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Still Singin’ in the Rain . . . : . . . but Dempsey’s Humor Dampened by Deluge of Losses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, that Rick Dempsey. Doncha just bet he’s having a hoot about this?

Here he is, with the Bakersfield Dodgers, and in his very first season as manager, his is the worst team in the Class-A California League.

With the worst record in minor league baseball.

With the worst record in professional baseball.

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Thirty-three wins, 83 losses.

Good thing the man has such a great sense of humor.

Sure, you remember Dempsey. He was a one-man diversion during a rain delay. Only Gene Kelly ever sang and danced better with the water turned on.

Dempsey was a darn good catcher too, mostly with the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles.

Then, in the late 1980s, he moved over to play near his family’s home in Agoura Hills, becoming a lovable and laughable Dodger “Stuntman.” He helped the young pitchers, kept the clubhouse loose and won games by driving in a run once in a while.

A nice guy, that Dempsey. Personable. Knowledgeable. Quick with a quip. No wonder television wanted him. When he retired as a player, he had three broadcasting offers.

Instead, he chose to manage. At Bakersfield.

Ooops!

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But at least he is gathering good material and having a few good laughs, right?

Wrong.

To Dempsey, baseball, and Bakersfield’s place in it, is not a humorous matter.

“People remember those gags during the rain delays,” Dempsey says, toweling off in his office after catching in the bullpen. “That’s not really me.”

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It is and it isn’t. There is another side. Not dark, just different.

Bakersfield is not Dempsey’s first crack at managing. He was an interim manager while playing in Puerto Rico in the early ‘80s.

On his team was a fellow named Mike Dupree.

Ask Dupree about Dempsey’s other side. The competitive side.

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Dupree was a pitcher. And, at the time, not a very good one. It seemed to Dempsey that the team was usually leading when Dupree came in and trailing by the time he came out.

Once, after the pitcher had again been racked, Dempsey mentioned that trend to another teammate as they trotted off the field.

Dupree overheard and responded by taking off his glove and throwing his best fastball at Dempsey’s head as the two headed toward the dugout.

As usual, his effort was a little off. Dupree’s glove skinned Dempsey’s cheek.

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“I remember turning toward him and he was right in my face,” Dempsey says. He is fairly certain Dupree’s recollection ends there too.

“I hit him,” Dempsey says. “One punch. The all-time greatest punch. It was a reaction, but what a punch. It felt like I hit whipped cream.”

Dupree crumpled to the dirt in a heap, several bones in his face fractured.

The crowd gave Dempsey a standing ovation.

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“The worst thing was, being manager, I had to call his wife and tell her what happened,” Dempsey says.

True story. A story Dempsey might want to tell his Bakersfield team.

“No,” says Dempsey, a Crespi High graduate. “I wouldn’t tell them that stuff. These guys here are just babies. They’re just learning.”

The hard way. Bakersfield is an equal-opportunity loser, having blown games in almost every way imaginable. They either don’t hit, don’t pitch, don’t field or don’t run the bases properly. One time, they batted out of order.

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The Dodgers’ longest winning streak of the season is three. It ended when the second baseman and right fielder pulled up short on a fly ball between them.

Youth is most often blamed, and it is a legitimate excuse. If the Dodgers are anything, it is young. Dempsey occasionally must be reminded that he is dealing with a cast of mostly teen-agers.

Dempsey was, too, when he earned a late-season call-up to the Minnesota Twins at age 19. He is 43 now, and trying to remain patient. With his players, and himself.

“It was tough for a while,” Dempsey says. “I wasn’t sleeping too good, trying to think of ways to get us going. Then, after a while, I pretty much came to terms with the fact that we’re developing here.

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“We’re not talking about wins and losses so much as we’re trying to get guys who are supposed to be prospects to start playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Dempsey does tell them stories. Billy Martin, Earl Weaver and Tom Lasorda stories. Stories about how he used to pull pranks on his teammates.

Early in June, on a late-night bus ride home to Bakersfield from Riverside, Dempsey held court for the first time.

“Guys were telling jokes, kind of ripping on each other and getting loud,” recalls Ed Lund, Bakersfield’s catcher and a St. Francis High graduate, “and he just kind of slowly walked back down the aisle and listened. You could tell he was in his element.

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“Then he started telling jokes, and then stories about the big leagues. He talked about players and the things they’d done.”

Lund’s favorite: During spring training one year, Dempsey said he broke into a room shared by three teammates and hid in the closet. Soon after, his teammates arrived, quickly setting up a poker game.

Dempsey waited. And plotted. Finally, using his best “Mexican bandito” accent, he ordered the men to drop their money on the table and leave the room. Otherwise, he said, he would have to use his gun.

When his teammates fled, Dempsey took their money. He held it until the next day before the gag was exposed.

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“He went on for more than an hour,” Lund says. “It was great.”

Other times, the players do not consider Dempsey to be so great. He has established a kangaroo court that levies fines on players for unacceptable actions.

A missed sign might cause a player $10, a stiff penalty for a minor leaguer on a $1,000-per-month salary. “It bites into your day, especially when you think about rent and food,” says Matt Filson, the team’s left fielder. “We don’t make the big money yet.”

Should the team’s play become exceedingly sloppy, Dempsey might occasionally launch into a postgame tirade, but he prefers to instruct rather than belittle his players.

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“Really, he’s only gone off on us once,” Lund says. “And we’ve given him a lot more reasons to do it than that. It has to be tough on him. You can see him out on the field sometimes and you know he just wants to pull his hair out.”

Dempsey, who said he strives to be “aggressive like Billy, smart like Earl and a motivator like Tommy,” tries to be philosophical.

“This is as much of an education for me as it is for them,” he says.

Dempsey was ejected from one game for bumping an umpire. The incident earned him a one-game suspension from the league.

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He spent it in the press box with the Bakersfield broadcast team, doing color commentary. People who heard him say he was great.

Some day, Dempsey hopes, they might say the same thing about him as a manager.

“Managing,” he says, “is like batting. I know how to do it, but it takes a while to get a rhythm and timing for the game and your ballclub. Once you master that, all you’re left with is the game itself.

“The game I know how to do.”

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