Whoever coined the phrase "Truth is stranger than fiction" must have had a baseball background.
Only in Hollywood could they conjure up a script that has a thought-to-be-over-the-hill, 38-year-old catcher going home to help his team win a World Series. Such was the case with Rick Dempsey in 1988, when the Los Angeles Dodgers stunned the Oakland Athletics.
And only in Baltimore could the announcement of a 42-year-old former hero returning for a tryout be construed as news worthy of headlines. But, such is the grip that the city and the player have on each other. That is the case with Rick Dempsey and Baltimore this weekend.
The mere possibility of his being on hand to open the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards sent shivers of excitement through Dempsey -- and his legion of fans.
It also rekindles memories of how much the Orioles benefited, not only from Dempsey's 10 1/2 years with the team -- but from his departure as well.
When the club declined to exercise its option on his contract for the 1987 season, Dempsey became a reluctant free agent. And, except for some heavy persuasion by interested parties, his career might have ended right there.
Remember, this was during the era of collusion, and free agents weren't commanding a lot of attention. Especially those who were 37 years old with batting averages considerably below Cecil Fielder's weight.
Eventually Cleveland, after considerable persuasion by player representative Ron Shapiro (and the Orioles), signed Dempsey. The Indians, who had mistakenly decided they were contenders after moderate success in 1986, gambled that the veteran catcher would have a positive influence on their young pitching staff.
Although the Orioles had declined their option on Dempsey, they were still entitled to compensation for a ranking free agent (which is no longer the case). In return, they received Cleveland's No. 1 choice, plus a supplemental pick in the 1987 draft. Nobody realized at the time how much that supplemental choice would figure in the Orioles' attempt to rebuild an organization that was in a serious state of decay.
It was Pete Harnisch, who, after a rapid rise through the system, moved into the starting rotation -- and then became a central figure in the trade that brought Glenn Davis to Baltimore. "So I did them some good after all," Dempsey said Friday, when the information was relayed to him after the Orioles announced he would be coming to spring training.
But there's more to the story. The Indians wanted Dempsey, but not at the expense of a No. 1 draft choice. Reportedly they worked out a deal with the Orioles in which they would actually pick the player to be selected -- and then work out a deal for him after the 1987 season. Perhaps not exactly kosher, but no more underhanded than some other deals in baseball over the years.
The No. 1 pick turned out to be Brad DuVall, a right-handed pitcher from Virginia Tech. However, DuVall spurned the Orioles' offer, returned to school for his senior year and became the top choice of the St. Louis Cardinals a year later.
As it turned out, the Orioles even benefited by DuVall's decision. As an unsigned No. 1 draft choice, he entitled the Orioles to further compensation -- another "sandwich" pick, like Harnisch, between the first and second rounds.
That player turned out to be Ricky Gutierrez, a promising shortstop prospect who conceivably could have the same fate as Harnisch -- being a key figure in a future deal.
So, five years after he left, it can be said that Dempsey was crucial to the acquisition of Davis -- and could still play a factor in the future.
And now he's back. "Does that mean what goes around, comes around?" asked Dempsey.
Incidentally, Dempsey offered an intriguing thought when he was reminded that his old number, 24, is now the property of Dwight Evans. "So what -- it's just a number," he said.
Then the ever-imaginative mind went to work. "Maybe I'll come back and wear Eddie Murray's old number ," he said. The Orioles, perhaps prematurely, retired Murray's number after he was traded to the Dodgers (where he was reunited with Dempsey for two years).
Murray, no doubt, would agree to "lend" his numerals to his old teammate. After all, there's only one "Demper," of which we were reminded over the weekend.
And here's a prediction you can take to the bank: Dempsey will be in uniform, and probably play, in the first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The park will be inaugurated with an exhibition game against the Mets (and Murray) April 3.
Even if he doesn't make the team, how could the Orioles resist the opportunity to have Rick Dempsey lead his "Gimme an O" cheer once more. For the good times.
The high-rent district: Since this is the week to talk about unusual baseball transactions (the pre-Super Bowl week is routinely quiet), the Wally Joyner-Kansas City matchup comes to mind.
You might recall that, after turning down a four-year, $16.2 million offer from the California Angels, Joyner signed a one-year contract for $4 million with the Royals. At the time, it was announced that, as part of the deal, it had been agreed that Joyner would have rights as an unrestricted (no compensation required) free agent next year.
Actually, it's not that simple. Such an arrangement would be in clear violation of the basic agreement, which allows free-agent repeater rights only after five years.
What happened was that the Royals, desperate for a hitter because of the imminent departure of Danny Tartabull, made a verbal concession to get Joyner's services for the coming season.
According to insiders, that concession was a handshake agreement that the Royals won't offer arbitration if they are unable to sign Joyner to a long-term contract before the next free-agent session starting in November. By refusing to go to arbitration, a team automatically grants a player free agency without the right to compensation.
The Royals, who hope they can reach a long-term agreement with Joyner, have gambled a No. 1 draft choice to have exclusive bargaining rights for the next year. If they don't succeed, they will have "rented" a quality player for one season.
Unless of course, they renege on the handshake, which you can be sure would trigger some serious litigation. It is, to say the least, a dangerous precedent that undoubtedly concerns other teams -- perhaps because they didn't think of it first.