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Last year, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Ryan Dempster welcomed a daughter into the world. Riley Dempster was a light in his life and an obvious blessing, but she suffered from a relatively rare disorder – DiGeorge Syndrome – which prevented her from swallowing on her own. Her needs were great, and Dempster was understandably distracted, which probably explains some of his early-season struggles. By the end of the year, Riley was doing much better, and so was Dempster.

Cubs fans – and folks with basic human compassion – hope the same is true this season.

Dempster was the picture of a doting dad recently as he played with his daughter on the floor of the den in their Wrigleyville home. Riley, a 16-pound bundle of contentment, is a natural as the center of attention. Her future as a daddy’s girl seems assured.

The photos, framed jerseys and signed baseballs decorating the room speak to Dempster’s life in sports, and in two weeks he will be off to spring training. Physically, he will be in Mesa, Ariz., getting ready for the Cubs’ 2010 season. Emotionally, he will still be with Riley.

She has spent more than three months in hospitals in Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix, and has undergone four surgical procedures. But her parents marvel at her resilience and draw strength from her progress since returning home in late summer from Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

On days he wasn’t pitching, Dempster immersed himself in Riley’s care. He and his wife studied DiGeorge syndrome and consulted with experts to determine the best course of treatment for their daughter.

Save for the tubes, Riley resembles a normal child her age: cheerful, alert and eager to get up and play with her big brother, Brady, who is 3.

“We had our moments, seeing her hooked up to those machines and thinking of all she was going through, this tiny, little baby,” Dempster said. “That was hard, and I almost lost it a couple of times. But now compared to then, it’s pretty awesome.” …

Dempster had a career-best 17-6 record for the Cubs and made the All-Star team in 2008. He missed two starts with a broken toe and went 11-9 last season, admittedly distracted by Riley’s condition, especially in April as she struggled to survive.

“This doesn’t change the way I think about baseball — no matter what’s going on in your life, you have to be a professional and do your job,” Dempster said. “If anything, I think it makes me a better competitor. I draw a lot of inspiration from thinking about Riley while I’m on the mound. I’m going to stay strong for her. I have to.” NYTimes.com.

All the best to the Dempsters this year and beyond.

For the Cubs’ part, the team hopes Dempster pitches like he did in the second half of the year last year – 6-4 with a 3.15 ERA – this year, so that they can lean on him with other question marks in the rotation.

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