One morning in 2004, Randy Wells and his roommate pulled into a McDonalds drive-thru on their way to the ballpark to get some breakfast.
Wells was a 38th-round pick, a converted catcher pitching for Class-A Lansing. Wrigley Field might as well have been on another planet.
There was a car in front of us that was taking forever and we were running a little late, Wells recalled. Im like: What the hell is going on, man? The car pulled out, we got our Egg McMuffins or whatever and rolled to the field and followed the same car all the way.
It pulls into the lot and we get out of our car and as were walking in this guy rolls down the window and says, Hey, can you guys carry this? He drops a huge box of Egg McMuffins on us and says, Hey, can you take care of my dogs?
We all walk in the clubhouse and everybody looks at us like: What the hell?
And here comes (this guy) in his oh-so-funny (voice saying): Hey, dont feed my dogs, they might (bleep) in your locker. It was just the start of whats to come for Ryan Dempster over the next eight to nine years.
Wells still cracked up telling that story on Tuesday, sitting in the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, more than 200 miles from that drive-thru in Michigan.
Theres been so many ups and downs, and hes heard this question so many times before, that Wells laughed when asked what Wednesday nights start means against the White Sox: You guys dont have any tape in the archives?
Yes, Wells would like to start. And, of course, he has something to prove to this front office, which stashed him at Triple-A Iowa out of spring training.
But this isnt how Wells envisioned leaving the bullpen and getting his shot: Dempster went on the disabled list on Monday with a tight right lat muscle. And there is the sense that the end is near, once Dempster (2.11 ERA) shows the market hes healthy before the July 31 trade deadline.
So Wells thought back to the beginning, before Dempster was a face of the franchise, to when this was just another guy recovering from Tommy John surgery.
It was funny, too, because Mark Prior had just rehabbed (there), Wells said. They made a huge deal out of it. The paper had full-size Prior pictures and they were hanging up everywhere.
And then a week later, Demp rolls in. They dont have anything, so he made his own posters, drew some stick figures that said: Ryan Dempster will pitch at Oldsmobile Park tonight.
It gets lost in the shuffle now, but Wells won 12 games and posted a 3.05 ERA as a rookie in 2009. He accounted for 32 starts and almost 200 innings the next year. After a forearm strain wiped out almost two months last season, he went 6-3 with a 4.04 ERA in 14 second-half starts.
Remember what Dempster meant to Wells the next time you hear someone wondering why this veteran or that veteran is still around, demanding that Theo Epstein clean house and go all-in with the youth movement.
I dont think words could describe it, Wells said. As a young player who never even sniffed or thought about sniffing the major leagues the leadership that he (radiated was) immeasurable.
It was just how to be professional and go about your business. (We) never really had a talk about pitching in the sense of like: Hey, this is what you got to do. Because everybodys (mechanics are) different. His tutelage to me has always been mental approach: Hey, this is how you prepare. This is how you stay in the game a long time. This is how you act as a professional baseball player.
When Ryan comes into the clubhouse, the mood rises. And all these trade talks or whatever, you dont even want to think about it because its kind of like when (Ted) Lilly left and (Derrek) Lee left. Its not so much the production or what you get out of them in the lineup. Its what you get when you show up to the field every day. Its priceless.
Thats what a contender could get for the stretch run, a 35-year-old pitcher who will infuse the clubhouse with energy, set an example and wont be afraid of the big stage.
Even if he felt like the media blew it out of proportion last season, Wells credited his strong second half, in part, to a kick in the butt from Dempster that put him in the right frame of mind.
So remember this the next time someone quotes you VORP or WAR and lays out the rebuilding plan. Dont forget that the Cubs are going to need leaders in 2013 to bridge them to where they want to go in the future.
I can honestly say I dont know where my career would be without a guy like Ryan Dempster, Wells said. Its just stuff that the fans dont get to see. Fans only see what happens on the field. They only see production and results and the stuff that Ryan brings off the field is immeasurable.
Any team would be lucky to have him. (But) I definitely dont want to see him go and I think I speak for everyone else in there.