"I think we're going to win the World Series," he said when pitchers and catchers reported. "Enough of the curse this, the curse that, the goat this, the black cat, the 100 years, whatever it is. We're a better team than we were last year, I truly believe, and last year we made it to the playoffs, and it was a battle to make it. I just feel our chances are better."
Right fielder Kosuke Fukudome wasn't there for Dempster's proclamation. Nonetheless, he started backing him up on Opening Day.
GM Jim Hendry's offseason splash smashed a euphoric game-tying three-run homer off Brewers closer Eric Gagne in the ninth inning on an otherwise gloomy March 31. In familiar Cubs fashion, however, the lovable losers dropped the game, 4-3, in 10.
Fukudome was signed to a four-year, $48 million deal and handed the right field job from day one. Even though he tapered in the second half, a 3-for-3 debut dazzled his new teammates.
"How was that for a first day?" shortstop Ryan Theriot asked.
There would be more days like that, with one script change. The Cubs started winning those games.
Like May 30, when Jim Edmonds and Mark DeRosa played heroes against the Rockies. Edmonds hit his first homer as a Cub in a three-run sixth and DeRosa hit an even bigger one, a two-run shot to seal a six-run seventh. Chicago came back from eight runs down to win, 10-9.
"When DeRosa's ball went out of the ballpark, that's the loudest that this place has been this year by far," manager Lou Piniella said that day. "It was almost deafening."
| The Pulse: Mark DeRosa has played multiple infield and outfield spots while putting up career highs in homers (21), RBIs (87) and runs (103). |
The Rookie: Geovany Soto, the first National League rookie catcher to start an All-Star Game, leads all NL rookies in home runs (23), doubles (35) and RBIs (86) and will likely win the Rookie of the Year award.
The Riot: Young shortstop Ryan Theriot isn't a power threat, but he is quietly hitting .304 with 173 hits, both well above his 2007 totals.
The Cleanup Man: Aramis Ramirez has established career highs in doubles (44), walks (74) and on-base percentage (.381) while becoming a more complete player.
The Converter: Starter-turned-closer-turned-starter Ryan Dempster has set career marks in wins (17), ERA (2.99), batting average against (.227) and WHIP (1.21). He is arguably among the top five pitchers in the NL.
The Electric Company: Kerry Wood switched roles with Dempster and has 34 saves. Carlos Marmol leads all Major League relievers with 114 strikeouts.
Going into the season, few counted on DeRosa to make a major impact. He had defined utility man in the past decade, never hit .300, never reached 15 homers or 75 RBIs. In 2008, he redefined that role. DeRosa has 20 homers, 84 RBIs and leads the team with 102 runs, while still filling in at half the fielding positions.
Don't forget about Edmonds. He and platoon mate Reed Johnson's careers were left in the gutter early in the season. Toronto cut Johnson loose in March, and San Diego dumped Edmonds in May. In their new homes, Edmonds has 18 homers and Johnson is hitting .306.
Like Fukudome and DeRosa, Edmonds and Johnson had their magical moments, too, and resurrected their careers to boot. Superstars they are not, but they have shined.
"Everyone feels like in that clubhouse that they're a part of the team," DeRosa said after beating the Rockies. "Everyone's contributed in their own personal way to our victories so far this year."
What about the old guard? Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez were supposed to shoulder the load. They didn't need to, not with the aid of a balanced lineup.
Still, Ramirez made his mark with all of the Windy City watching. The third baseman tallied four home runs in a classic crosstown sweep of the White Sox, including game-knotting and game-winning ones in the series opener June 20. In his analysis, Ramirez predicted the best was yet to come.
"I'm a second-half player," he said. "Hopefully I get hot. ... We've got to pick it up."
| Oct. 7, 1984: At Jack Murphy Stadium, the Cubs had a 3-2 lead in the decisive Game 5 of the NLCS against San Diego, but the Padres had one on in the seventh when Tim Flannery hit a grounder that went through Cubs first baseman Leon Durham's legs. The run scored, sparking a four-run inning. The Padres eventually won, 6-3. |
Oct. 14, 2003, Part 1: Mark Prior had a three-hit shutout for the Cubs against Florida in Game 6 of the NLCS. The Marlins trailed, 3-0, in the eighth and had one on and one out when Luis Castillo hit a foul ball that drifted toward the left-field seats. Steve Bartman was one of the fans who went after it and appeared to knock it away from left fielder Moises Alou, who argued interference.
Oct. 14, 2003, Part 2: Shortly after the Bartman play, Castillo drew a walk and Ivan Rodriguez hit an RBI single to make it 3-1. Miguel Cabrera then hit a grounder to Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who bobbled it. Instead of a potential double play, the bases were loaded and the Marlins finished with eight runs that inning. The Cubs lost, 8-3, and lost the series in seven games.
The club went 15-11 in July and 20-8 in August. A late July sweep of second-place Milwaukee all but pocketed the NL Central crown for the second straight year, something the Cubs had not done in 100 years. How's that for destiny?
Speaking of droughts, in a Spielbergian story, Zambrano threw the franchise's first no-hitter in 36 years on Sept. 14. He did it against the Astros at Milwaukee's Miller Park in a series moved from Houston because of Hurricane Ike. On less than a day's notice, more than 20,000 Cubs fans showed up to witness history.
"It's a great feeling, and it's a feeling that you can't describe," Zambrano said. "This is one of the few things in baseball that you most enjoy."
Everyone has played a part: stars Soriano, Lee, Ramirez and Zambrano, improvements Geovany Soto, Carlos Marmol, Theriot and DeRosa, acquisitions Johnson, Edmonds and Rich Harden and conversions Kerry Wood and Dempster. Even backup catcher Henry Blanco had a walk-off.
For those who believe in destiny, that the stars are aligned for the first time in 100 years, that this is a magical team, Dempster is with you. He reflected on that preseason prediction after the Cubs clinched the Central on Saturday.
"It's kind of what I believed in," he said recently. "I believed in the guys in here and the [management] upstairs. We've got a long ways to go."