By IAN WILSON
Ryan Dempster didn’t spend a long time with the Calgary Cannons.
And his numbers with the Pacific Coast League (PCL) team were not exactly spectacular.
But the right-handed pitcher’s five starts with the Cannons came at a crucial stage of his career – which can now be called Hall-of-Fame worthy – and his Triple-A performances on the mound showed enough promise to indicate he was ready for a life in Major League Baseball (MLB).
The Gibsons, B.C. product celebrated his 22nd birthday in a Cannons uniform on May 3, 1999 – a 13-12 victory over the Nashville Sounds at Burns Stadium in Calgary – with a performance that saw him hand over a 12-3 lead to the bullpen before his teammates blew it and forced the game into extra innings. Although he was robbed of the win in the box score, watching Calgary come out on top was enough of a birthday gift for the team’s ace that night.
A few days later he was called up by the Florida Marlins, and with the exception of the occasional rehab assignment, that would be the last Dempster would see of the minor leagues.
His final numbers with the Triple-A Cannons included a 1-1 record, a 4.99 earned run average (ERA), 29 strikeouts and 30 hits surrendered (including six home runs) over 30.2 innings of work.
FOCUSED AND READY
“I’ll just go right after the hitters like I’ve been doing here … there’ll be no messing around,” Dempster told Calgary Herald reporter Gyle Konotopetz at the time of his MLB promotion.
“I’m focused and ready to go after those guys.”
Dempster did just that over a career that spanned 16 MLB seasons, including five with the Marlins and nine with the Chicago Cubs, serving as both a starter and a closer.
The third-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 1995 didn’t waste any time making an impact. In his first full season in the majors, Dempster went 14-10 for the Marlins, with a 3.66 ERA and 209 punchouts over 226 innings pitched. As a result, he was named the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award winner in 2000 as the nation’s top ball player.
After finishing his playing career with a World Series ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox, Dempster’s 132 wins, 2,075 strikeouts, 351 starts, and 2,387 innings pitched rank second among totals for Canadian pitchers. He also sits fourth in games played (579), saves (87) and Wins Above Replacement (22.5).
The numbers helped secure Dempster’s place in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, where he’ll be inducted in St. Mary’s, Ont. on June 15th.
BIG YEAR IN CALGARY
During a recent conference call, the 41-year-old MLB Network analyst called the stop in Calgary a key stepping stone on his path to success.
“It was a big year for me. I was really lucky to be on that team because, for a Triple-A team, we had a lot of older players who helped me a lot with confidence,” said Dempster, who works as an assistant to Cubs’ president Theo Epstein.
“After being sent down at the end of the 1998 season and not making the team out of camp in ’99, they were really great.”
The former National League All Star also said it was special to play for a team that was close to home.
“I was extremely thrilled to be playing in Calgary for the Cannons. I grew up watching them at Nat Bailey Stadium (in Vancouver) when they would come in and play the Canadians, so it was a big thing for me to be a Canadian kid and go back home and be in Triple-A at the next stage of my career,” recalled Dempster, who pitched for Canada during the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
“The front office there and the fans in Calgary were so great. I know it was a short stretch of time, but they really took to me as a Canadian ball player being back there and I loved every minute of it. I had a blast playing in that ballpark and going through all that, so nothing but fond memories of playing on a pretty good Cannons team that year.”
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Dempster recorded the first win for the Cannons that season, and while their 57-82 record gave little indication of a quality team, a look at the roster suggests otherwise.
Benji Gil, Ramon Castro, Derrek Lee, Jerome Walton, Kevin Millar, Mike Lowell, Cliff Floyd, Erik Hanson, Jason Grilli and several other MLB players suited up for the Cannons in 1999.
Dempster has remained friends with many players from that team.
“When I get called to the big leagues and I’m with the Marlins, we were all young guys together, and the friendships I developed with those guys at a young age are guys I’m still close with now. I work with a bunch of them at MLB Network and we maintained those relationships 20 years later,” said Dempster.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that you have these bonds with guys and they’ve continued over the years. You watch guys’ kids grow up and it becomes bigger than the game of baseball itself. It became a lifestyle and friendships and relationships that I’m so grateful for and thankful for … guys like Kevin Millar and Cliff Floyd and Mike Lowell. To be around them and still be tight like that is pretty special.”
2019 HALL OF FAME CLASS
With the Feb. 5th announcement of the 2019 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction class, Dempster will look to add to his circle of special relationships. Joining him at St. Mary’s are fellow British Columbian Jason Bay, former Yankees bench coach Rob Thomson and long-time Toronto Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash.
“So many baseball memories flashed vividly through my mind, including the people I have met and worked with, the places the game has taken me and the experiences I have had the good fortune to enjoy all came back to life,” said Ash, upon hearing of his induction.
After getting his start in the Blue Jays ticket office in 1978, the Torontonian served as assistant GM of the club from 1989 through 1994, before assuming the GM role in 1995 for seven years.
One of the places the game took him was Medicine Hat, where Ash made frequent trips to check in on his Pioneer League affiliate and prospects like Orlando Hudson and Alex Rios.
“Baseball was not a career for me … it was rather a way of life and I enjoyed every minute. I am humbled and honoured with this opportunity to be included with a group of legends of baseball in Canada.”
BLAZING A TRAIL
Bay, meanwhile, grew up in Trail, B.C. as a childhood friend of former Edmonton Oiler Shawn Horcoff.
His baseball talent was evident at an early age. Bay’s hometown team went to the Little League World Series in 1990, following a national championship victory over the Edmonton Confederation Park squad.
In 2004, as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the outfielder became the first, and only, Canadian to win National League Rookie of the Year honours. The three-time Tip O’Neill Award winner finished his career in the top 10 in many all-time offensive statistical categories among Canadian MLB players. Bay finished fifth in home runs, with 222, and he is one of only 13 Canucks to record over 1,000 hits in the major leagues.
“It was a very pleasant and somewhat unexpected surprise to get that call from the Canadian Hall of Fame,” said Bay. “I’m proud and honoured to be recognized with great people who have helped build baseball in Canada in various ways.”
PRIDE OF THE YANKEES
Rounding out this year’s induction class is Sarnia-born Rob Thomson. The 55-year-old worked in various capacities for the New York Yankees between 1990 and 2017, including as third base coach and bench coach during that time. He collected five World Series rings with the Bronx Bombers before joining the Philadelphia Phillies as bench coach in December 2017.
“I am humbled and honoured to be inducted into Canada’s Baseball Hall of Fame … I would have never dreamt that such an honour would be bestowed onto me,” said Thomson.