For openers, Dempsey just wants to be there

JOHN EISENBERG

March 22, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- To the suggestion that the Orioles' new ballpark would not truly be a part of Baltimore until he christened it, hon, Rick Dempsey smiled.

"Nice thought," he said. "Let me make the ballclub first."

To the question of whether he had thought about it, thought of an act with which to bless the new digs, perhaps a new pantomime or belly-flop -- Babe Ruth Stadium would have made it easy, eh? -- or something along the emotional lines of his goodbye to Memorial Stadium, he shook his head.

His blue eyes twinkled in the sunshine at Al Lang Stadium yesterday, so you knew there was some fantasy tittering away in there, but he kept shaking his head, no. It just wasn't the time to talk choreography. Not yet anyway.

"They've got a tough decision to make," he said.

Ah. Yes. The little matter of whether Dempsey makes the team as the backup catcher, a subplot of the Orioles' spring unfolding beneath this headline: Do the Orioles get to go with their hearts and minds at the same time?

No one is saying right now. Jeff Tackett is big and agile and having a strong spring, but he has only eight major-league at-bats, and starter Chris Hoiles is similarly young. The club could stand some catching guile. No one knows that better than manager John Oates, a backup catcher from way back.

It would only be the most popular decision the club has made in about a decade, but the funny thing is it wouldn't just be a matter of the heart. Dempsey can still play. He may be 42, a ballplayer since Lyndon Johnson was president, but his arm is sound, his handling of pitchers is mature and his bat is surprisingly potent -- he was near .260 for most of last season in Milwaukee. He made 44 starts, not bad for 41.

"A darn good year, I'd say," he said. "I'd like to play a little more. I don't much care for sitting around watching. I just never can seem to get used to that. But it's OK. At this point all you do is stay ready and wait until they call you. Anything is fine. I'm addicted to this. I am. Addicted to pennant races, the games, everything. That's why I'm still here. It sure isn't for the money."

For all those years he played in Minnesota and New York and Baltimore, he never figured he would be one of those players who kept going until people started shaking their heads. Catching doesn't often make for a long career, and he was small for the position.

"I never expected to go this long," he said. "I didn't know how my career would end, but I never thought about being 42 and still in it."

But then he discovered weight-training a decade ago and

jumped into it, and it changed everything. He weighs 25 pounds more than he did when last with the Orioles in 1986, and, he said, that is why he still can hit a little and throw out some runners.

"It saved me," he said. "No doubt about it. This is so hard on your shoulders, hard on your legs. There aren't many catchers who have lasted a long time. Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone. It's because it's a grind. The position is such a grind. I needed the muscle. Mentally you have to survive the grind, and physically it's a 365-day job, staying in shape. Especially at 42.

"One of these years I know it's got to end because they're just going to run out of spots for me with more and more young RTC catchers coming up. But as long as I come to camp in better shape every year, and as long as I can throw some people out, and I've been doing that, I think there's still room for me."

He thought there was room in Milwaukee, but the Brewers released him the day after the season. And rekindled some of the familiar Dempsey spirit, incidentally.

"They had a guy from the minor-league office call me to tell me," he said. "I didn't even know who he was. I told him, 'Great, now tell the GM [Sal Bando] to call me and tell me.' He called me the next day. Said he'd been in meetings all day and didn't have a chance. I didn't care for that."

It never occurred to Dempsey to try the Orioles until he read they had traded Bob Melvin.

"I called my agent and told him to call the Orioles, and he did, and they were interested," he said. "I got more and more excited as I thought about it. It's such a perfect fit. Hopefully. Tackett is a nice young catcher. It's a tough call. We'll see what happens. Doesn't make for the usual, relaxed spring."

It's more than a little ironic, Dempsey having to prove himself all over again to the Orioles, but you don't worry about irony or old politics when you're 42 and just looking to feed your sweaty addiction. You just keep playing and hope the right people take notice. Then, and only then, can you start thinking about the choreography.

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