Dempsey still popular after all these years Catcher will always be an Oriole to Baltimore fans

August 09, 1991|By Kent Baker

He scratched and climbed the backstop screen, bowled over opponents, argued with the manager and entertained the adoring fans with his parody of Babe Ruth's called home run during rain delays.

During 10-plus seasons at Memorial Stadium, Rick Dempsey, even more than the team's sluggers, became the symbol of the Baltimore Orioles' grit.

And now, at 41, he seems destined to outlast the stadium that was once his stage.

"I hope to play in the new place," he said last night as his current team, the Milwaukee Brewers, prepared to play their final game of the season here. "But it won't be the same."

Dempsey has been showered with affection everywhere he went on this trip to his adopted city -- from the stadium, where he receives standing ovations, to Christopher's, the Cockeysville night club where he and Tiffany, a local band, entertained about 800 people with oldies Wednesday night.

"That was a lot of fun," said Dempsey, whose video of "Old Time Rock And Roll" became a Memorial Stadium standard. "I just brought a few songs back. Players from both teams were there, and the people were crazy as usual."

But Dempsey was in a more pensive mood yesterday, as he recalled his bouts with manager Earl Weaver and the decade in Baltimore.

"I just don't know if I'd ever been the player I was if I hadn't come here," he said. "I wasn't a great player, but it was such a good organization, it had a way of making you better. Those who left didn't seem to be as good again.

"I was a throw-in on the trade [in 1976 with the New York Yankees], but, after I got here, I learned an awful lot about baseball.

"I just always tried to do what I could to help, no matter how small it was. Let Eddie Murray and Ken Singleton and Cal Ripken hit the homers. It was my job to block balls, knock people over. Fortunately, I was able to accept it."

But, along the way, Dempsey earned some individual honors, most notably the Most Valuable Player award in the 1983 World Series, when he batted .385.

"There's no way I've ever going to say that was the biggest thrill," he said. "They came one after another, always something special.

"But it helped erase 1979, when we blew the last three in the Series and our fans were just heartbroken. After we got up, 3-1, in '83, no way we were going to let it get away again."

To Dempsey, the most thrilling series at the stadium was the final one of 1982, when the Brewers came in with a three-game lead with four to play.

"That last day was huge," he said. "We had to beat them four in a row, and [Jim] Palmer was pitching and hadn't lost since May. Earl was leaving, and we felt we were going to win.

"But Robin Yount hit a couple of homers and Ben Oglivie made a big catch against Joe Nolan and we didn't. But that just symbolized the way we did things in those days, the way we fought back."

Paul Molitor also remembers that weekend vividly.

"On our bus coming out here that Sunday, some people with brooms were shaking them and their fists at us," said the Brewers leadoff man.

"When we got to the stadium, there must have been 300 brooms pressed up against the windows of our bus. You couldn't see out," said Molitor.

Dempsey broke in with the Minnesota Twins in 1969, so he has reached a goal of playing in four decades. He has been with the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and Brewers since leaving Baltimore in 1987, but he will be forever linked with the Orioles.

He was unhappy here at first because Weaver limited his playing time, and their disagreements never seemed to end, both being fierce competitors.

"We had a lot of them, about playing time, being pinch hit for," said Dempsey. "We'd throw things, but we never hit each other. I know now that I had to learn to accept my limitations."

His satisfaction came from the progress made by the team and the city.

"When I came here, the city had a long way to go," he said. "While I was here it came a long way. The difference in the spirit was amazing. I'm just happy to have been a small part of it."

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