FORT MYERS, Fla. — Ryan Dempster spoke in a strong, clear voice on Sunday when describing why he had decided to step away from baseball after a 16-year career that included a World Series championship with the Red Sox.
It wasn’t until he looked up and noticed a dozen teammates standing on the periphery of his press conference that Dempster became emotional.
“I don’t want to look at them right now,” Dempster said, his voice catching. “It’s awesome, man. They’re a huge support system for me, for each other. We were there for each other.”
Dempster needed them now. The 36-year-old righthander told manager John Farrell about 10 days ago that he was thinking about not pitching this season because physical and family issues had become too burdensome. The decision became final on Sunday.
“I thought long and hard about it and decided this was the best thing,” Dempster said.
“Given where I’m at with my health and how I feel personally, it’s in the best interests of both myself and the organization to not play this year. I don’t feel like I could compete or produce like I’m accustomed to.”
Dempster is walking away from a guaranteed $13.25 million salary and the opportunity to pitch for a contending team.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I’ve been really, really fortunate and super lucky in this game.”
Clay Buchholz was one of the players who watched Dempster speak and then applauded him.
“He’s done so much in this game and has so much respect,” Buchholz said. “This is his time. I was only around for a fraction of his career but I have nothing but good words. We’re going to miss him.”
Dempster was careful not to announce his retirement but made a comeback sound unlikely.
“I’m just looking at the 2014 season and know that I won’t be playing this year,” he said. “If something changes then obviously something changes. I don’t see that changing anywhere in the future but I also don’t want to close the door on that. … If this is the end, what a great way to go out.”
Pragmatically, it’s a loss the Red Sox should easily be able to absorb. Dempster would have been competing for the final spot in the rotation in camp with lefthander Felix Doubront, a younger pitcher with more potential. Dempster was faced with the very real possibility of pitching in relief or being traded.
That was not a factor, Dempster insisted. He’ll miss the competition and camaraderie more.
If Dempster is finished with baseball, he leaves with a record of 132-133, 87 saves and an earned run average of 4.35. Dempster twice made the All-Star team and won 17 games for the Cubs in 2008. He made close to $90 million in his career and earned a reputation for reliability.
Dempster was 8-9 with a 4.57 ERA for the Red Sox last year, making 29 starts before going to the bullpen late in the season. He pitched three games in the playoffs, making his World Series debut in Game 1 against the Cardinals.
Dempster struck out Matt Adams to end that game and likely his career. When the Red Sox won the title, Dempster stayed on the field until close to 4 a.m., throwing batting practice to some beer-soaked friends.
Dempster admitted he started thinking then about whether he would pitch again.
“It’s a weird thought to have,” he said. “You don’t ever expect or understand when it’s going to come. … I’m happy and excited. I’m sad and emotional. But extremely satisfied and confident in my decision and looking forward to the next chapter and the next road life takes me.”