Eric Gagne gave up his movie career, along with his trademark goggles, for the opportunity to pitch for his country and perhaps launch one of the most bizarre comebacks in major-league history.
Ryan Dempster has no aspirations of returning to the Chicago Cubs as a player, but after watching the Cubs win the World Series as a club executive, he can’t stop dreaming of a gold medal.
Here they are, two middle-aged men who played together as teenagers on Canada’s World Juniors Team in 1993-1994, now reunited more than two decades later as teammates for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
“I told friends I’m going to be playing in the WBC,’’ Dempster said Tuesday at Canada’s workout, “and they thought it was some beer league softball tournament. They didn’t really comprehend the fact that I was going to do this.
“I said, ‘No, the World Baseball Classic.’ They were like, ‘What?’
“As my brother put it, don’t worry Ryan, only the whole country is counting on you.’’
Dempster, a 17-year-veteran who turns 40 in May, at least was in the major leagues just three years ago, winning the 2013 World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
Gagne, 41, who once was the game’s most dominating closer, only to later admit that his career was enhanced by performance-enhancing drug use, hasn’t been in the big leagues in eight years. He was last seen in 2008 pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers, and last was publicly heard of in 2012 when he claimed that 80% of his Los Angeles Dodgers teammates used performance-enhancing drugs, too.
Now, buoyed by a six-inning outing for the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League last August in a promotional game, and feeling no pain, he not only wants to close games for Team Canada, but return to the big leagues, too.
“I feel better,’’ Gagne says. “but the body is still old. I had back surgeries, elbow surgeries, and all kinds of surgeries, but after eight years, you feel better.
“I didn’t want to retire. I wanted to keep playing. The fire never really left me. It was just the injuries and everything else.’’
Gagne, who has had tryouts with five major-league teams in the last few weeks, could leave quite a different ending to his career with a glorious return. He would deaden the sting of an exit now remembered more for his human-growth hormone use than his 2003 Cy Young Award and 84 consecutive save conversions.
“It was sufficient to ruin my health, tarnish my reputation, and throw a shadow over the extraordinary performance of my career,’’ Gagne said in his book, Game Over: The Story of Eric Gagne.
Yet, when asked if his comeback was triggered by the urge to erase the memories of his PED use, he denied it being a factor.
“That happened all before,’’ Gagne told USA TODAY Sports, “I’m over that. I can’t change that. It is what it is.
“It will be fun for everyone to remember this, but it’s not because of what happened before. That won’t change the past. This is just for me and my kids, wanting to go back out there.
“Really, it’s just about representing my country. It means a lot, for all of us Canadians, to be part of something really special.’’
If it all goes well, who knows, Gagne says, it could be just the first step in his comeback. It’s not as if he completely walked away from the game, anyways. He owns a baseball team, along with the B45 bat company in Quebec City. He spent summers in Arizona working with young minor leaguers. He helped finance Spaceman, the independent film about former pitcher Bill Lee, and even had a cameo as a bartender.
“I’ve always been in baseball,’’ he says. “I’m passionate about it. I love what I do.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the ride.
“But at 41, it’s going to be a short one.’’
Dempster has no illusions of a comeback after the WBC. He simply got the urge to pitch when he went on a family vacation last summer to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. He was there with former teammates Ted Lilly and Corey Miller and their sons when Dempster casually asked Miller if he could get in a workout by throwing to him. Dempster, in 105-degree heat, threw 60 pitches. He woke up the next day figuring he wouldn’t be able to lift his arm above his head, only to have no pain. He picked up a baseball and pitched again.
Dempster finally called Greg Hamilton, the national director for Baseball Canada, letting him know that this is no prank. If they have an opening, he’s ready.
Well, look who’s pitching in their first game of the tournament Thursday night at Marlins Park against the defending champion Dominican Republic?
“He’s so excited right now,’’ Canada hitting coach Larry Walker says, “he can’t sleep or eat.’’
Says Canada manager Ernie Whitt: “I haven’t even seen him throw. I’m just taking his word for it that he’s ready.’’
This will be a little more fierce competition than facing Cubs president Theo Epstein in a batting practice last week, in which Epstein laced a hard liner to right field, with the videotape to prove it.
“I figured I’d let Theo get a hit,’’ Dempster says, “so I would guarantee myself a job there for a few years.’’
Yet, unlike Gagne, Dempster’s dalliance stops here.
“This is not a comeback trail for me,’’ Dempster says. “It’s just a comeback representing the country. This is something I had always passed on in years’ past. I don’t think regret is the right word, but there was always a little bit of wonderment. I wondered what it would be like if I played in it.
“Besides, it actually wasn’t even that wild of an idea when I found out that Gagne was thinking about doing that. I thought, ‘Sweet. I’m not the old man in the group.’ Hopefully, we can shock some people and win some ballgames.’’
So what if one last time, Dempster pitches a gem, Gagne closes out the ninth, and these two men actually bring home a victory for Canada?
Gagne, who insists his movie days and acting career are over, pauses at such a scenario, and said he’d have to reconsider, perhaps becoming the executive producer of the WBC’s version of the Odd Couple.
“I would do that, yes,’’ Gagne said, laughing. “Look, I still feel I can do this. So does Ryan. And if we both do well, what a beautiful story.’’
Only in Hollywood.
Well, at least the WBC.
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.