GENEVA – Ryan Dempster laughed Friday when asked whether any other ballpark in America sported his likeness on top of the ticket window.
“Even crazier is the soccer place there,” Dempster said. “Huge mural on the side there.”
The veteran right-hander of 16 major league seasons passed neighboring Strikers Fox Valley en route to Fifth Third Bank Ballpark to support something of even greater magnitude to his life than baseball.
Dempster’s ceremonial first pitch and subsequent radio appearance at his one-time minor league home bookended a night of gratitude. He’s humbled the Cougars partnered with his Dempster Family Foundation earlier this season.
“It’s a really great thing, you know, to be able to have something so close to Chicago, somewhere that I have a direct connection with and playing here before,” Dempster said. “It’s really awesome to see them pay tribute like that. They could pick thousands of charities to give money to, and to give it to the Dempster Foundation is really awesome. It was a really good night.”
Dempster, 37, was a Florida Marlins farmhand when he pitched for the Cougars in 1996, going 2-1 with a 2.73 ERA in four starts after a trade from the Texas Rangers organization.
While he endeared himself to a far greater volume of Chicago baseball fans while pitching with the Cubs from 2004 to 2012, Dempster impressed Warren and Sam Drewes of St. Charles years earlier.
The Drewes, Dempster’s host parents, have remained in touch through the years. Dempster texted Warren Drewes on Thursday about his impending visit the next night, a gesture Drewes gushed about, among several others.
“A thousand recollections,” said Drewes, a longtime season ticket holder with his wife. “Forget baseball – one of the neatest people you will ever meet, and he turned out to be a fantastic ballplayer. And we’ve continued to have a close relationship with him ever since that year. You know, I’ve had over 100 ballplayers live in my house, I’ve had over 20 of them make it to the majors. Most of them are very gracious, but, you know, our lives drift away and …we may not see a lot of them.
“Ryan has been that exceptional person who’s been always there to socialize with us, do other things, even in his busy life. And we’ve tried to be supportive in his charity and through the things that are important in his life, as well. But just a wonderful human being.”
Dempster retired at the end of last season after helping the Boston Red Sox to a World Series title. Although he keeps in shape, he acknowledges a return to baseball hasn’t called him because of the time he gets to spend with his family in Chicago, where the Dempsters keep their home.
The Dempster Family Foundation hinges on helping those affected by 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, a condition from which Dempster’s daughter, Riley, suffers. The disorder stems from a small missing piece of the 22nd chromosome and can affect every system in the human body.
Dempster wore a shirt with the message “22Q GOOGLE IT” on the front, but wasn’t all business.
He grinned at the thought of his son telling him he looked considerably younger on the respective Cougars’ murals and was self-deprecating about the early stages of a television career on the MLB Network.
His first pitch, considerably low and outside, provided another source of humor.
“That was terrible,” Dempster said. “Oh, man. Now I know why I’m not pitching anymore.”
Drewes encountered Dempster at Wrigley Field about a month ago and hopes he never surrenders his inviting personality.
Again, he’s tickled it hasn’t changed through the years, which prompted Drewes to remember another Dempster appearance in Kane County in the mid-2000s.
“The Cubs played a day game that day, and he got in the car, came out here, signed autographs, and the only thing that bothered him a little bit was the Cougars cut him off because they thought they were imposing too much,” Drewes said. “He said, ‘Oh, [heck], I didn’t care. I’d have kept signing.’ No charge. He didn’t get paid. He didn’t charge for the autographs.
“That’s just the kind of person he is. He is a wonderful human being, and I don’t doubt at all that he is going to have a second career in radio or television and be every bit as successful at that as he has been in baseball.”
Firefighters donate vehicle to veteran: Leaving a professional baseball game in a new car usually involves a fan getting the best of an improbable happening or two.
For West Chicago native Joshua Michael Kerber, serving his country in the United States Army more than sufficed.
After the Cougars’ victory Friday, the Associated Firefighters of Illinois from five nearby communities – Geneva Local 4287, West Chicago Local 3970, Batavia Local 3436, Elburn Local 4749 and St. Charles Local 3322 – presented Kerber with a red, four-door 2014 Ford F-150 truck.
It was the eighth vehicle donation on the part of the AFFI Warrior Program, which originated in Chicago in May 2009 but since has expanded to include wounded veterans in the suburbs. Kerber lost his left arm as the result of combat wounds suffered in early October 2009 in Afghanistan.
“The different magnitudes of injuries that these guys have, you’ve got to step in and help,” Geneva Local 4287 vice president Rod Johnson said.
Kerber enlisted in the Army in January 2008 and served for three years. He was credited with saving the lives of numerous fellow soldiers during a night security operation on Oct. 4, 2009, when his convoy absorbed heavy enemy fire.
The Army awarded Kerber with several commendations during his career, including The Purple Heart.
Working with their own fire departments, other nearby restaurants, businesses and the Cougars, the AFFI aimed to raise $30,000 for the endeavor, beginning in June. They consulted Kerber about his needs and had him test the truck before donating it.
The group cited influence from counterparts in DeKalb, who held a similar outing at a Northern Illinois football game last season.
“A lot of our guys are friends with their guys,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t so much a challenge as it was, ‘Hey, the Cougars are in your guys’ town. What can you do?’ “