Rick Dempsey was a catcher for 24 MLB seasons and MVP of the 1983 World Series in which the Orioles beat the Phillies. But Dempsey is also remembered as the man who turned rain delays into interpretive theater. In the new book If These Walls Could Talk: Baltimore Orioles, Dempsey and writer Dave Ginsburg share this and many other behind-the-scenes stories about the team.
When I was with the New York Yankees before I got traded in 1976, I was in right field, speaking with relief pitcher Sparky Lyle. Back in those days, even though they fined players for throwing balls into the grandstand, Sparky didn't care. If a section of the fans would yell and scream and holler for him during batting practice, he would throw a ball to whichever group screamed the loudest. I thought that was kind of cool, that he got so many different sections at Yankee Stadium involved in that.
So, he started talking about wanting to go on the tarp during a rain delay and slide on the tarp. I said, "Why would you want to do that? You might get hurt." He said, "I want to do a pantomime of Babe Ruth calling his home run and then I'll run around the tarp and slide, and that will be the end of it." I said, "Well, that might be pretty cool, Sparky."
Then I got traded to the Orioles, and the next year, on the final day of the 1977 season, we were playing the Boston Red Sox for second place. The Yankees had already won the division because the Red Sox eliminated us on Friday, and we knocked them out of it with a win on Saturday. I was in the outfield at Fenway Park on Sunday, throwing baseballs to fans in the stands who were the loudest. It was pretty neat because my teammates kept throwing me balls so I could keep tossing them into the grandstand. They knew that if anyone got in trouble, I was the one who was going to end up paying for the balls. We were having a good time, but then it started to rain. They put the tarp down at the end of batting practice, and by then it was raining pretty heavily. We didn't know if we were going to play the game or not.
Well, there was one baseball left on the tarp, and I said to myself, I'm going to run out there and grab that baseball and get this whole stadium screaming. The place was packed because we were still playing for second place. I ran out there, and people started to cheer a little bit just because I ran out on the tarp. The organist started playing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." I picked up the ball and didn't throw it because I wanted everyone there to start singing along with the song. So as I skated around the tarp, everyone started to sing with me. I ran around the bases and I ended up throwing the baseball to the group that sang the loudest. Then I ran off the field, and that was it.
I went into the dugout, and everyone was laughing about it. It was a lot of fun. I went into the clubhouse and was drying off because it was pretty wet out there. All of a sudden, the people in the stadium started pounding on the grandstands with their feet. They were chanting, "We want Dempsey! We want Dempsey!" The clubhouse is right underneath the seating section, so it was deafening when people starting kicking their feet in unison and yelling my name. So Rich Dauer came running in as I was drying off and said, "Demps, they want you to come back out there! Get some baseballs and get back out on the tarp." I said, "No. You know what I'm going to do? The pantomime of Babe Ruth calling his home run. Babe Ruth used to be with the Red Sox. They'll love that!"
I put a pillow in my shirt so I could look a little bit like Babe Ruth. I went out to home plate and pointed to the stands and everyone started to cheer, as if I had already hit the home run. I took two mighty swings, twisting my body as far as it would go. Then I "hit" the long drive to straightaway center field and started to take the home-run trot. Everybody just went crazy. The people were screaming as if I had just hit a home run to win the seventh game of the World Series. I went around the bases and slid into home plate, making a big wave as I sloshed across the tarp. I declared myself safe, the crowd went nuts, and I walked off the field completely drenched.
Yes, that's where it all began. It was a lot of fun because I was flexible enough to get around the field without pulling a muscle or breaking anything. From that point on, every time it got gray or cloudy everywhere we went, one of the team officials would call me up and say, "Can you do your pantomime of Babe Ruth?" One time in Toronto, one of the Blue Jays staffers called me and asked me to do it. I looked up in the stands and saw about 15 people there. I said, "I don't think it's going to work this time."
I did another version of it in Milwaukee one night. But instead of doing a Babe Ruth pantomime, I did one of Robin Yount hitting two home runs in the last game of the 1982 season at Memorial Stadium. I took Robin's jersey. We were childhood friends, and I made him give it to me. I put the pillow in it, which he wasn't too happy about because he didn't want to be fat. After I slid into home plate, Yount came out and took his jersey back. What made that tarp act even more special was that Sammy Stewart came out and pitched to me, as if he was Jim Palmer, who had given up those two home runs. Palmer had been doing commercials for Jockey underwear, so Sammy wore briefs outside of his uniform pants. It wasn't even really premeditated, but Sammy just thought of it at the spur of the moment, went on the field, and did it. Sammy had a way of playing with the ball, flipping it with his hand, that added a nice touch. The people in Milwaukee just loved it.
The only other time I did it was at Memorial Stadium in early July 1978. Same deal -- it was a rainy day, and Babe Ruth called his shot. I had to do it at least once at home.
I saw Sparky a year or two after I did it the first time and said, "I finally did what you wanted to do." He told me I did a great job. He still wanted to do it, but by that time, he was too old. Not only that, but the teams and Major League Baseball said they didn't want players running around on the tarp because somebody could get hurt and cost someone a lot of money.
People still come up to me nowadays and talk about it. I think I've met just about every person who was there. They say, "That's the guy who ran around on the tarp." Funny, they don't remember that once in a while I got a hit.
-- Excerpted by permission from If These Walls Could Talk: Baltimore Orioles by Rick Dempsey with Dave Ginsburg. Copyright (c) 2017. Published by Triumph Books. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow Dave Ginsburg on Twitter @Ginzy3.