Orioles invite Dempsey back At 42, fan favorite sees strong chance to catch on

January 18, 1992|By Jim Henneman

The first time he came to Baltimore, he brought with him tears of frustration.

When he left, with the best memories of a career that now has spanned four decades, there was at least a -- of bitterness mixed with a huge portion of disappointment.

Now, he's coming back to the Baltimore Orioles only for a tryout -- and Rick Dempsey is like a kid with a new toy.

"I'm so excited about it," he said, "I can't wait to get started."

At 42, Dempsey has not lost any enthusiasm -- or confidence. For the third time in five years, he'll go to spring training without a contract.

His approach is the same. To Dempsey, an opportunity equates a job.

When he left, after the 1986 season, he did so primarily because the Orioles told him he'd have to accept a backup role to newly acquired Terry Kennedy, that he wouldn't be allowed to compete for the starting job.

It was a role Dempsey, then "only" 37, couldn't accept at that stage of his career. It's different now.

"I've had some pretty good years in the backup role," Dempsey said yesterday from his home in Southern California after the Orioles announced he had been invited to spring training as a non-roster player. "It's a good role for me -- now.

"I don't play every day, and I stay stronger. I don't know whether that's because I'm not playing every day or because of the weights, but I do stay stronger."

Dempsey then recited his approximate statistics in the past four years -- three with the Los Angeles Dodgers and last season with the Milwaukee Brewers.

"I've had about 600 at-bats, 18 home runs and 82 runs batted in," he said. "If I had produced like that when I was with the Orioles, I'd be a millionaire by now.

"I feel like I can actually be an offensive force [playing irregularly]."

Dempsey said he has no illusions about the offer from the Orioles. It was the only serious invitation he had -- which is the same situation he faced four years ago, when he talked Dodgers general manager Fred Claire into a spring-training invitation.

"He still has the desire to play, and we're pleased he had the desire to come back here," said general manager Roland Hemond, who nevertheless emphasized that Jeff Tackett remains the front-runner for the No. 2 catching job behind Chris Hoiles.

"It's much like the Mike Flanagan situation last year," said Hemond. "We've made no commitments to Rick. But we know it's always good to have depth at the catching position.

"And if he should make the team, it would allow us to have Jeff catch every day at Rochester. But, by no means, would I want this interpreted as Jeff being off the team. It's something we'll determine in spring training."

Last year, Dempsey hit .231, with four home runs and 21 RBI in 147 at-bats (61 games) for the Brewers. In a more expanded role for the Orioles, Bob Melvin hit .250 with one home run and 23 home runs in 228 at-bats (79 games).

When Melvin was traded to the Kansas City Royals last month for pitcher Storm Davis, one of the first people to react was Dempsey.

"I called [his representative] Ron Shapiro and asked him to see what the Orioles were going to do," Dempsey said.

"Then I waited around to see what other teams were doing. I knew nobody was interested in giving me a contract and taking up a spot on the roster.

"When I got a little frustrated, I picked up the phone and called Roland and was encouraged enough to suspect I might get an invitation," said Dempsey.

"I had talked to Cincinnati, and they were interested, but they already had too many catchers coming to camp."

Not that it would have mattered. Just the opportunity to return to the Orioles was enough for Dempsey. When the New York Yankees traded him here in 1976, he said he cried because he felt he was being cheated out of a World Series.

That quickly changed, and he developed a unique bond with the city and its fans. It was a mutual love affair that, even with the career candle burning low, has a chance to flicker one more time.

"You know, I really don't think the Orioles are a third- or fourth-place team," said Dempsey. "If those young pitchers can get going, I think we can contend."

Dempsey has a nephew, Greg Zaun, who is a catcher in the Orioles' organization, and his son John will be starting his second year in the Cardinals' minor-league system.

Does he have any thoughts about hanging around until either, or both, show up in the big leagues? "I don't give any thought to that," said Dempsey. "When my body tells me I can't catch or throw, then it's over, and I'll quit. I'm not looking for a coaching or managing job. That will come after I stop playing."

For now, he's more than content to attempt one last fling with the Orioles. And probably the only ones more excited about that possibility than Rick Dempsey are the fans.

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