SARASOTA, Fla. -- For Rick Dempsey, this odyssey could be && the first step toward a reconciliation after a painful separation.
He has faced longer odds before -- but probably not with as much intensity, or anxiety.
At age 42, Dempsey desperately wants to return to Baltimore, where he enjoyed the most successful years of a career that has spanned four decades. He has been away for five years, one with the Cleveland Indians, three with the Los Angeles Dodgers and one with the Milwaukee Brewers.
He says it was never the same. "One thing I learned from moving around the last few years," he said, "is that you have to let people accept you. You can't force yourself on them."
Another thing he has learned is to accept a role as backup catcher, a condition he previously loathed and which led to his departure after the 1986 season. He is back in an Orioles uniform, competing with Jeff Tackett and Mark Parent for the No. catcher's spot behind Chris Hoiles.
For the past five years, Dempsey says he was more distant from his teammates than he had been in the past. He was used to a certain clubhouse camaraderie that he didn't find elsewhere.
He also suspects that in those years that same atmosphere was probably missing in the clubhouse of the Orioles, who have struggled to regain their identity.
"The year in Cleveland was a disaster," said Dempsey.
"In Los Angeles, there was always a feeling that I wasn't a Dodger and in Milwaukee that I wasn't true blue.
"If I had to pick a word to describe what it would feel like to be able to finish in Baltimore, it would be comfortable. It would be very comforting for me to come back after having thought the divorce was final. I don't know how else to describe it."
Perhaps the best way to describe Dempsey's feelings is to recount something rather remarkable that took place at the end of last year. He had been invited back for the final weekend ceremonies at Memorial Stadium, and wasn't sure he would be able to come -- or even if he wanted to.
"I didn't know what they had planned, and I didn't know if I wanted to be a part of it," said Dempsey, thinking maybe it might be too painful an experience to return to a place he never wanted to leave.
In addition, he had a performance clause in his contract that called for bonuses for games played in increments of 10 after he reached 40. He reached 60 in the last week, and then his availability depended on whether the Boston Red Sox, Milwaukee's final opponent, had clinched their final standing.
"I was living with Robin Yount and I woke up one morning and decided I wasn't going to be able to make it," said Dempsey. "So, I sat down to write a letter saying I was sorry I that I wouldn't be able to be there."
A funny thing happened in the next hour and a half. Dempsey started having flashbacks and turned poetic. Instead of putting his thoughts into a letter, he poured his feelings into a poem he titled "The Lady in Red."
She's The Lady in Red,
She's Baltimore's best . . .
And many a great one
Have come from her nest.
"To me, Memorial Stadium was like a grand lady," said Dempsey. "Some people asked me, 'Why red?' and I told them that while orange was a team color, when you pictured that stadium you immediately thought about the red brick facade all the way around.
"All the great players, great teams came to mind," said
Dempsey, recounting the experience.
She gave birth to a thousand,
Adopted a few . . .
By the way that she loved them,
"They made players there," Dempsey said. "Taught them how to play the game, how to win.
"A lot of players grew up there -- and when they [the Orioles] went out and brought in people from other teams, they made players out of them, too. The stadium represented the city, adopting the newcomers and taking the team to its heart. Everybody blended in and became a part of the team."
There was Brooksie and Frank
And 'Booger' by name . . .
There was Palmer, McNally,
Pauly and Blade . . .
"I can't think of any organization, except maybe the Yankees, that had so many great players, so many great names," `f Dempsey said. "Especially when you consider the relatively short history of the organization -- and the stadium.
"When you think about all the great ones who have played there, it's an imposing list."
Eddie and Flanny,
And Tippy and Scott . . .
Dobber and Cuellar,
Stanhouse and Stodd . . .
"The names just kept coming and coming," said Dempsey. "Sometimes you wonder what makes you do certain things. But the words just seemed to flow.
"Every time I'd think of a name, another one fit into place. The words just kept coming together. I think I wrote the whole thing in less than an hour and a half."
There was Moe, 'B,' and Kel,
And Gary and Low . . .
Richie and Dennis,
Gus and The Crow.
"I didn't feel comfortable putting my own name in, because I was writing it. Some others just didn't fit and a lot of guys didn't have nicknames," recalled Dempsey.