Friday, November 29, 2013

FACE TIME: 1987 TOPPS RICK DEMPSEY




Most people put on a mask to become someone else. Rick Dempsey had to take his off. Over 24 years, he showed two sides of his face: stalwart defensive catcher and vaudevillian clown prince. 

When Dempsey wasn't plying his craft behind the plate, he often entertained the diehards waiting out rain delays. He was known for emerging shoeless from the dugout wearing underwear over his uniform pants as a nod to Jim Palmer's Jockey endorsement while pantomiming hitting homers. He ran the bases with the joy of a little boy, always slip-sliding into home head-first.

He also could do a terrific imitation of Babe Ruth, right down to the short and choppy home-run trot on a rain-splattered tarp. Dempsey was on the major-league stage in six cities, including The House that Ruth Built for four-plus seasons, but his theatrical side didn't evolve until after the Yankees traded him to the Orioles in June '76. So much for playing Broadway.

It was good timing for his baseball career, however, as he'd spend the next 10 1/2 seasons as a starter after backing up Thurman Munson. Dempsey matured into an astute game-manager, catching 10 different 20-game winners. Twice he led AL catchers in fielding percentage and base-stealers caught. Amazingly, he made only two trips to the disabled list. It was another savvy "Oriole Way'' move.

Toughness, unlike playacting, is a byproduct of catching. Consequently, Dempsey wasn't clowning around on Aug. 20, 1990, while catching for the Dodgers against the Phillies. After Lenny Dykstra was called out on strikes in the fifth, the NL's leading hitter came to bat in the seventh and began barking that Dempsey and the home-plate umpire were in cahoots. Dempsey dropped his mask, Dykstra his bat and the fists flew. 

Afterward, Dempsey showed his typical wry side. "What's he mad about? He made an out. I make four of them a game. If I was hitting .340, I'd be kissing every player on the opposing team.''

It probably helps to have a sense of humor when you hit .233 for your career in nearly 4,700 at-bats with 96 homers and 471 RBI. Nobody was laughing at Dempsey in the '83 World Series. He played the leading man for real against the Phillies, homering in the deciding Game 5 in the third inning and extending the Orioles' lead to 2-0.

Max Patkin became Johnny Bench.

Dempsey was named World Series MVP after hitting .385 with five extra-base hits and slugging .923. The unlikely star didn't have to pretend to be someone else on the game's biggest stage.

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