The summer of 42 is beckoning for Rick Dempsey.
"I don't think I've ever played bettter baseball than I played the last three years," Dempsey said Friday night at Memorial Stadium. "I don't get much of an opportunity to play these days, but when I do, I think I make the most of it."
Dempsey, a backup to B. J. Surhoff with the Milwaukee Brewers, will get that chance this afternoon when he faces his former team, the Baltimore Orioles. Call it a rare chance, if you want, but Dempsey will tell you that it beats coaching in the major leagues, managing in the minors or broadcasting anywhere.
That is what his friends told him he should do after he was released by the Cleveland Indians after the 1987 season, and by the Los Angeles Dodgers after last season. It is what he has been hearing, louder and louder, ever since the Orioles didn't want to pick up his option after the 1986 season.
"At the end of my Orioles career, they told me that my days as a regular were over," said Dempsey, who had been that for most of his 11 years in Baltimore. "I always had a good time when I played here. I love the city. The team was really close. It kind of hurt to get pushed out."
Dempsey left Baltimore with not only a chip on his shoulder, but also with four of them, and a bone spur, in his right elbow. After surgery, and a home-plate collision with Bo Jackson that left Dempsey with a broken left thumb, he said it took more than 18 months to get healthy again. That came during his first year with the Dodgers, in 1988.
Playing behind Mike Scioscia, but appearing in 77 games, Dempsey hit .251 and helped the Dodgers to both a National League championship and five-game upset of the Oakland Athletics in the World Series. Dempsey, the MVP of the 1983 Series with the Orioles, had proved that he still had a few crouches left in his aging knees.
"Everyone kept saying I was finished," he said, seemingly irked at the notion. "And I kept saying that I wasn't."
But after Dempsey hit .195 in 62 games last year, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had the same message for Dempsey. The Dodgers weren't going with youth, but a younger old catcher named Gary Carter. It was time to pack up and move on.
Enter the Brewers. After trading backup Charlie O'Brien to the Mets in September, Milwaukee was looking for someone to back up Surhoff. Dempsey, who will be 42 in September, beat out former Cub Rick Wrona and Tim McIntosh, a converted outfielder who went back to Class AAA.
"We wanted someone who could do the job defensively and we %% would be comfortable with for a few games if anything happened B. J.," Milwaukee manager Tom Trebelhorn said before the season started.
Though struggling offensively -- he had only one hit in 11 at-bats this year -- Dempsey has done what has been asked. He coaxed a solid effort out of erratic right-hander Chris Bosio on Thursday.
"We know what he can do for us," said Brewers veteran Paul Molitor. "He's a guy who likes to come to the park every day and is happy with the fact that he's still playing."
Said Brewers pitching coach Larry Haney: "For his age, he has a lot of life in him. He knew why he came here, to give B. J. a day off every so often. But he's accepted his role."
In an age of over-40 comebacks, some successful and some not, Dempsey merely would like to keep his career going. He is only the third catcher in history to play four decades, along with Tim McCarver and the White Sox's Carlton Fisk.
"It is very much an individual thing," said Dempsey. "A 40-year-old player has to work all the time to stay in shape. You have to dedicate yourself to working 365 days a year."
The man whose imitations and tarpaulin-sliding have become the stuff of legend -- well, maybe near-legend -- still is having fun. The competitive side of Dempsey wants to be in there every day, but the clock ticks more quickly than before.
His summer of 42 beckons.
After the Orioles
Rick Dempsey's statistics since he left the Orioles: Yr,.. .club..G...AB...R...H...HR..RBI.. .BA
1988,..LA.. .77..177..25..42...7..30.. .251
1989,..LA.. .79..151..16..27...4..16.. .179
1990,..LA.. .62..128..13..25...2..15.. .195
1991,..Mil.. .-...11...1...1...1...2.. .091