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Tackett can't catch a break with Dempsey back


Orioles pitchers and catchers report today, but before getting carried away with Rick Dempsey Mania, consider the plight of his main competition, longtime minor-league catcher Jeff Tackett.

Tackett, 26, has been in the organization since 1984, giving him longer uninterrupted service than anyone but the Ripkens. Now, after three seasons at Triple-A, he's finally close to a breakthrough, when along comes this 42-year-old man.

The Orioles couldn't wait to get rid of Dempsey -- not to mention Storm Davis -- in 1986. But the Demper not only is back, he's practically a lock to beat out Tackett for the backup catcher's job.

Manager John Oates wants Chris Hoiles to start 120 games, so this isn't exactly a burning issue. Still, the duel at backup catcher represents the most classic spring-training storyline in camp.

Tackett is a career minor leaguer trying to prove he belongs. Dempsey is the 23-year veteran trying to hang on. In fact, this is the third time in five years Dempsey is in camp as a non-roster player: He made the Dodgers in '88, the Brewers in '91.

The competition also includes Mark Parent, who underwent knee surgery after a home-plate collision in a Texas Rangers intra-squad game last spring, and returned to play three games. But frankly, he's an even longer shot than Tackett.

You know Tackett is in trouble when Oates says, "He needs to play every day," the code words for "Rochester." Indeed, there's a reason Tackett has only eight major-league at-bats in eight pro seasons: His career average is .223.

Dempsey, on the other hand, drove in 21 runs in 147 at-bats with the Brewers last year, an outstanding ratio for a bit player. Oates wants more offense on his bench, and for that reason alone he can justify dropping Tackett, who also bats righthanded.

Still, there's a certain unfairness to all this. Loyalty to former players is nice, especially those as popular as Dempsey. But what about loyalty to players who spend years climbing through the system?

Tackett batted only .236 at Rochester last season, but set career highs in doubles (18), home runs (six) and RBIs (50). He also threw out 49 of 94 attempted basestealers (52 percent) to lead the International League.

Steady improvement, the type the Orioles usually reward. Two months ago, they seemed intent on finally giving Tackett his chance, trading Bob Melvin at the winter meetings and losing Todd Pratt in the Rule V draft. But Tackett knew not to get excited.

"I thought maybe they did that for a reason," Tackett said Tuesday from his home in Camarillo, Calif. "But I also knew there would be a couple of more catchers invited to camp. They couldn't go into spring training with just me and Chris."

The two catchers behind Tackett, Doug Robbins and Mike Lehman, both spent last season at Double-A. The Orioles recently added Single-A catcher Cesar Devares to their 40-man roster. But Devares, the best throwing catcher in the system, is at least two years away.

Assistant general manager Doug Melvin conceded yesterday it would be "difficult" forcing Tackett to return for a fourth season at Rochester. But, he said, "catchers seem to be more vulnerable to injury. We weren't comfortable with our depth."

If that's the case, why did they trade Bob Melvin to Kansas City in the first place? Because he brought Storm Davis in return. "We couldn't refuse trying to add another arm," Doug Melvin said.

Sound logic, for veteran catchers are always available. In fact, the Orioles' first choice wasn't Dempsey, but free agent Steve Lake, perhaps the best throwing catcher in the game.

Lake, however, wanted a signing bonus and free-agent rights if he failed to make the club. The Orioles passed as he moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco, then settled on Dempsey, who of course required no such guarantees.

The irony is, Tackett has been in the organization so long, he recalls Dempsey giving him tips during his first stint with the Orioles. He isn't discouraged they'll be competing head-to-head. In fact, his attitude is near-perfect.

"I don't want to say, 'I have no shot. Now that Rick Dempsey's there, I won't even try,' " Tackett said. "What would happen if Rick wasn't there? If I was lazy and did nothing, I still wouldn't have a job. Everything just keeps pushing me more and more."

Dempsey had his day. Tackett wants his. It's not an unreasonable wish, and if you want to grasp its exact meaning, just listen to Tackett describe his major-league debut last September.

"I knew it was going to be great, but I didn't know how great," he said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was like a kid at Christmas opening up gifts. It was the biggest thrill of my life. A dream come true.

"Now," Jeff Tackett said, "I want to stay there."

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