September 13 – Happy Birthday Rick Dempsey
I was a big Rick Dempsey fan. Right after the 1972 season ended, the Yankees traded an outfielder named Danny Walton to the Twins to acquire the then 23-year-old catcher. New York would then send Dempsey to their Syracuse Triple A farm club for the 1973 season. In 1974, he became Thurman Munson’s primary backup and remained in that position for the next two and a half seasons. The guy became a superb defensive catcher and he had a shotgun for an arm. During his first season backing up Munson, he threw out 16 of the 22 base runners who tried to steal against him. He saw his most action in pinstripes during the 1975 campaign, when he got into 71 games. Never a great hitter, he had a career high .262 average that year and would often DH or play in the outfield if he wasn’t giving Munson a breather. Even though he didn’t hit for average or power, the guy was a grinder at the plate and a tough out in big situations.
Dempsey adored Munson. In a baseball Digest interview he did later on in his career, he said of the late great Yankee Captain, “I always admired his determination and tenacity, the way he played the game. I always said if I got a chance to play every day I wanted to be just like him.” Rick also loved being a Yankee. He credits Munson and Bobby Murcer for showing him how to act like a baseball player and he says working with Yankee coach and former big league All Star receiver Jim Hegan, made him a much better catcher. But Dempsey’s Yankee days were numbered.
In 1976 with Billy Martin now managing and George Steinbrenner’s “Let’s Win Now” philosophy taking hold, the Yankees decided to sacrifice their best young players to obtain veterans who could help them win that year’s division race. On June 15, 1976, New York traded Dempsey along with pitchers Tippy Martinez, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan to the Baltimore Orioles for Doyle Alexander, Jimmy Freeman, Elrod Hendricks, Ken Holtzman and Grant Jackson. New York got the immediate benefit they were looking for from the deal because Alexander, Holtzman and Grant combined to win 25 games during the second half of that season as New York finished in first by 10.5 games over the Orioles. But in the long run, the deal turned out to be one of the best trades ever made by the Orioles organization. Martinez became the foundation of their bullpen, McGregor the foundation of their rotation and Dempsey the foundation of their defense for the next decade, culminating in with the 1983 World Championship.
During the ten seasons Dempsey served as Baltimore’s starting catcher (not including the strike shortened 1981 season) the Birds averaged over 90 victories per year. The highlight of his career was the Orioles 1983 World Series triumph over the Phillies in which Dempsey batted .385 and was named MVP. He ended up becoming a free agent after the 1986 season and signing with the Indians. After one year in Cleveland he played three more with the Dodgers and another three in Milwaukee before coming back to Baltimore for the 1992 swan song to his 24-season big league career. He along with Tim McCarver and Carlton Fisk are the only three catchers in big league history to catch games in four different decades.
One of Dempsey’s trademarks was his comedy act during rain delays. He’d put a beach ball over his belly under his jersey, turn his cap sideways, make believe he hit an inside the park home run and then water slide his way around imaginary bases atop the drenched infield rain tarp. These pantomime performances caused Baltimore fans to actually begin to praying for rain delays.