Rick Dempsey and Dan Graham are reciprocals of one another. Every time they look at each other, they see the nagging reverse image of themselves. Everything they aren't, but wish they were, the other is.
It's always been that way, ever since the first baseball manager looked down his bench and realized that two half players could be as good as one whole.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable and insecure job in baseball is being part of an excellent platoon. You're half star, half bench warmer. One day, you're a hero, the next you wonder if you'll ever get back in the lineup.
Of all the current platoon tandems in baseball, the best might be this pair of Oriole catchers who combined for 24 homes and 93 RBI last season. Most folks think the American League's best catcher is Rick Cerone or Carlton Fisk. But neither the Yanks nor the Red Sox got as much offensive production out of their collective catchers last season as the Orioles.
Dempsey and Graham are a particularly piquant example of the ubiquitous platoon life because they are total contrasts in all ways except one -- each longs to drive the other out of a job.
"Dangerous Dan and Rick the Rifle get along all right," says Ken Singleton, "but there's no joking or teasing between them. Not ever. And the one subject on this team that nobody makes wisecracks about is the catching job. The potential spark is always there between them. If they ever got into it, somebody could get killed. And I think I know who that somebody would be. I would be the first guy dumb enough to try to get between 'em."
Manager Earl Weaver is too smart to try to fine tune such combustible temperaments. He takes the hard line, knowing it is the only way, especially with Dempsey who is such a hard-headed firebrand that he and Weaver once got into a screaming match that ended with them throwing equipment at each other.
"I don't care how they 'feel' about being platooned. There's not a damn thing they can do about it," Weaver says flatly. "All they can do is take a vacation without pay (i.e., not show up for work). I platooned Andy Etchebarren and Elrod Hendricks for years and they both hated it every year. Yeah, they hated it all the way to three World Series."
If you could weld Dempsey and Graham together, you'd have an All-Star.
The 184-pound banty rooster Dempsey is the best defensive catcher in the AL, that is, if Jim Sundburg of Texas isn't. The Demper is quick in the dirt behind the plate and spectacularly willing to sacrifice his body (and seemingly his life) to make the wildest acrobatic plays. He has the strongest arm in the league and loves to show it off. His pitch selecting is adequate.
Dempsey is a total extrovert, a son of vaudevillians, who can hold 30,000 fans entranced during a rain delay with his inspired "Soliloquy in Pantomime" -- a hilarious, baggy-pants spoof of Babe Ruth hitting a called-shot home run. Devoid of stage fright, Dempsey was the only Oriole who truly lusted after the spotlight in the '79 postseason (hitting .323 and not allowing one steal in 10 games). Screaming, he stood at home plate and challenged the whole whippet Pirate team to try to steal on him, then shut them out for the entire Series.
All Dempsey really lacks is about 30 more pounds of muscle so that when he hits a baseball, it will pay proper attention. "I hit the hardest .262 in baseball last year," he says plaintively. "I never saw so many ropes hang in the air just long enough to get caught." Ah, there's a sad lesson there somewhere. God gave those 30 extra pounds of sting to Dan Graham. When Graham swings, he grunts with power. And the ball leaps; it never hangs.
Last year, in only 266 at bats as a rookie, the 26-year-old Graham had a jolting 15 homers and 54 RBI. More impressive, he did better the more he played, hitting 11 homers and 41 RBI in 161 at bats as he hit .311 after the All-Star break. Everything he hit trailed smoke. Those stats, especially in a young, 215-pound lefty-hitting catcher, pop eyes.
A total introvert, Graham is a strong, silent honest-to-goodness cowboy from Winkelman, Ariz., who carries just the slightest trace of arrogance and menace. Not much, just enough. "Last year, on the first day of the first road trip," says Singleton, "Lee May and I went to the back seat of the bus where we always sit. Graham was there. I said, 'Rookies don't sit here.' He gave me this look which definitely meant he wasn't moving. I said, 'Of course, I could always sit over here.' I liked him from that moment. I thought, 'This kid is going to command some respect.'"
Graham is the sort who wouldn't complain or ask for help if a girder fell on his foot. "I'm not that outgoing," says Graham, who was stolen from the catatonic Twins in a two-bit minor league trade despite his high-power stats. "In fact, I don't communicate that much with anybody."
Instead, he watches. "I learn the most between 4 p.m. and game time, just watching veterans like Singleton, watching everything they do," he says. "I'm just sorry I have to go to the bullpen when I'm not playing because I'd love to study Dempsey catching. He's the best. I've often wanted to take binoculars with me to watch him from the bullpen, but I guess the umps wouldn't like it."
A congenital worrier, Graham never told the O's just how little he had caught before they put him behind the plate in a pennant race. After missing two tag plays at home in one game in Seattle, Weaver chewed out Graham, jawing, "Who the hell taught you to make a tag that way." "Nobody," mumbled Graham. "I've never tried to tag anybody at the plate before."
Even now, Graham says, "I'm apprehensive about this year. I'm basically an unproven commodity. I'd just as soon forget last year. I can't play off it. If I produce this year, I'll play. If not, I could find myself back at Rochester."
The O's, particularly Weaver, don't think so. In '80, Graham hit .333 with men in scoring position, batted .351 with men at second and third, hit .556 with men at third (20 for 36) and .706 (12 for 17) in "contact" situations with men at third and fewer than two outs. That's a nice stomach for pressure.
As a catcher, the miracle was that Graham could do it at all, considering he hadn't worn a mask in five years. He threw out 31 of 77 runners, compared to Dempsey's 34 of 81, and had a .981 pecentage to Dempsey's .987. A butcher at first -- "boxing a crate of balls a night (as the players say)" as he even bobbled strikes -- Graham improved markedly, though not enough to allay fears.
What connects Dempsey and Graham, the jabbering pepperpot and the quiet hulk, is their obvious relish in the game.
Dempsey, of course, is a legend for bustle and temper. After badgering Weaver into letting him play late-inning defense in left field ("he makes the dugout unbearable he's so wound up," says Weaver), Dempsey succeeded in demolishing Mark Belanger as he waited under a pop up. "I've been out there 15 years and nobody's nailed me. I'm too quick for 'em," says Belanger. "Dempsey's out there one night and he cross body blocks me and puts me out for two weeks."
Graham is more subtle. After an inning-ending strikeout, he has a repertoire of slam dunks, hook shots, jump shots and dice rolls that he uses to return the ball to the mound. "For a guy with next to no experience working with a pitching staff with four 20-game winners, he's incredibly cocky and take-charge," says Mike Flanagan. "He can't help it. He's just having such a great time back there. It's like he can't believe he's playing in the majors."
For Weaver and the Orioles, this two-headed dilemma is the nicest of problems. For Dempsey and Graham, however, it is glorious torture. "Catcher is a one-player position, or ought to be," says Dempsey with disgust. "But we both want to play so much, that we just won't allow the other one to own the job."
So, the friendly feud goes on. "Earl and I will have our arguments," promises Depsey. "Like last year, I went seven for 14 and then Dan played the next 12 straight games. I had to go in and yell a few times."
Dempsey and Graham have their private understanding. "We've both always looked at ourselves as underdogs, so we've tried to work harder," says Dempsey.
Last winter, the St. Louis Cardinals, looking to trade perrenial All-Star catcher Ted Simmons, contacted Baltimore. Oriole General Manager Hank Peters told his old friend Whitney Herzog, "There's not much point in talking. Simmons couldn't catch for us. We wouldn't trade Dempsey and Graham for him even up."
Perhaps only in baseball can two underdogs -- each half hero, half unemployed -- band together to surpass one top dog.