Dempster explains decision not to pitch in '14

by: Alex Speier on Sun, 02/16/2014 - 4:10pm

FORT MYERS, Fla. — The easy thing would have been to show up, work halfheartedly to rehab his physical ails and to keep cashing the paychecks that would have totaled $13.25 million in 2014. But that prospect had little appeal to Ryan Dempster.

The 36-year-old — who turns 37 in May — did not want to go through the motions of a 20th professional season (and 17th year in the big leagues). Rather than pitching at a level to which he was unaccustomed, or merely spending time in a trainer’s room while collecting salary, Dempster started conversations with the Red Sox in the last two weeks to let the team know that he was inclined not to pitch in 2014. Instead, he decided to step away from the game to spend more time with his three children.

On Sunday, he made that decision public, saying that — while unprepared to say that he is retiring — he was going to take off the coming season.

“After a long offseason and thinking about things and seeing where I was at both physically and personally, I just made the decision that I’€™m not going to pitch in the 2014 season and go from there,” said Dempster. “I had an incredible run, a chance to play 16 years in the major leagues and be around a lot of great teammates, made a lot of good friendships, a lot of great memories, you know, but I just feel that given where I’€™m at with my health, with how I feel personally, I just feel like it’€™s in the best interest of both myself and the organization as a team to not play this year. I don’€™t feel like I can compete or produce like I’€™m accustomed to. I’€™m not going to play this year and instead I’€™m going to be a spectator and a fan and cheer on all these great teammates that I have and go out there and watch them win another World Series.”

Dempster said that the number of physical challenges that he faced as a pitcher had mounted in recent years. In particular, he said that the condition of his neck — he cited disc issues and a bone spur — was going to limit his ability to compete at a level with which he was comfortable.

“I could have a choice trying to spend the entire season trying to work through those and trying to be able to pitch but I just felt like it’€™s something that’€™s preventing me from doing the job I want to do and I’€™m not going to go out there and put my team at a disadvantage or me at a disadvantage by not being able to compete the way I’€™m able to compete,” said Dempster. “And I’€™m totally comfortable with it. I’€™m at peace with my decision.

“I’€™m not ready,” he added. “I’€™m both physically and mentally not ready to go out there and do my job. I have too much respect for this game, too much respect for my teammates, and for the game of baseball and for the organization to go out there and not be ready. I’€™ve always taken great pride in being able to be prepared and be ready to go out there and perform and I’€™m not ready to do that so I’€™m not going to out there and half-ass it and not be a 100 percent to committed to that.”

Still, that does not mean that the decision was one that he reached easily. After all, Dempster noted that he’s spent his entire life in the game.

“It’€™s a weird thing. It’€™s not an easy thing to do. It’€™s my whole life, it’€™s all I’€™ve ever known,” said Dempster. “I’€™ve been really lucky, I’€™ve been going to college for 20 years so I’€™ve been in an unbelievable fraternity. Now it’€™s telling me it’€™s my time to go do something else and I’€™m going to make the most of that.”

The idea of leaving that fraternity behind represented a particular challenge for Dempster, long heralded as a standout clubhouse presence for a number of teams. A large crowd of Red Sox front office members, coaches and players (David Ross, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Jake Peavy, Clay Buchholz, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Napoli, Mike Carp and Andrew Miller) attended Dempster’s press conference to express their support. Dempster admitted that it was hard for him even to look at the group, and when he did glimpse his teammates, he found himself getting choked up.

While he could have cashed in on the remaining money he was owed from the two-year, $26.5 million contract that he signed with the Sox in December 2012, Dempster said that he was unconcerned with the missed earnings. It is instead the opportunity to compete and the camaraderie he experienced in doing so that made it hard to reach his conclusion, even though he felt that ultimately it was the right one.

“I’€™ve been really, really fortunate and super lucky in this game and extremely humbled by the amount of money I have made for me and my family for years and years and hopefully my kid’€™s kids. The money was not that much of a difficult decision,” said Dempster. “I think moreso having the opportunity to come back into the locker room and be a part of a team that’€™s going to go out there and win another World Series. I always said it’€™s 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. I’€™m a little sad that I won’€™t be around for that opportunity like I’€™d like to be. It’€™s a choice I made and a decision I made in my life where I’€™m at and I’€™m comfortable with it.’€

While Dempster wouldn’t say with certainty that he’s ready to walk away from the game, he sounded content with his career — particularly with what may have been its final notes. His last big league game was the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, in which he recorded the final outs of an 8-1 Red Sox win, the last out coming on a swinging strikeout of Cardinals slugger Matt Adams. His last moment in a Red Sox uniform was on the field celebrating that title, the only one of his career. His last time on a big league mound came hours after the Sox’ clincher, when Dempster (in jeans and a T-shirt) spent about an hour throwing batting practice to his friends and reveled in the Fenway Park triumph.

“If this is the end, then this is the end and what a great way to go out, to sit there and think about the last batter I potentially could ever face in the big leagues was a strikeout to end Game 1 of the World Series, what better way to really write it,” said Dempster. “It’€™s been an unbelievable time and I’€™m comfortable with this decision.”

Dempster suggested that he was humbled by the congratulations of his teammates on a great career, but in typically self-effacing fashion he characterized his career as “at least a long one; I don’€™t know how great it’€™s been.”

Still, if he is done, Dempster’s resume will be one of accomplishment: A career 132-133 record, 87 saves, a 4.35 ERA (an ERA+ of 98, meaning roughly league average) with 2,075 strikeouts in 2,387 innings. Dempster, a two-time All-Star who finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting in 2008, ranks 63rd all time in strikeouts.

In Boston, he was 8-9 with a 4.57 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings while contributing 171 1/3 frames in 2013. He was a stabilizing presence, both at the start of the year (when John Lackey was injured) and during the months when Clay Buchholz was on the DL, providing the Sox with exactly what they’d hoped to get when they signed him to be a reliable veteran in the rotation.

“I know that when we signed him last offseason, we were trying to do a number of things,” said Sox GM 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, particularly early in the season when buck was out. pitched really well and helped solidify that part of the team and won some important games for us.

Yet to Dempster, the game was more than the numbers that he accumulated. For him, it represented an opportunity to pursue his passion for his entire adult life, an undertaking that proved immeasurably rewarding.

“What it’€™s provided for me, financially is great, what it’€™s provided for me emotionally has been incredible,” said Dempster. “I’€™ve never had to work a day in my life. That’€™s a pretty special thing. I’€™ve been able to do what I wanted to do since I was a little kid, and do it at the highest level for a long time. So it’€™s meant the world to me. It really has. I love baseball. I’€™m a baseball groupie man. I live for it, I read up on everything, I follow the game, I watch the highlights ‘€“ I love it. And that’€™s not going to change. I’€™m so thrilled and humbled by everything its given me, the opportunities its given me, the experiences I’€™ve lived in my life that have really opened because of playing the game of baseball. It wouldn’€™t have happened if I was working at the local pulp mill where the rest of my family works. The friendships I’€™ve made, the bonds I’€™ve made in life, are things that are irreplaceable and I only have the game of baseball to thank because of that.”