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Valley / Ventura County Sports | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Dempsey's Roots Still Run Deep

April 14, 1999|ERIC SONDHEIMER

While Crespi and Notre Dame highs renew their intense baseball rivalry today in Sherman Oaks, Rick Dempsey will be busy serving as third-base coach for the Dodgers in Arizona.

Not that Dempsey, 49, doesn't retain a rooting interest.

He graduated from Crespi in 1967, signed at 17 with the Minnesota Twins for $6,000 and spent 24 years in the major leagues as a catcher.

Dempsey was most valuable player of the 1983 World Series for the Baltimore Orioles and a member of the Dodgers' 1988 world championship team.

He has been a Valley resident most of his life. He met his wife, Joani, when they were in sixth grade at St. Mel's Grammar School in Woodland Hills. They married at 19, bought a house in Agoura Hills and raised two boys, John and Christian, both of whom played baseball at Crespi.

"We called Notre Dame the steak-and-eggs team because they came from a little wealthier background and always considered Crespi the dirt boys," Dempsey said.

Those who have played in rivalry games never forget the experience. Alumni, in particular, become energized whenever rivalries are renewed.

In the weeks preceding the Crespi-Notre Dame game, professional scouts who graduated from the schools make friendly wagers.

Joe Ferrone of the Dodgers, a Crespi graduate, was lecturing Rick Magnante of the Oakland Athletics, a Notre Dame grad. Bill Hughes of the Colorado Rockies, a Notre Dame grad, was challenging Ferrone to put up or shut up.

Last week, Chatsworth played rival Granada Hills, and there was a stunning reaction from Granada Hills players after a difficult 6-5 loss to the Chancellors.

Pitcher Kameron Loe, a 6-foot-7 senior for Granada Hills, didn't throw his glove or kick the bench in disgust after giving up the winning run in the seventh. Instead, he celebrated the fun and excitement that comes with competing in a rivalry game.

"I'm not disappointed in anything we did," he said proudly.

That's the kind of attitude and spirit that might propel Loe to a career in the major leagues.

Teenagers who play the game for fun--and not simply to become millionaires or impress scouts--are the ones who will keep going and survive the inevitable highs and lows of baseball.

Dempsey was one of them.

"What does it take? It takes a tremendous amount of perseverance, luck and talent," he said. "I was so hell-bent on making it to the major leagues. I had talent; I just didn't have the experience. God blessed me with a very strong arm. I could throw with anybody. I had pretty good mechanics, and believe it or not, back then I was a good hitter."

When Dempsey graduated from Crespi, he weighed 155 pounds. He played in his first major league game two years later at 159 pounds. He didn't need a private coach, didn't take creatine, didn't become a weight-lifting fanatic.

He was traded to the New York Yankees in 1973 and learned from Thurman Munson "the thought process of being a major league catcher."

All he needed was an opportunity to play, and a trade to the Orioles in 1977 made the difference. He never hit higher than .262, but his defensive skills, intelligence and handling of pitchers made him invaluable.

After batting .177 in 1987 with the Cleveland Indians during a season in which he became ill in spring training, his father died and everything seemed to go wrong, many thought his career was over. Not Dempsey.

"I came home, got my release papers from Cleveland and I figured, 'Well, I know I can still play,' " he said. " 'Why don't I see if I can play with the Dodgers and stay at home for once in my career?'

" 'I called up [General Manager] Fred Claire, sat around his office for three or four hours until he would talk to me and finally he gave me an invitation to spring training. I made the club and promised him we'd win [the championship], and we did."

Dempsey retired as a player in 1992, but he has stayed involved in professional baseball as a scout, minor league manager and now coach. He sent a letter to new General Manager Kevin Malone last year seeking a position with the Dodgers.

"I was the most surprised person in the world when the phone rang and [Malone] said, 'We'd like you to be one of the coaches with the Dodgers,' " Dempsey said. "That's like hitting the coaches' lottery to have Davey Johnson come in, have the Dodgers call and to be the third-base coach. I couldn't have picked a better scenario."

Dempsey is constantly touching his nose, stomach and arm as he relays signs to players from the third-base coaching box. He also offers coaching advice to those still willing to learn from a man who has been involved in professional baseball for 33 years.

"Nothing compares to actually being a player, but it's fun to be able to talk to a player who's open-minded in listening to some of the things you've experienced in the past, goes out and applies them and sees the old ways were the best ways," Dempsey said.

Dempsey is proud of his sons, who are on the way to succeeding outside of baseball. John, 27, played in the minor leagues with the Kansas City Royals, became a stockbroker and is working on his MBA at Pepperdine. Christian, 21, is a junior business major at San Diego State and plays guitar in a rock band.

Husband, father, World Series MVP, major leaguer for 24 years, Dodger coach--Dempsey has lived the life of a fairy tale.

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422.

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