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Players gather for Dempster fund-raiser before Cubs Convention

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

The Cubs Convention has rolled into town like a wagon train with a couple of busted wheels and smoldering arrows in the canvas.

The gathering of Cubs and their most devoted fans usually sells out instantly. This year, it hasn’t.

Where are the stars? Who are the stars? (And we’re not counting Ernie, Billy and the late, great Ron Santo, God rest his soul.)

When your manager isn’t Lou Piniella but Mike Quade, your slugger isn’t Sammy Sosa but .  .  . hmmm, your leadoff hitter is nobody/everybody and you haven’t been to the playoffs in two years?

It all hinges on Cubbie faith, which is belief without proof. And, as we know, proof left Wrigleyville 1021/2 years ago.

But on Wednesday, a bunch of optimistic Cubs were in town early to show support for teammate Ryan Dempster and his charity fund-raiser for the genetic deficiency syndrome known as 22q, which affected one of his children.

The site was Buddy Guy’s Legends nightclub, and the boys — pitchers Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Justin Berg, Tom Gorzelanny and James Russell, catcher Koyie Hill and several Cubs front-office folks and coaches — did their cheerful thing for the crowd and raised a bunch of money for the charity.

Berg sat in with the band, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, and did a decent job, while fez-wearing frontman Ed (the nephew of slide-guitar pioneer J.B. Hutto, for you music historians) sang and picked with passion.

‘‘Not bad,’’ said Mark Lipkin, the publicity man for Chicago blues label Alligator Records. ‘‘But this song keeps speeding up.’’

It did, but that’s how pitchers are after they chug their Red Bull and sprint in from the bullpen.

Hill stood near the stage during the auction and bid generously on a white Gibson electric guitar signed by the band and Berg. The comedian/auctioneer on stage heckled Hill, saying, among other things, ‘‘You don’t look like you’re on steroids!’’

The 6-1, 210-pound Hill laughed heartily with the audience, then said something quietly that made the crowd in front laugh harder and made the comedian damn near shut his mouth.

All in good fun. And Hill, who just signed a one-year, $850,000 deal with the Cubs, felt so good that he bought the guitar for $2,000.

By the way, Dempster couldn’t make it to his own event because his wife was about to give birth to their third child. But his video of thanks was very sweet.

◆  ON THURSDAY, Jim McMahon donated his brain to science.

The former Bears Super Bowl quarterback agreed to give his brain to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy after his death.

McMahon, 51, who was a wild and reckless quarterback but also a winning and fearless competitor, has spoken about his memory problems he is certain came from the head bashings he received playing football.

He has said, no doubt with a bit of hyperbole, that his memory is ‘‘pretty much gone.’’

When I approached him at the fund-raiser Thursday for the Sports Legacy Institute, an organization hoping to solve the concussion crisis in sports and the military, he said, ‘‘Hi, Rick.’’

We hadn’t spoken in about two decades, so that was something.

Was he really donating his brain to research? I asked.

He was wearing sunglasses and drinking light beer.

‘‘When I’m dead, what the [bleep] do I need it for?’’ he said with a shrug of resignation and dark humor.

The Boston group, headed by research neurologist Ann McKee, Dr. Bob Stern and SLI co-founders Chris Nowinski and Dr. Robert Cantu, has dissected numerous athletes’ brains and found the horrible damage head blows can cause.

‘‘Yeah, I’m giving it to them,’’ McMahon said, chuckling. ‘‘After the Smithsonian gets it for a while.’’

Dr. McKee, whom I visited in her lab last spring, has looked at the brains of former NFL players Wally Hilgenberg, Tom McHale and others, and her observations about the connection between head trauma in sports and early-onset dementia, memory loss, mood disorders and even a form of brain demise similar to ALS are stunning.

Dr. McKee is here this night at the charity party, looking so much different in a skirt and black cocktail blouse than when I first saw her in her work scrubs and purple latex gloves.

But she has so much work at the research center back in Boston that even this party is hard for her to take casually.

She has, for instance, the brain of former Blackhawks tough guy Bob Probert in her lab, and there is nothing she can say about her investigation so far. There are privacy and legal issues involved, and there might be for some time.

But I, as a layman who has followed this budding national brain concern closely, feel certain that Probert’s brain will show signs of the chronic traumatic head damage he took from hits during his long career. He was in so many fights and had such trouble with alcohol and drugs that the signs seem lit up brightly.

Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and pro wrestler, acknowledges there is competition now for athletes’ brains for research.

‘‘It’s a race to see who can help the most,’’ he says.

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