Amid errors, losses, Dempsey manages good time in debut

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bakersfield, Calif. -- This is fun?

At 5:15 p.m., the temperature at Sam Lynn Ball Park was still 93 degrees.

Rick Dempsey just had emerged from the 52-year-old ballpark's tiny home clubhouse to begin throwing batting practice to the team with the worst record in the California League.

A few pitches later, he was shouting from the mound at one of his players making a futile attempt at a bunt.

"You've got to get it down!" Dempsey said. "Got to. Even if it's a bad pitch."

Moments later, though, he seemed to have forgotten the anguish of managing a last-place team. He was doing play-by-play.

"A fastball down the middle," he said. "Smashed to right field . . . Oh, what a great catch!"

Despite the heat, the poor facilities, the remote location and even the losing, Dempsey is having the time of his life running the Single-A Bakersfield Dodgers in his managerial debut.

"It's been a lot of fun," the longtime Orioles catcher said. "But from a win-loss standpoint, it's been a real rough season."

Dempsey, 43, got himself into this mess, though. He said he turned down three broadcasting jobs to pursue his dream of becoming a major-league manager. He waited for an opportunity to manage in the Orioles system, but negotiations went poorly, he said.

"We had quite a few meetings scheduled, and nothing ever came of them," he said. "As a matter of fact, quite a few times the people who made the meetings never showed up and never bothered to call."

The Orioles' version is quite different from Dempsey's.

"We offered him the [managing] position at Frederick," said Doug Melvin, assistant general manager in charge of the minor-league system.

"We felt that would be a good situation for him, that it's important to go through some of the adversities at that level.

"But Rick felt if he had to take a job in Single-A, he'd rather do it out there. Bakersfield is only an hour from his house, and I understand he's able to commute.

"We would've liked to have kept Rick in the organization, but he felt it was better for him to take the Bakersfield job, and we respect his decision."

It probably didn't help that the Orioles kept Dempsey around all of 1992 as an emergency catcher and so-called catching instructor. He played in only eight games and did no instructing, he said.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, had been after Dempsey to manage since he left that organization in 1990, he said. The opening at Bakersfield appealed to him because he could be near his family in Westlake Village.

When he arrived in spring training, the learning began instantly. For everyone.

"I'm getting an education in this thing just as much as these [players]," Dempsey said. "It's been a long time since I've dealt with minor-league guys. You really have to have a lot of patience.

"I'm used to seeing major-league defense, and we're going out there making an average of three errors a game. It's tough for me to accept that, because defense was my forte."

The team allowed about one unearned run per game through the first half. Bakersfield finished that part of the season 18-50 and has begun the second half 3-10.

The B'Dodgers, as the locals call them, recently had a three-game winning streak -- their longest of the year -- ended when right fielder Karim Garcia and second baseman Ty Lewis each pulled up short on a pop fly, allowing the ball to drop and the winning runs to score.

But poor defense is only the beginning. The Dodgers lost a game when the pitcher balked home a run in extra innings. They have had a player bat out of order. They have had two runners on the same base.

"Because [Dempsey] has been in the big leagues forever, he's not used to seeing some of the things he's seen here," first baseman Jay Kirkpatrick said.

Kid stuff

Dempsey seems to have adjusted, however. Although with Bakersfield being the youngest team in the league, with an average age of 20, at times it hasn't been easy.

"I've got a 17-year-old right fielder," Dempsey said. "It seems like every week we have a birthday where some guy finally turns 20."

One of Dempsey's teen-age players was 1992 supplemental first-round pick Ryan Luzinski, who has since been sent down to rookie-level Yakima, Wash. Luzinski is the son of Greg Luzinski, who played against Dempsey.

Bakersfield pitching coach Guy Conti, who has coached in the Dodgers organization for seven years, has helped Dempsey cope with the young players.

"There are numerous times where I would say, 'Rick, this kid is only 19 or 20 years old,' and he would say, 'When I was 19, I was in the big leagues,' " Conti said.

Dempsey's response to the youth has been to hit hard on the basics.

"Spring training is not enough time to get the fundamentals down," Dempsey said. "It is for major-league players, but not for minor-league players. We still come out early for fundamental work twice a week, at least. They get [angry] -- they don't want to be here, they'd rather be home sleeping -- but I haven't seen them screw up a rundown since the first three weeks of the season."

Dempsey also has instituted a monthly report card. It is his way of letting the players know how they are doing and their chances for promotion.

"That inspires them to come to me and talk about their performance," Dempsey said. "Sometimes, being honest is going to hurt their feelings, but you've got to do it."

Kirkpatrick, who is a "veteran" of 2 1/2 professional seasons, said Dempsey has stuck behind each player despite the less-than-ideal results on the field.

"He's been a big brother, a dad, a bad guy, a good guy," said Kirkpatrick, 23. "He'll do whatever it takes to get each individual better, because our goal is to make the big leagues."

Sense of humor, of course

Dempsey also has kept the team loose with the same sense of humor that used to drag him onto the tarp at rain delays as a player.

"He was telling Earl Weaver stories on the bus the last road trip and just cracking everyone up," said Bakersfield radio announcer David Kelly, the nephew of Pat Kelly, Dempsey's Orioles teammate from 1977 to 1980.

Kelly also had a chance to work with Dempsey on the air earlier this season. After Dempsey bumped an umpire and received his only managerial ejection, he was suspended for a game. So the broadcast team asked if he would join them in the booth.

"The game was a blowout, so he just talked about players and mixed in a little play-by-play," Kelly said. "He was great."

Dempsey seems to be keeping his foot in the broadcasting door.

But, for now, Dempsey is content managing. And he is content managing in Bakersfield.

"If I'm in the minors three, four or five years, that's all right with me," Dempsey said. "At first I thought, 'Do I really want to get back on the buses and be away from my family?' But they are close enough that I can get to them, and the bus rides aren't that bad -- my longest is 4 1/2 hours.

"I don't have time to feel sorry for myself. I've got 25 people that depend on me to help them make it to the big leagues. When I start feeling bad, I just come to the ballpark and start working with someone.

"Win, lose or draw, I really enjoy being down here, working with these kids."

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