FORT MYERS, Fla. — Ryan Dempster spoke in a strong, clear voice 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 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.”
Catcher David Ross had a locker next to Dempster at Fenway Park. Once competitors, the two quickly became friends.
“Everybody around him is better for it. You’re a better person and you laugh a lot,” Ross said.
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.”
For now, Dempster remains on the roster. General manager Ben Cherington indicated he likely would be placed on the restricted list. The Red Sox would retain his rights through the end of the season.
Dempster has a partially ruptured disk and a bone spur in his neck, a condition that limits him on the mound.
“The past few years have been tougher and tougher as you get older,” he said. “It’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.”
Dempster, who is divorced, also has three young children, including a 4-year-old daughter with a rare genetic disorder. His children live in Chicago.
“There’s all kinds of factors,” he said. “I’ve got three amazing children that I want to watch grow up and be around. It’s harder and harder as they get older to be away from them as much.”
Emotionally, it is a significant loss for the Red Sox. Dempster was one of the more popular players on the team and was greatly respected by his fellow starters for his pitching acumen. He also fostered team chemistry with an undeniable work ethic and endless supply of good humor.
On team flights, Dempster often would commandeer the microphone and entertain his teammates with jokes or well-honed impressions.
In July, after David Ortiz destroyed a dugout phone in Baltimore during a temper tantrum, Dempster connected two cans with a string the next day and had everybody laughing.
Farrell said Dempster’s contributions to the Red Sox went well beyond statistics.
“It doesn’t take him too long to make an impact. He’s genuine and a lot of fun to be around. He’s a great teammate,” the manager said.
Said Dempster: “They’re not just teammates, they’re friends. They’re friends for life. We’re bonded by something that’s so incredible, and that’s winning the World Series.”
Pragmatically, it’s a loss the Red Sox easily should 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.
“That’ll be the hardest thing, to not have that and not be around them. I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been going to college for 20 years,” he said.
Dempster grew up in western Canada dreaming of a career in baseball.
“I’ve never had to work a day in my life,” he said. “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. It’s meant the world to me. I love baseball.
“The experiences that I’ve lived in my life have really only happened because of playing the game of baseball. They wouldn’t have happened if I was working at the local pulp mill where the rest of my family works.”
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 season, 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.”