Rick Dempsey, awash with celebratory champagne in the Oriole clubhouse, was talking on the phone to the President of the United States. After a few proper "yes sirs," the World Series' Most Valuable Player succumbed to his own unquenchable exuberance. "Mr. President," he shouted, "you go tell the Russians we're having an awful good time over here playing baseball."
Certainly Dempsey was. He made his mark at the very outset of the Series. In the first inning of the first game Joe Morgan, who had reached base on an error, tried to advance to second on a hit-and-run play. When Pete Rose swung and missed, Dempsey bounded out in front of the plate like a watchdog and threw Morgan out by three yards and a cloud of dust. In the third game he cut down Morgan a second time, which is as often as Joe was thrown out in 20 steal attempts during the regular season. And on the one occasion Morgan did steal, in the second game, Dempsey pounced on Rose's subsequent bunt so alertly that Joe did not dare try for third.
Defensive play of this nature is expected of the 34-year-old Dempsey, who has arrested nearly 43% of all would-be base thieves in his eight seasons with the Orioles. He's also acknowledged as a master handler of pitchers and a whiz at calling pitches. He's the team's cheerleader and, as the son of old vaudevillians, its resident clown. Indeed, his rain-delay pantomimes of opposing ballplayers, performed on makeshift tarpaulin stages, are surefire box office. What he had not been known as is a hitter. Dempsey's frequent lament is "I've never been hot at the plate."
Dempsey is the Moe of the "Three Stooges" at the end of the batting order, joining Rich Dauer (Larry) and Todd Cruz (Curly). He had five hits in the Series, all for extra bases, and a .385 batting average, compared with his career mark of .240. The five long hits (a homer and four doubles) set a record for a five-game Series. The Phillies' "book" on Dempsey was either never written by the scouts or never read by the pitchers.
"I haven't swung the bat like that since spring training about three years ago," Dempsey quipped modestly. "I don't think anyone expected me to hit a home run today or in any World Series." As he readily acknowledges, he hasn't had much chance to hit in his career. He spent his early years as a backup with the Twins and Yankees, coming to Baltimore in 1976 with Scott McGregor and Tippy Martinez. As an Oriole he has suffered the relative ignominy of platoon and part-time playing under, first, Earl Weaver and now Joe Altobelli. Joe Nolan, the O's other catcher, played in 73 regular season games, but caught only five innings in the Series. "I only average about 2.2 [actually, 2.8] times at bat per game," Dempsey says, "and you don't build a batting average that way, especially if you're a late-inning hitter." Also, Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, with its short porches on the foul lines, is not tailored to his talents. "I'm a gap hitter, and with the short lines outfielders tend to bunch up. The only way I can get a gap hit there is by hitting it over someone's head, and I don't do that often."
As a result, Dempsey has concentrated on his defense. "You've got to be a little crazy to play this damn game," he says, "and I play it as physically as I can." "He's excited about playing," says McGregor, "and he's not afraid to chew us out." "He's terminally optimistic," says John Lowenstein, who finds Dempsey's "ear-splitting cries" a shattering intrusion on the normal tranquillity of the Oriole dugout.
Dempsey's aggressiveness with his own pitchers frequently threw him into conflict with Weaver. "He never wanted me to say anything to the pitchers," says Dempsey. "But I'd feel they needed a push now and then. The trouble was, Earl wanted to be the one saying something, not me. We fought every step of the way. But we had the same game plan—winning."
Under the much more subdued Altobelli, Dempsey has had full freedom to counsel his pitchers and give vent to "ear-splitting cries." "Maybe," says Dempsey, "I'll do something a little crazy from time to time. But I'm no flake. I don't swallow goldfish or anything. I just like to have a little fun."
And as he stood drenched with the wine of victory in the turbulent Baltimore clubhouse, chirping high-pitched congratulations to every passerby, it was obvious he'd never had so much fun in all his life.