A British diplomat, asked his evaluation of exuberant, inexhaustible Theodore Roosevelt, once said, "You must remember that the president is about 6."
In that case, Rick Dempsey is about 7.
The frisky, frolicsome catcher of the Baltimore Orioles makes Pete Rose look more like Joe Jake than Charlie Hustle. If Dempsey had lived 50 years ago, he'd have given the Gashouse Gang the hot foot. John McGraw would have loved him.
Dempsey is not a throwback. Rather, he's a recurrent baseball reincarnation. Each generation has its tiny allotment of this precious type: the life lover, the joyous competitor, the happy warrior with plenty of sand in his craw.
Last week, Dempsey played in his 1,000th big-league game, more than 800 of them in seven seasons as the Orioles' starting catcher. His career has been an unconscious living out of the old Rough Rider's favorite dictum: "Get action. Do things. Be sane. Don't fritter away your time. Create. Act. Take a place wherever you are and be somebody."
Dempsey, 33, has many characteristic poses:
* Throwing out a great base thief with a marvelous peg. "I'd say I have one of the three best arms among all the catchers I've ever seen," says Dempsey, who is as good a defensive mechanic as the game offers. In the 1979 postseason, Dempsey allowed no stolen bases and relished his public finger-pointing challenges with the speedsters of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series.
* Blocking home plate not with fear but with glee, seeking out the contact, then proudly limping back to the dugout, pumping the ball over his head in his fist to exhort his teammates. "He has no fear of anybody," says Rich Dauer.
* Flinging his helmet or smashing his bat after one of his many respectably hard hit flies has been run down for an out. "I've got the sweetest .240 stroke in baseball. You're lookin' at the hardest .240 hitter in the game who gets no RBIs," says Dempsey, convinced he has the game's worst hitting luck. "I've been in the league 10 years and I've never been hot."
* Making countless charity and promotional appearances in the Baltimore area, where his popularity, according to team officials, is on a par with Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken Jr.--all of whom might be in the Hall of Fame. Dempsey opens his arms to the world. In September, for instance, he often invites several up-for-a-month rookies to live at his home.
* Bringing a crowd of 30,000 to its feet with cheers and laughter during a long rain delay with his "Baseball Soliloquy in Pantomime." Dempsey stuffs a pillow under his jersey, turns his hat sideways and, imitating Babe Ruth, calls his home-run shot, then runs the bases on his imaginary home run, pratfalling through the slop at every base.
When he slides the last 20 yards on his belly over the slick tarp toward home plate, it's clear that Dempsey has plenty of ham in his veins. In fact, his parents were vaudevillians who once made it to Broadway. His father was a singer and his mother was the knockout Coppertone model whose picture "was on the big billboard at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in the late '40s."
Despite all this, Dempsey's most symbolic act might be a play that he tries several times a season but has yet to pull off. He dashes to the screen in Memorial Stadium, throws off his glove and mask, then climbs hand over hand up the wire screen. No one knows how Dempsey plans to catch the ball, but his wife Johanna has an idea.
"He might catch it in his teeth," she says. "Never a dull moment with Rick."
Johanna Dempsey, who has known her husband since grade school, should know. Recently, she woke up in bed in the middle of the night, hearing a strange "whizzing sound over my head."
"Rick had a bat and he was practicing his swing," she says. "Now that's taking the game home with you. I just told him, 'Rick, go ahead and turn the light on so you can see your swing in the mirror. I know you went hitless.' "
It's more a commentary on the times than on Dempsey that he's widely thought to be more zany than zesty. After all, why shouldn't a man, in the middle of the offseason, hook up a pitching machine, point it at the sky and start running through his neighbors' gardens catching long fly balls because he's suddenly decided that he should learn to be an outfielder?
"Rick's easy to figure out. All you have to do is look at his face. He's a basic guy . . . just a rock, a solid father, a steady husband," says his wife.
"He likes to fish and play golf. He just loves life and it shows in the way he plays ball. He's got a lot of heart. I've seen him laid out at home plate after a collision. But I don't really worry too much. I kind of take pride in his blood-and-guts attitude."
Everybody knows about the night Dempsey and Earl Weaver had their equipment-throwing battle, the manager picking up and heaving every piece of paraphernalia that Dempsey had just flung. Now, however, Dempsey can tell the sequel.
"I was in the hot shower, trying to calm down, and Weaver came back between innings, still in uniform, and he's standing right in the shower screaming at me," Dempsey said. "I had my head under the water so I wouldn't have to listen to him when I had an idea. I turned the water from hot to cold and started letting it bounce off my head and onto Earl. He was so mad he didn't even notice it and I just about soaked him from the waist down.
"It was a freezing cold night in Milwaukee and Earl had to go back out and sit in the dugout for another hour," Dempsey said with a grin. "They tell me he about froze to death in that wet uniform."
Dempsey isn't often so circumspect in his retaliations. Once, as an interim manager in winter ball in Puerto Rico, Dempsey relieved pitcher Mike Dupree. The pitcher, taking offense at something Dempsey said, threw his glove at the smallish catcher as they walked off the field. Dempsey threw something back--a punch that broke Dupree's jaw and left him unconscious on the field.
Dempsey, as manager, had to call the ambulance, then explain it all to the pitcher's wife. "Best punch I ever landed, but I felt real sorry later," says Dempsey. "Dupree was sent home to the States for the last month of the season and his club paid him $5,000 for doin' nothing. Guess I helped the guy."
Teammates still tease the light-hitting Dempsey that Dupree was the only pitcher he ever knocked out of a game.
In '74, Dempsey singlehandedly thrashed five New York Yankees in the lobby of the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee; many believe that brawl, in which Dempsey left Bill Sudakis unconscious, Bobby Murcer disabled and three other Yankees battered, cost New York the pennant. What's doubly odd is that Dempsey played for the Yankees at the time.
Sudakis, a big veteran, goaded Dempsey, a brash youngster, through much of a plane flight. Sudakis even showed the scars on his knuckles from previous adventures.
"He kept telling me what a tough guy he was and how he was going to kick my rear," says Dempsey. "I had to pick my time and place." After hours of friction and building tension, Dempsey was one ball of adrenaline. When Sudakis tapped him on the shoulder in the Pfister and said, "Well, what's it going to be kid, street fighting or boxing gloves," Dempsey's answer was, "Neither."
"We went to hookin'," recalled Dempsey. Three punches later, Sudakis was asleep and Dempsey began hitting anybody else who moved. "I just kind of went crazy." In all, Jose Pagan, Pat Dobson, Walt Williams and Murcer (broken hand) were casualties, as well as most of the Pfister lobby.
These days, Dempsey is much calmer. Last year, when he took offense at Rickey Henderson's hot-dogging at home plate, it took only one umpire and one coach to prevent Dempsey from attacking the Oaklander, who had a bat in his hand. This pair--the arm versus the legs--has its ongoing forms of gamesmanship. When Dempsey's throw is waiting for Henderson at a base, the Orioles' bench jockeys howl sarcastically, "We have a reservation for one for Mr. Rickey Henderson from Mr. Rick Dempsey."
This season, when Cleveland's Mike Hargrove was dawdling interminably between pitches on a frigid night, drawing boos from the crowd, Dempsey didn't punch him. Instead, one of his throws back to the pitcher slipped and conked Hargrove squarely in the ear, the ball ricocheting to third base.
Also this season, when Dempsey and Kansas City's Willie Wilson had a spat, Dempsey didn't attack the brawny base thief. He just stood at home plate and motioned for Wilson to come out of that dugout and meet him at home plate to settle their differences.
"I don't fight .190 hitters," said Wilson.
"Ask Willie how high I have to get my average before he'll fight me," said Dempsey.
Now, he says, "I notice Willie's down to .280 and I'm up to .240."
Could Wilson be ducking Dempsey? "Don't know," says Dempsey, "but Willie was on my team in Mayaguez the night I punched Dupree. I never could get Willie to show up. He was always late to the park."
When Dempsey isn't fighting others, he's usually fighting himself. No one in baseball is more easily frustrated by hitting than Dempsey. For a man who admits that he "didn't know what a batting average was" when he reached the majors for a cup of coffee at 19, that number now consumes him.
In 1981, when he hit .215, Dempsey actually struck out four times on 12 pitches--all sliders low and away by Ferguson Jenkins. On each, Dempsey swung so hard that he wrapped the bat completely around himself. Weaver allowed Dempsey to hit the fourth time because "everybody wanted to see if he could do it again."
That winter, Dempsey went to Instructional League and, at age 32, turned himself into a switch-hitter. Or rather, the world's worst left-handed hitter. Dennis Leonard and Angel Moreno must live forever with the knowledge that Dempsey actually got hits off them before he abandoned the experiment.
This season, both of Dempsey's bubble gum cards show him batting left-handed. "They'll be collector's items," he says.
Such a fellow's pitch-calling skills will always be subject to debate. Jim Palmer rolls his eyes. When Dempsey and Dennis Martinez work together, one veteran Oriole says, "That's not much of a conning tower." Because of all this second-guessing of his cerebration, Dempsey was delighted one year in spring training when a Japanese firm was peddling electronic gloves with buzzers and buttons that allowed a manager to talk with his battery.
"Great, dial-a-pitch. Let's get 'em," said Dempsey to Weaver. "Now Palmer can blame you instead of me."
"I just hope," said Weaver, "that you don't electrocute yourself."
In his never-ending battle to puncture Weaver's aura of geniushood, Dempsey once allowed his hair to grow all winter. When camp opened, the normally clean-cut and handsome Dempsey showed up looking like a Miami drug dealer with red bandana, motorcycle boots, long hair, beard, sunglasses, gold chains and rings. Weaver stared at this stranger in his clubhouse as though he couldn't decide whether to call the police or just hit him over the head with a bat and bury the body. "Who's that and how'd he get in here?" hissed Weaver.
"This is your catcher," exulted Dempsey, victorious.
The next spring, Dempsey arrived with short hair and no mustache and was dressed in white shorts and T-shirt. "Tennis, anyone?" he said.
For the time being, Weaver has gotten in the last word in the competition between the two men whose temperaments seem so similar. Last fall, George Steinbrenner, owner of the Yankees, was discussing shortening the left-field fence in Yankee Stadium and moving the monuments to Yankees' greats like Babe Ruth that stand beyond that fence.
"It would make it easier to hit a home run," said Dempsey earnestly, "but it would be a shame to move those graves."
Weaver was told the grave story, but not which player had said it.
"Awwww, gimme a hint," growled Weaver.
Then, the manager's face lit up. He knew his man.
Said Weaver, beaming with certainty, "Is he the only one who plays in foul territory?"