Cubs

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

Cubs: How Ryan Dempster wound up on Team Canada for World Baseball Classic

MESA, Ariz. – During an escalating prank war, Ryan Dempster once arranged for a camera crew to shadow Will Ohman in spring training and sell the journeyman reliever on being the star in a TV special.

But Dempster isn't trying to punk anyone by playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic – even though he's almost 40 years old and hasn't pitched in a competitive environment since Game 1 of the 2013 World Series at Fenway Park.

Don't let the Harry Caray/Will Ferrell impersonations fool you. Dempster always had a different side to his personality, an edge that allowed him to recover from Tommy John surgery, transition from 30-save closer back to All-Star starter and throw nearly 2,400 innings in The Show.

Still, it sort of felt like a reality show or a time machine or a spin-off from a Kris Bryant Red Bull ad on Monday at Field 1, the most secluded spot to throw live batting practice at the Sloan Park complex. On a cool, gray day, Dempster looked the same with his reddish beard, glove waggle, white pinstriped pants and blue Nike cleats.

Before stepping into the batter's box, Cubs president Theo Epstein tried to talk a little trash with Dempster: "I know I can't hit big-league pitching, but I'll see if I can hit you."

Besides Epstein, the eclectic group of hitters included Tommy La Stella and minor-leaguer Todd Glaesmann. Dempster threw roughly 50 pitches to Lance Rymel, a former farm-system catcher who will manage a Dominican summer league team this year. The audience included one reporter, six fans, a group of curious Cubs staffers and reliever Jim Henderson, who is in camp on a minor-league deal and will also pitch for Team Canada.

"I'm not going to be disrespectful to the whole process," Dempster said. "I'm not just like playing in a beer league and then decide: 'Eh, I'll throw against the Dominican team. The U.S. looks like they're pretty stacked, but I'll be all right.' I know what it entails going into this.

"At the end of the day, I'm not so worried about velocity. I'm worried about command and my ability to change speeds. It has been pretty funny to see the reactions, and I can understand why people would see it as far-fetched. But I always liked a good challenge."

Dempster first hatched this idea during a Fourth of July vacation, somewhere around Sequoia National Park in California. The group included Ted Lilly – another pitcher who got by with guts and became a special assistant in Epstein's front office – and former bullpen catcher Corey Miller.

"I just said: 'For old times' sake, why don't I throw a side?'" Dempster recalled. "I thought for sure when I woke up the next day I wouldn't be able to lift my arm up. And it felt really good."

Dempster continued with a throwing program – even through a trip to Hawaii after the World Series – and contacted Greg Hamilton, the head coach and director of Baseball Canada. As a Cub, Dempster had been the one leading runs up Camelback Mountain and showing younger pitchers like Jeff Samardzija how to train for 200 innings.

"I wasn't sure if he was serious or not," said Epstein, who did make contact against Dempster. "And then when I figured out he meant it and had a plan, I knew he'd be fine, because he's such a hard worker and he's really smart. If he's going to put the time in to get ready, I knew he'd be fine. He'll be competitive, for sure."

Dempster understood how to put together his own program with a focus on his legs, strengthening his core and shoulder exercises. To be clear, this isn't setting the stage for a comeback, the way game-over closer Eric Gagne is hoping to use Team Canada as a launching pad (after not pitching in the big leagues since 2008).

"This is just a chance to represent my country," said Dempster, who grew up in British Columbia and played on junior national teams in the 1990s. "Sometimes – I'm not bored – but a challenge in life or an opportunity presents itself. (And) it's a good lesson to teach my kids: If you work hard at something, you can do (it) and hopefully it pays off."

Dempster went out on top as a World Series champion, walking away from $13.25 million rather than pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 2014. He signed on with MLB Network and rejoined the Cubs as a special assistant in baseball operations. If he had to pick a lane, it would probably be entertainment and building off his Cubs Convention late-night format and sketches like "The Newlywed Game" with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.

But Dempster still needs a fix. The star-studded cast from the Dominican Republic – Robinson Cano, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista, Nelson Cruz – will be waiting on March 9 at Marlins Park.

"Major League Baseball, professional sports aren't a normal job," Dempster said. "How do you go from that extreme high, the adrenaline rush of going out there and pitching in front of 40-grand every day to…now what do you do that satisfies you? I'm trying to find that, make my way towards that. I feel like I will eventually get there."

Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

A little more than two weeks ago, Nico Hoerner was sitting on his couch back in his hometown of Oakland. With Double-A Tennessee’s season over, the 22-year-old was preparing to head down to the Arizona Fall League for the second-straight year.

Now, Hoerner is the Cubs starting shortstop, starting for a Cubs team that’s pushing for a fifth-straight postseason berth while Javier Báez rehabs his fractured left thumb.

Talk about a heck of a month.

“It’s been special to be a part of a team that’s trying to win right now and being around a lot of guys that have played at this level really successfully for a long time,” Hoerner said Sunday. [I’ve] learned a lot.”

When the Cubs called Hoerner up, no one expected him to produce on a Báez-like level. This is meant more as a compliment to Báez than anything, as he brings game-changing elements to the Cubs at the plate, on the bases and defensively.

And yet, considering that Hoerner only has 89 career minor league games to his name, what he’s done in the big leagues is more than impressive. Including his three plate appearances on Sunday, Hoerner holds a .286/.322/.482 slash line, recording hits in 11 of his first 14 games and making plenty of hard contact.

“As a hitter, there’s always things you can work on to be more consistent,” he said. “But overall, I’ve been pretty happy with my ability to be present, compete as best as I can, and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent with my preparation.”

Hoerner has also started at shortstop in every one of those contests, showing off impressive range and hands while making no errors. It might just be two weeks, but his play has impressed both Joe Maddon and Báez already.

“You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico,” Maddon said on Sunday. “And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball.

“He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that.”

“Unbelievable,” Báez said Saturday about Hoerner’s performance thus far. “It’s not easy to just come up and play, even if it’s in September. We believe in him and he’s done a great job for the team and for our pitchers.”

Although Báez’s injury certainly played a factor, the Cubs called up Hoerner because Addison Russell took a pitch off the face on Sept. 8, going into concussion protocol as a result.

With no true shortstops on their roster, Hoerner was the Cubs’ best bet to man the position in the meantime. But while Báez is limited to pinch-hitting and running right now, Russell has been cleared to play.

Even with Russell – a former All-Star shortstop – back in the fold, though, Maddon is having a hard time going away from Hoerner as his everyday shortstop.

“With Addy, we did not know when Addy would be available, and he is right now,” Maddon said. “Addy is available, but I just really can’t walk away from what Nico is doing.”

Báez is attempting to return to the Cubs starting lineup during their upcoming series against the Pirates. This would move Hoerner off of shortstop, though he and the Cubs are confident in his ability to play other positions.

Of the 75 games he played in Double-A this season Hoerner made 17 appearances at second base and 11 in center field.

“I can help in a wide range of ways,” he said. “The need right now has been at shortstop, but when it comes to the future, who knows what will happen. [I’m] down to go anywhere on the field.”

“It could be second, it could be to give somebody a day off in another position,” Maddon said. “He’s adept at a lot of different spots, and that was the original conversation I had when he got here with the front office guys. They said, ‘Listen, he can play everywhere.’”

2020 is still far away, and the Cubs are still in contention for a postseason spot this season. It’s hard not to look ahead, though, especially considering how (in a small sample size) Hoerner is proving he could be a fixture on the Cubs for years to come.

No matter what, though, Hoerner’s career is looking like a bright one.

“His bat to ball skills are so good and he’s always had that,” Maddon said. “I don’t see that as dissipating, I don’t. And the way he processes the day, that shouldn’t be altered either. With good health, he should be fine.”

“I know I can help this team and I can do that in a wide range of ways,” Hoerner said. [I’m going to] continue to develop and give myself the best chance I can.”

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How Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist approached what could be their final game at Wrigley Field

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AP

How Joe Maddon, Ben Zobrist approached what could be their final game at Wrigley Field

There was an odd vibe around Wrigley Field Sunday morning, even before it started raining and Kris Bryant slipped on first base and rolled his ankle and well before the Cubs suffered yet another gut-wrenching loss.

For the first time in Joe Maddon's tenure as Cubs manager and Ben Zobrist's career as a Cubs player, they showed up to "The Friendly Confines" knowing there would likely be no postseason appearance for this team. 

The Cubs are not mathematically eliminated, but they woke up Sunday morning with just an 8.6 percent chance at making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, and that only went down after the 3-2 loss at Wrigley Field and the Brewers' win in Milwaukee. That puts the Cubs 4 games back in the Wild-Card race with only six to play.

Both Maddon and Zobrist are not under contract after this season and there is a lot of speculation that this could be it for the manager that guided this franchise to its first World Series championship in 108 years and the player who took home the MVP Award in that Fall Classic. Sunday might be the end of an era.

So how did both men approach the day at Wrigley Field?

Zobrist said he was simply focused on the game and the task at hand, though he's been taking little mental snapshots from time to time over his last month here at the corner of Clark and Addison. 

The Eureka, Ill., native will allow himself to think about all this stuff once the season is officially over, but he's never taken it for granted to be able to call Wrigley Field home for the last four seasons. This is the same guy who wears stirrups as a callback to the days of yore and has commuted to the ballpark on a bicycle while wearing his full uniform.

"It's the big leagues of the big leagues," Zobrist said. "That's the way the fans make you feel. The front office, the organization, the way everything's run — it's the top of the top. It's hard to beat the experience of being a Chicago Cubs player, especially when you walk out on that field."

The 38-year-old Zobrist admitted he doesn't know what's next for his career after a season in which he missed four months while tending to his family situation. But the last month has answered the question for himself that he still has what it takes physically to play this game.

As for Maddon, he was maybe a bit more introspective than normal in his Sunday morning press availability, but he's always thoughtful and mindful.

He insisted he did not show up to work Sunday with a mindset to "take it all in" or enjoy the moment any more than normal, which makes sense for a guy who routinely preaches the need to stay in the present tense.

"Honestly, I do that every day," he said. "I don't anticipate that. I haven't really thought about that this whole time through. I always expect a good result."

Maddon's job status is up in the air after Theo Epstein's front office took any talks of an extension off the table last winter and wanted to see how the season went before making a decision one way or the other. 

Since Maddon took over the helm ahead of the 2015 season, only the Dodgers and Astros have more regular season wins than the Cubs (469) and his teams made it to three National League Championship Series from 2015-17. 

As for Sunday morning, Maddon was focused on the weather and how the impending storms could affect his pitching staff with a thin bullpen and the threat of a delay knocking starter Yu Darvish out early. He said he was focused on the game "like I always have" and after the loss, he spoke only about the game and the season and did not have any platitudes about his final Wrigley Field experience.

"When I walk to Wrigley — I've talked about this since I've been here — you always are enthralled and impressed with the fact that you get to work here," he said. "So that's kind of a daily occurrence for me."