Ryan Dempster aces first test

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ryan Dempster turns 36 on May 3. This is his 19th season of pro ball, his 18th spring training, and fifth big league team. He is the father of three children, and one of these days, a gray hair may launch a sneak attack.

Given those circumstances, a visitor was presumptuous enough to ask Dempster if he has an end game in sight.

"Pitch 'til I'm not good enough to get anyone out anymore," he said Tuesday morning. "What am I going to do after that, work? I haven't had to do that for a long time. The last time I worked, I was bagging groceries at an IGA Superstore."

Given that unpalatable alternative, Dempster was here Tuesday, making his first game appearance in a Red Sox uniform. He pitched two scoreless innings, then served notice that while this is serious business, he may not always be inclined to treat it as such.

For example, during his post-outing media session, Dempster offered a delightfully original answer to a painfully unoriginal inquiry -- namely, to identify his goals in spring training.

"I'm going to try to shoot under par, that's a big one," he said. "I'm going to try to swim with a dolphin at some point -- I've seen a few of them out there -- and stay healthy. That's all I ever want for the whole entire team."

He then hastened to add that technically, he already has swum with a dolphin. "Snowflake, the dolphin in 'Ace Ventura,'" he said. "For real."

That happened when Dempster was pitching for the Florida Marlins. Snowflake had received his SAG card, but in Miami was still best known for his day job as mascot for the NFL's Dolphins. But that shared dip came in a fish tank.

"Not in the wild," he said.

Dempster has never been one to shirk the chance to sample some of the more unconventional options in life's buffet line. Like learning to do magic tricks. Or doing an 8-minute stand-up routine in Faneuil Hall's Comedy Connection club, back in 2001, when he and Mike Lowell were teammates on the Marlins. Or to be a Canadian who plays baseball for a living, after admitting he was hopeless as a hockey player.

"I skated like Happy Gilmore," he said.

But pitching remains the true calling for the native of Gibsons, British Columbia, who is one of four Canadians ever to win 100 or more games in the big leagues. Coincidentally, three of them have pitched for the Red Sox, the other two being Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins and Reggie Cleveland (Swift Current, Saskatchewan). Only Jenkins, with 284 wins, has more victories among maple leafers than Dempster, who has 124.

He has come to Boston looking to add to that total, signing a two-year, $26.5 million deal with the Red Sox as a free agent this winter after dividing last season with the Chicago Cubs, for whom he pitched nine seasons, and the Texas Rangers, who picked him up at the trading deadline.

Funny thing about that deal to the Rangers: A few days earlier, Dempster had taken a nap, which he is apt to do before a workout, and woke up to discover he'd been traded to the Atlanta Braves, or so it was being widely reported on Twitter. Dempster was shocked on a number of levels, mostly because as a 10-5 man, he had the right to approve any deal, and no one in Chicago had asked him if he wanted to relocate to Peachtree Street.

And then the next thing he knew, it was being widely reported that he had refused the deal, forcing the Cubs to scramble and ultimately accept a lesser package from the Rangers than the Braves were offering. It was an untidy end to what had been a highly popular run with the Cubs -- even in his last season in Chicago, where he lived close enough to walk to Wrigley Field, Dempster had been one of the few bright spots, leading the National League in ERA at the time of the deal.

"Multimedia took over," Dempster said. "What happens is when something isn't true and one person says it or one thing gets out, everybody reports it. Then it's a case of, 'Let's make this a reality and if it isn't true how do we make it true?' I never said yes, I never said no [to the trade to Atlanta]. All I said is I wanted some time to think about it."

Which, after all, was his prerogative.

"I just wanted to weigh all my options," he said. "I think I earned that right. There are very few times in your career, especially nowadays, that you get 10-5 rights, which I worked hard for. I just wanted a chance to look over everything and evaluate the situation for me and what was a good situation for the Cubs. Obviously, I didn't want to go anywhere."

Had Dempster delivered on his biggest prediction while in Chicago, he'd have his own statue next to Ernie Banks. It was before the 2008 season that Dempster had said, "I think we are going to win the World Series, I really do. Let's put an end to this nonsense, once and for all."

The "nonsense" to which Dempster referred was the Curse of the Billy Goat and sundry other explanations offered for the Cubs' having gone a century between World Series titles. The Cubs were loaded that year, won 97 games during the regular season, and were regarded as [gasp] favorites going into the playoffs. But staked to a 2-0 lead in the first game, Dempster gave up a shocking grand slam to James Loney, and the Dodgers, with Manny Ramirez leading the way, swept the Cubs.

That was as close as they would come while Dempster was there.

"Just part of the journey," Dempster said. "We had two really good teams, in 2007 and 2008. We had two really good chances and we didn't make it happen either time. Hopefully in the next little while I get a chance to get back there and be on a team that does do it."

But what most appealed to him about coming to Boston, he said, was the chance to be part of a team that he believes will bear little resemblance to the club that lost 93 games and finished last in 2012.

"This isn't the same team as last year," he said. "They signed seven or eight free agents, traded for a big-time closer. Whole new coaching staff, manager, pitching coach. The expectation of winning is much more realistic than if you had the same team as last year and said we were going to improve by 20 games after adding two guys."

Dempster is supposed to bring stability to a starting rotation sorely in need of some. He had four straight seasons of 200 or more innings after the Cubs returned him to the starter's role he'd given up to become the team's closer, and made 28 starts last season between the Cubs and Rangers. He dismisses the suggestion that he can't hack it in the American League, where he posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts.

"I gave up 16 runs in two of my first three starts [for the Rangers]," he said. "When you only make 12 starts and those are two of your starts, your numbers are going to be really bad. I look at it that I did a really good job, I made adjustments, and won seven of 12 starts.

"That's the most important thing. I'm going to go out there and try to give us a chance to win every fifth day."

End game? Someone else will have to clean up the spill in Aisle Seven.

"There's no reason why I can't keep pitching as long as I'm healthy," he said. "My arm is better than ever, my understanding of pitching continues to get better, and it's just a matter of maintaining my stuff, keeping my legs strong, and my core strong. That's what keeps my arm strong."