FORT MYERS, Fla. — Spring training got off to an unexpected start for the Red Sox here in the sun of southwestern Florida. Ryan Dempster, who had introduced himself to his teammates at JetBlue Park just 12 months earlier, shocked those players by announcing he would not be pitching for the Sox, or anybody, in 2014.
To management, Dempster’s decision to sit out a year actually alleviates a potentially overcrowded pitching staff. He was one of six proven starters on the roster. Barring injury, one of those starters was going to the bullpen or to another team.
Dempster, who also played for the Portland Sea Dogs, wasn’t overpowering in his one season with Boston. He was 8-9 with a 4.57 ERA. He was effective at times, but inconsistent. In the postseason he was pitching as a reliever, and had the least job certainty of any starter on the team coming into this season.
Yet his presence during that run to a crown was important.
He was one of the most loved players in the clubhouse, and one of the funniest men in baseball. He’s performed stand-up comedy on stage before, and used that ability to laugh to help last year’s team move beyond the brutal struggles of the Bobby Valentine era.
“I know that when we signed him last offseason, we were trying to do a number of things,” said General Manager Ben Cherington.
“But first of all, we were trying to add someone to solidify the rotation, a proven, dependable starter to solidify the rotation and he certainly helped us do that.”
We were told time and again during Sunday’s announcement that Dempster was not retiring, but he certainly sounded like a man moving on to the next chapter in his life after 16 big-league seasons. Only one of those seasons was with the Red Sox, but the pitcher made it clear that it was one of the most important years of his life.
“I always said it was fun to win a World Series, but it’s way more fun to be the champ and I know what that feeling’s been like all this offseason to go out there to be the one that everyone’s gunning for and to try to defend it is something that everybody in that locker room relishes and can’t wait for that opportunity,” said Dempster. “I’m a little sad that I won’t be around for that opportunity like I’d like to be. It’ a choice I made and a decision I made in my life where I’m at and I’m comfortable with it.”
Dempster joked that he’d been in college – “the ultimate fraternity” – for 20 years. When I asked him how he would grade himself, he said “An A in some things, an F in others.”
Yet Dempster knows he is going out on top. The final pitch he threw in 2013 was the final out of Game 1 of the World Series. A week later, he and his teammates were celebrating a championship. He left nothing on the table, except for the $13.25 million owed to him for the coming season.
Walking away from that kind of money further entrenches Dempster as one of the game’s classiest players. He could’ve come back, and struggled, and made a lot of money. But he wouldn’t.
“I have too much respect for the game – and for this team – to come back and (not give it my all),” said Dempster.
And so, just like that, he rode off into the sunset. Actually, he got on a plane for Chicago, where he will get to spend more time with his children. He was already making plans for his next two trips to Boston. One will be to continue medical treatment on the neck injury that he quietly dealt with throughout last season. The other will be to join his teammates in a banner-raising and ring ceremony on April 4.
Look for Dempster to get a standing ovation that day. A stand-up guy, he deserves nothing less.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.