Rick Dempsey's comeback attempt with the Orioles ended yesterday when he was told he wouldn't be offered a contract for 1992.
The veteran catcher got the news less than two hours after being released from University Hospital, where he was being treated for an apparent case of food poisoning that hit several team members after Saturday's exhibition game at Washington's RFK Stadium.
The Orioles have asked Dempsey to stay in the organization, if he cannot make it as a player with another team.
With Dempsey out of the picture, the job as backup catcher behind Chris Hoiles goes to Jeff Tackett, 26, who had a .438 batting average this spring.
"I don't know what to think yet," said Dempsey, 42. "They want me to hang around -- and I don't really know why. You'll have to ask Johnny [Oates, the manager]. I'm still too foggy."
Oates said he couldn't be specific until he knew for sure if Dempsey was interested in staying with the Orioles, but left no doubt he'd like to keep him around as an insurance policy. "I told him to check around and see if another club wants him as a backup catcher," said Oates. "That's more than I can offer.
"But, if not, then if he's interested we can sit down and talk. The only thing I told him is that [the prospective job] would entail him hitting and throwing every day."
It would appear that the Orioles would like Dempsey to accept the kind of role Elrod Hendricks had late in his playing career. The bullpen coach was available as a third catcher before settling into a full-time job as a coach.
"This [the decision on Dempsey] was by far the toughest one I had to make," said Oates. "So much went into it -- you can't think of all the things I've thought about in the last two months.
"I didn't just take spring training into consideration -- nor did I completely discount that Rick didn't hit much [during the exhibitions]. This one was so close, it was split right down the middle," Oates said.
The five-man coaching staff, general manager Roland Hemond and assistants Frank Robinson and Doug Melvin participated in the decision, but it was left for Oates to make the final judgment. "There was just so much to take into consideration," he said. "It was very passionate on both sides."
When he left the park yesterday, Dempsey was unsure what he would do, but, for the time being at least, he will continue to work out with the Orioles. "If this had happened a week ago, I might have a job right now, but one of the teams that might have been interested made a deal," he said.
He was referring to the Philadelphia Phillies' signing of free agent Steve Lake.
It was a rough day for Dempsey. Early in the morning, he had to enlist the help of a couple on their honeymoon, who were staying in the adjoining room of a downtown hotel, to summon paramedics.
"I thought I was a goner," said Dempsey, whose hands and legs were so severely cramped he could barely open the door to his room. He was taken to the hospital at 3 a.m. and released about five hours later.
Dempsey was one of several Orioles who got sick, apparently from sandwiches served in the clubhouse after the 4-3 loss to the Red Sox on Saturday afternoon. "I'm still wiped out," Dempsey said shortly before leaving the park.
Dempsey informed Tackett that he had won the No. 2 catching job. "He came over and told me the Orioles were not going to sign him, and that was basically how I found out," said Tackett.
"It was like a concrete truck had been lifted off my shoulders," he said, emphasizing that he had a good relationship all spring with his veteran competitor.
"We got along great on and off the field," said Tackett. "I know what he's meant to this franchise and how popular he is with the fans.
"I didn't want to come in and look at it [the competition with Dempsey] as a negative. I didn't want to think if he went 3-for-3 that I had to go 3-for-3 the next day.
"All I wanted to do was be able to look in the mirror and be happy with myself," said Tackett. "If what I did wasn't good enough to make the team, I'd be able to live with the fact that I gave 100 percent of myself.
"I knew coming to camp that I was going to have a shot to make the team. But even after they traded [Bob] Melvin, I knew it wasn't certain. You know they're always going to bring extra catchers in -- and you never know who they're going to be. When I found out Rick was coming, I was very realistic, but I still felt the same way -- that I would have an opportunity."
Tackett was asked how he would have reacted had he not made the team after a productive spring. "I wouldn't even want to attempt to answer that question," he said. "I'm just glad I don't have that feeling.
"I know I played hard, and did what they told me I had to do in order to make the team. After that, there wasn't anything else I could do.
"I'm just thankful to be here, and so excited to be wearing an Orioles uniform that I can't explain it."
It's the feeling Dempsey would have had if he had made the team. But this time, youth won out over experience.