FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It's amazing, Boston Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said Sunday, how you can be around certain players for years yet feel like you barely know them.
Then there are guys like Ryan Dempster.
"I think everyone felt as soon as he walked in the door last winter, and spring training, you just felt like you knew him for a long time,'' Cherington said.
Cherington was trying hard Sunday not to diminish what Dempster accomplished in 16 years of playing major league baseball, and the contribution he made on the field to the Red Sox's title run last season, especially when he stepped up after Clay Buchholz went down with shoulder bursitis. It wasn't always pretty, but the Red Sox went 17-12 in the 29 games started by Dempster.
But it was impossible for Cherington to talk about Dempster without referring to how much he meant to the restoration of a clubhouse that had been riven by distrust and discontent.
"We were collectively trying to find a way to have fun playing baseball again,'' Cherington said, "and we knew enough about Ryan to know that, in addition to what he did on the mound, he might help us do that. And sure enough, he did.
"I wish you could have been privy to some of the stuff that happened off the field, in the clubhouse, on the plane, buses and all that stuff,'' Cherington said. "He's a great pitcher -- I don't want to take away from that -- but he also has a great instinct for when the air needs to come out of the balloon for a team, and he always picked the right moment to do it.''
Dempster was known to be a funny guy even before he arrived here. He'd done stand-up comedy, and does a killer impression of Harry Caray, the Hall of Fame broadcaster. But most of the funny stuff, he saved for his teammates. One of the occasional glimpses he gave the outside world came in Toronto, after Clay Buchholz had been accused by a couple of Blue Jays broadcasters of doctoring the baseball with goop he allegedly had on his arm.
Before his next start, Dempster made sure to place lots of gels and and creams and lotions in his locker where they'd be visible to reporters, then in deadpan fashion said he ran up to the clubhouse in the third inning to ask Buchholz what he should apply on his arm.
"I could never appreciate,'' pitcher Craig Breslow said, "just as a guy that played against him, the disparity between the guy you see on the mound -- a bulldog, a guy who's going to compete with everything he has regardless of how much that is -- and the guy in the clubhouse who can make you laugh at any time, regardless of the game situation.
"You can kind of tell the difference between somebody who tells a joke and it's funny and you laugh at the joke, and somebody who's got an understanding of delivery and timing and makes whatever he says funny. You'd see that in answers to innocuous questions on the Jumbotron, like when they asked him what his first car was or his favorite cereal. He'd get this funny smirk, offbeat-timing funny.''
Dempster cracked wise a couple of times during his announcement Sunday, saying how he'd told manager John Farrell he'd have to find another Opening Day starter and suggesting that his career had not been great, just long. But there was a catch in his voice when he looked beyond the TV cameras and saw his teammates in the back: Jon Lester and John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz, David Ross and Dustin Pedroia, as well as Farrell.
"You saw some emotion back there and he's not an emotional guy,'' Ross said. "He doesn't ride an emotional wave. For me, it was tough just to watch. I'd have been bawling.''
Ross said Dempster had floated the idea of not coming back in previous conversations, but it wasn't until Ross talked to Dempster this weekend that he knew there would be no turning back.
"It just stinks from a teammate standpoint," Ross said. "We love that guy. He's such a good piece for us, such a good person. He makes everybody better. You become a better person. You laugh a lot.
"He's good for the young guys. Every young guy should be able to spend a season with Ryan Dempster.''
Andrew Miller, eight years younger than Dempster, had that chance last season.
"He'll be remembered as well as any teammate we had,'' Miller said. "It's hard to believe he was only here a year because it seems like you have 10 years of stories from Ryan Dempster. An incredible guy. While he'll be missed, he seems at peace and very happy with where he's going, and that makes me happy. And I assume that makes everyone else in here happy too.''
There will be people who cannot fathom that Dempster walked away with $13.25 million still on the table.
"I've been really fortunate, extremely lucky, extremely humbled by the amount of money I have made that has provided for me and my family for years and years,'' said Dempster, who noted the many members of his family working in the pulp mills of British Columbia. "The money was not that difficult a decision.''
The hard part, he said, would be taking his leave from a group of teammates unlike any he'd ever known.
"Not just teammates,'' he said. "Friends for life. We're bonded by something incredible and that's winning the World Series. I don't know what it is -- losing brings out the worst in people and winning brings out the best in people.
"But I felt last year, the minute you walked through those doors, both here in spring training and up in Boston, it brought out the best in people. That's an incredible special feeling that I've never had in my career. I've been on some really great teams with some really great guys. But that feeling of walking through the [clubhouse] door, you felt like you were a better person, you felt like that day you were going to have fun, and I only see that continuing. It's an incredible thing for the Boston Red Sox organization.''
Replacing what Dempster did on the field, that can be quantified, Breslow said. The innings, the wins and losses. The other stuff? Immeasurable.
"Ryan is as great a teammate, friend and man as I've come across in this game,'' Breslow said.