BOSTON - Annually sprinkled among the myriad storylines which crop up at this very important time of the Major League Baseball season is that of the veteran player, he who has long performed at a high level and has long been good for the game, seeking an elusive World Series ring.
Wouldn't you know it, with the American League Championship Series set to begin on Saturday night at Fenway Park, the host Red Sox and the visiting Tigers each have one of those guys.
Canadian Ryan Dempster fits the bill. At 36 years old and in his first season in Boston, the native of Gibsons, British Columbia has made his money (more than $89 million over a 16-year career, according to baseball-reference.com;) has pitched at a high level (eight seasons with at least 10 wins - the fact he was a closer for four seasons makes the accomplishment more impressive;) and is regarded by both teammates and media as one of the more likable players in the sport.
Anyone who was paying attention during Dempster's days with the Cubs remembers him out-Farrelling Will Farrell's Harry Caray impression. He was also the closer on the 2007 Chicago team that was swept by Arizona in a Division Series. In 2008, by then more than four years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, he reprised his role as a starter. He even got the ball in the first game of that season's Division Series against the Dodgers. The Cubs, oh the lovable Cubs, were swept yet again.
These days, Dempster has accepted a diminished role in the post-season.
He's pitching out of the bullpen for the first time since 2007, a move made in mid-September in anticipation of the playoffs.
"It was funny, I remember getting called into the office right before we were playing the Blue Jays, that last series of the season with them and John (Farrell) and Ben (Cherington) pulled me in and we were talking about the possibility of me going to the bullpen for the playoffs and maybe getting me a few outings out of the 'pen just to get used to it again," Dempster told TSN.ca. "I don't know if they expected me to have a different response but I greeted it with open arms and looked at it like, hey man, at the time we had six starters throwing the ball really well and the realization was with my experience in the bullpen I was totally comfortable going down there."
With Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz returning to pre-2012 form, with John Lackey back from Tommy John elbow surgery and throwing like the ace he was in Anaheim and with the mid-summer acquisition of Jake Peavy bringing his bulldog-like mound presence and nasty sinker ball, it was clear Dempster (8-9, 4.64, 1.453 WHIP in his first year in the American League East) wouldn't be getting starts come October.
That's okay, because it's what's best for the team and in 2013, what's best for the team prevails in Boston.
"From a pitching standpoint, we've got some tremendous starting pitchers," said Dempster. "We've got a really strong bullpen and then we try to focus as hard on those things as we do the little things. The defence, the moving runners over, taking advantage on the basepaths. If you can do those little things, those are things that kind of help you set yourself apart from the other teams that you're playing."
Torii Hunter is over there, in the other dugout, and he knows all about what Dempster has gone through (multiple playoff appearances, no titles) and what Dempster's anticipating now.
He's been to the playoffs nine times (five with the Twins, thrice with the Angels and currently with the Tigers,) and hasn't had a World Series appearance, let alone a championship, to show for it. This is his third ALCS appearance, the last of which came with the 2009 Angels.
"To be back in the post-season and to get the chance to win a World Series ring, that's big for me," said Hunter, before joking, "That's key for me because I'm only 28 years old but it's getting late."
Typical Hunter. Big smile, cracking a joke, keeping those around him at ease. You stand there and believe he could actually be deriving enjoyment from this player availability session.
Like Dempster, Hunter has made his money (almost $147 million over a 17-year career, according to baseball-reference.com;) he's played at a high level (.279/.335/.476 for his career;) and he's regarded as a good teammate and community guy, involved in numerous charitable endeavours.
Last season Hunter, knowing with the emergence of Mike Trout and his own impending free agency that his days with the Angels were numbered, began keeping a mental notebook of teams around the league. He was trying to figure out where he would best fit and which team would best fit him.
The Yankees were a legitimate option. Funny enough, so were the Red Sox. Both received strong consideration before Hunter inked a two-year, $26-million deal with the Tigers through 2014.
"Do these guys need a right fielder?" said Hunter of one of his scouting criteria. "Do they need a two-hole guy or fifth-hole guy? I looked at the pitching staffs. If I didn't like facing those guys and I went 0-14, that's the team I wanted to play for and I did that a lot with the Tigers last year. I had a chance to look at all that and look at Scherzer and Verlander, Anibal coming back so I definitely took my chances with those guys."
With strong starting pitching and potent offensive lineups, it's difficult to predict with certainty which team will emerge victorious.
One thing is clear, however: Only one of Dempster and Hunter will get a shot at that ring.