even if I lost that day," he says. "If someone says 'hi,' I say 'hi' back."
In June, after Dempster threw a four-hit, 11-strikeout complete game against Atlanta, his walk home was interrupted by a standing ovation from the crowd gathered outside of Bernie's Tap and Grill, just across Waveland from the stadium.
Earlier this year, teammate Mark DeRosa called the affable right-hander "the most important person in this clubhouse" because of his "charisma and character" -- not to mention the Harry Caray impersonation that, even the 100th time you hear it, will have you in stitches. But the affection for Dempster extends beyond the clubhouse walls. He is a proud, visible citizen of the Wrigleyville community, known on a first-name basis by everyone in the local Starbucks, the dry cleaners and the grocery store.
When the mood (and the smell) strikes him, Dempster has been known to sidle up to a group of folks grilling on their lawn and help himself to a burger, a beer and some conversation.
"Sometimes I'll join them, sure," he said. "I don't think I've lost touch with reality. I like to think I still get it."
Wrigley Field is perhaps unique among all major league ballparks in its neighborhood feel and the number of players who live within walking distance. (You don't, for example, see many Yankees living in the South Bronx.) At least four Cubs live within a 10-block radius of the stadium, including heralded rookie reliever Jeff Samardzija, a former football star at Notre Dame.
"The atmospheres are pretty similar," Samardzija said of college football Saturdays in South Bend and any given afternoon at Wrigley, "except the tailgating here seems to [happen] after the game instead of before."
Michael Wuertz, a reliever fighting to earn a spot on the postseason roster, rents an apartment a few blocks away off Addison Street. Each day as he approaches Wrigley, the first thing he sees of the stadium is the famous marquee out front, saying, "WRIGLEY FIELD -- HOME OF CHICAGO CUBS."
"After all this time, it still gives me goose bumps," says Wuertz, who is in his fifth season with the team. "It's just a cool atmosphere to be around -- not only as a player, but as a fan of the game."
As Dempster walks toward home, he points to a palatial brownstone that consumes nearly a block of Waveland Avenue. "That's where [Cubs lefty Ted] Lilly lives," Dempster says of his rotation-mate, who is in the second year of a four-year, $40 million contract. "I don't have a palace like he does."
Dempster walks on, sneaking a glance into the wide-open front window of Lilly's next-door neighbor, whose TV is tuned to the Cubs' postgame show, it being roughly 45 minutes after the game. At the intersection of Waveland and Lakewood, a crossing guard directs what sparse traffic there is. On the sidewalk, a father pitches Wiffle ball BP to his two kids.
Dempster is thinking about houses a lot these days, because he just found out that his wife, Jenny, is pregnant with their second child -- "We need a bigger yard," he says -- and because his contract expires at the end of the season. The Dempsters have already looked at some bigger houses -- still in Wrigleyville, but on the other side of the stadium.
"I'd love to stay here. It's a top priority for me after the season," he said. His footsteps stop in front of his house, a gut-and-rebuild job they bought in 2005. There's a rooftop deck with a hot tub and a grill, where he just might go in a little while to watch the sun set over Wrigleyville, with October not even two weeks away and the Cubbies on the verge.
"Why would anyone want to play anywhere else?" he asks.
There is no suitable answer. Dempster smiles and disappears through his front door.