Friday, March 25, 2011
Posted 8:04 p.m.
By Patrick Mooney
MESA, Ariz. Ryan Dempster and James Russell were sitting on the couch. They had just finished playing a few games of hockey on Xbox. The entire afternoon was in front of them.
Dempster is almost 34 years old and will make 13.5 million this season. He turned to Russell on Monday with an idea: Lets go watch the boys play.
So they left the condo Russell and Andrew Cashner are renting in Scottsdale and drove over to Tempe Diablo Stadium. They got there in time to catch the first few innings before driving rains caused the Cubs and Angels to seek shelter and cancel another meaningless game in a month filled with them.
We had no clue where we were going. (We) asked every usher we saw where the visitors locker room was nobody had a clue, Russell said. So we just started walking around, made our way down to the front row and just hopped a fence. (We) walked on the field and into the dugout in jeans and tennis shoes.
Cash was kind of surprised to see me. He goes, Hey, what are you doing here? Nothing, man, just came to (watch you pitch).
That two players who were completely off the clock would show up at a road Cactus League is remarkable. It speaks to the team chemistry the Cubs think they are building.
Reed Johnson was part of that 97-win team that turned every home game into a Wrigleyville block party in 2008. He remembers Dempster and Kerry Wood organizing team dinners where 90 percent of the guys would show up and theyd need a full charter bus to get to the restaurant.
To have those two guys back together, Johnson said, is going to be huge this year and for the future.
General manager Jim Hendry brought in several veterans on minor-league deals to bring a sense of professionalism to camp. Johnson has made the team as the fifth outfielder, and he is what Hendry likes to call a character guy.
The Cubs felt their chemistry was an issue isolated to the one-man island of Milton Bradley in 2009. The media just dragged the story into the next season. Hendry says the Cubs always emphasize a players makeup and personality, whether its in the amateur draft or Latin America.
We didnt lose early last year because we had a bad clubhouse, Hendry said. Its always a premium.
Its hard to ignore the intangibles that Wood, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza bring to the room. The teams three major offseason acquisitions have already performed at an All-Star level and been tested in the playoffs. They instantly earned the respect of their teammates.
The Cubs try to keep it light in spring training. There is a sheet of paper posted on the bulletin board inside the HoHoKam Park clubhouse. It features the smiling face of Charlie Sheen above the word WINNING and this quote: I have decided just to win inside of every momentand the score is like a bazillion to zero.
There were times last year when a lead like that might not have felt safe with the Cubs bullpen. But its not just the young Texans like Cashner and Russell who are almost in awe of Wood.
John Grabow is about 17 months younger than Wood. And Grabow will make more than three times the amount Wood will this season. Even Grabow cant wait to listen to Wood talk down in the bullpen.
Kerry Wood talks with teammates in the dugout during a spring training game. Many Cubs veterans and youngsters are happy to have Wood back citing his ability to help build team chemistry. (US PRESSWIRE)
Im looking forward to picking his brain (and) just watching him get after it, Grabow said.
Pena, who is bilingual, connects with everyone and does not hesitate to speak up when he sees a different way to do things. Hes quick to walk over to the mound when a pitchers in a jam. The Gold Glove first baseman has been eager to help Tyler Colvin as he learns a new position.
Great guy, Colvin said of Pena. He has a wonderful personality. He goes out here and you can tell he has fun.
The day after Pena tried to settle Cashner down during his rain-shortened start, the pitcher pulls a chair next to Penas locker and the two have a long conversation.
At a table in the middle of the clubhouse, Colvin and Darwin Barney who once talked about what it would be like when they made it to the big leagues together are playing cards.
Dempster is trying to prepare for his start against the Dodgers that afternoon in Glendale.
We try to pick each other up, Dempster said. We try to push each other. When I went down to the cage to go hit (Tuesday) morning I got kicked out because there was like 20 hitters down there. Thats a really cool thing.
Has that happened in the past?
Not that I can remember, Dempster said. Its becoming a really tight group.
Thats easy to say now, when theres no pressure and no ones really keeping score. It may not matter all that much. But you can see Carlos Zambrano joking with manager Mike Quade and his teammates. You notice that Aramis Ramirez has a smile on his face. You wonder where Garza went, because he always seems to be on the move.
How long will it last? Dempster knows that winning is the only way to keep it fun for everyone.
PatrickMooney is CSNChicago.com's Cubs beat writer. FollowPatrick on Twitter @CSNMooneyfor up-to-the-minute Cubs news and views.