Ryan Dempster’s plans changed in a big way this offseason. The former MLB pitcher and current MLB Network contributor was set to bring his Off The Mound interview-focused stage show, usually held as a theater event with a band and an audience, to the newly-launched Marquee Sports Network. But while the COVID-19 pandemic meant the full stage show isn’t possible right now, Dempster has carried on with a remote version of the show, which will air its 11th episode Friday at 8 p.m. Central with featured guest Kris Bryant. Dempster spoke to AA about Off The Mound recently, and said while adapting the show to quarantine restrictions hasn’t been easy, it’s still been worthwhile.
“I’m just trying to find my niche. I hope we get somewhere where I can still do live shows; I’m much more comfortable on the stage than I am with a camera in my face talking to someone in their living room, it’s a little easier for me. So I’m just kind of getting used to all that and finding my avenue there. But it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been fun during a tough time where we’re in quarantine life with stay-at-home orders and no baseball. It’s been fun being able to catch up with people, past and present players, and just give people something to watch that makes them smile a little bit.”
Dempster said Off The Mound originated as a stage show at the Chicago Cubs’ annual fan convention five years ago, and it’s grown since then.
“I’ve been doing it since 2015 as a stage show called Friday Night With Ryan Dempster at the Cubs’ convention. So I was doing one show a year that was just strictly Cubs stuff. And then we started building the production; we added the band, The Hemispheres, did all these different things. I’d always just loved the concept of a late-night talk show for sports, especially for baseball, versus a celebrity-driven one. I wanted more of a sports-driven one.”
Here’s his convention show from January of this year:
“And we did one at the Vic Theater in 2018 for charity, and it was a big success. We raised a decent amount of money for charity, I think we raised close to $70,000 for CPS Score (a charity that creates more athletic opportunities for Chicago public school students). And we just thought ‘Man, let’s keep trying to do this.’ We did another one for Special Olympics Illinois, and then we talked to Marquee Sports Network, and they were interested in an on-air show, and it just kind of went from there.”
What differentiates Off The Mound from your usual conversation with an athlete? Dempster said a big part of his focus is covering elements beyond the playing field.
“Interviews for baseball players, I found during my career, very few were life-driven, they were mostly baseball-driven. And I always found that some of the best times we had or the most laughs or the most fun were on a bus ride, or in a hotel where we were sitting around with a guitar, or at a team dinner.”
“So I thought ‘I would love to just really show this side of players versus just baseball, baseball, baseball.’ So I just had the idea that there are so many guys who have great stories, funny stories, they have other talents, maybe we can appreciate them for who they are and not just what they do.”
Dempster said Off The Mound came from his love of late-night talk shows, but many of the old shows didn’t often spotlight athletes.
“I grew up loving Johnny Carson. And he’d have the occasional athlete who was a celebrity, but not a lot were. I feel like a lot of people know more athletes now.”
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“He really highlighted the guests. To me, that’s what it was all about. Yes, Johnny was funny, and he had a natural funniness, but I really liked the way he ran interviews, the way he would go off the cuff. Watching him and Burt Reynolds go one on one with each other all the time was a lot of fun. It felt like when I was watching it that it wasn’t about him as much as about his guests.”
“And that’s what I’m trying to make this show. It’s not about me, it’s about bringing attention to something really great that a player’s doing with charity work, or a great story that they might want to share with fans who haven’t heard it before.”
Some of Off The Mound‘s interviews have been on serious topics, such as Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins’ discussion last week of racism he faced during the 1960s. But many of the interviews are quite light and funny, and Dempster said that’s another inspiration he takes from late-night shows.
“I always loved the concept of going to bed, throwing on the TV and watching, whether it was Carson or Kimmel or Fallon or whoever, and right before you go to bed, you laugh and you chuckle and you smile. That’s always a good way to go to sleep.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do with the show; get people something a bit light, off the cuff, something to laugh at during a really tough time. It’s a time where people want baseball and don’t have baseball right now, and we can give them a piece of baseball history.”
Dempster said one of the most memorable Off The Mound episodes on Marquee so far was during an interview with Los Angeles Angels’ star Mike Trout, where he provided Trout with a diaper-changing lesson tutorial (after they talked about how Trout and his wife Jessica are expecting their first child in August).
“Mike Trout was great because we had him change a diaper, which was pretty fun.”
But Dempster said his favorite interview so far was one with Ken Griffey Jr. because of how much Griffey meant to him growing up.
“I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and Junior, he’s only seven years older than me, but when I was in high school, that was the guy. He was the guy all around baseball and the sports world, but especially for us up there in Vancouver, B.C.”
“And then I eventually faced him in the big leagues, became his teammate, but to sit down with one of the most iconic players and the first player to ever have a shoe…he was the guy. To be able to talk to him about baseball, and moments with his dad, and great home runs and different things, but also him as a dad, and things that he likes to do now that his baseball career’s over, was really cool.”
Dempster was born in Gibsons, B.C., and was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round of the 1995 MLB draft. He said when he entered the Minor League Baseball ranks, there weren’t a ton of Canadians there, which led to him trolling some teammates who asked about Canada.
“It wasn’t something a lot of people were doing, even in going to Minor League Baseball. There weren’t a lot of Canadians in professional baseball at the time. When I started down in Florida, guys would ask me questions because I was born in Canada, and I was always a jokester, so I’d say stuff like ‘It’s not bad; you just have to pause the games for the polar bears to go through.’ And they’d be like ‘Really?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, not really; I’m from Seattle, just two hours further north.'”
He said the small numbers of Canadians in MiLB and MLB at that point made it easy to follow each others’ progress, though.
“But it was fun because you really could keep track of every Canadian baseball player that was playing. There were 15 or 16 of us. And I’d get the standard question of ‘Why didn’t you play hockey?’ Well, I couldn’t stop or skate backwards, so that ended real quick.”
Dempster pitched in the majors from 1998-2013 with the Florida Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, the Cubs, the Rangers, and the Boston Red Sox. He then joined MLB Network in 2014. He said he’d contemplated going into TV even while he was still playing, and MLB Network wound up being the perfect fit.
“I always loved baseball. When the games were over, I’d sit in my hotel room and I’d turn on highlights or MLB Tonight or Baseball Tonight. And I love talking the game, I love breaking games down, I love being a part of it and still being attached to the game and being on MLB Network with an incredible cast, the great talent we have there, the great hosts, the great editors; there are just so many great people working there. And I knew that before I joined, just interacting with people there. And I’m not full-time, and I like that aspect; it lets me do things like go camping.”
He said working with Marquee is a fun new element for him, and one that made sense given their status as the Cubs’ regional sports network. His longest MLB stint with one team was with the Cubs from 2004-2012, and he still feels a strong connection to the franchise.
“I identify as a Cub. I won a World Series in Boston and I enjoyed my time there, but I played nine seasons in Chicago; that’s a long time to play in the big leagues, let alone with one team. So to be able to do that and be back there and be part of a network that’s just launching, to be there from the very beginning and watch it grow, that’s great.”
Dempster said working with Marquee also made sense because it’s near where he lives. And he appreciated them wanting him to bring his Off The Mound show there.
“And to be able to be close to home; I’ve got four kids, so I enjoy not having to travel, and being there for them as much as I can. It was just really, really appealing. And I was excited that they wanted me, and that they were interested in having me do Off The Mound; that meant a lot too.”
The Marquee shows thus far have all been with baseball players, but Dempster’s Off The Mound stage shows have incorporated other athletes and celebrities. He said that can be fun as well.
“The live shows, we’ve had Eddie Vedder, we’ve had Jeff Garlin, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, we’ve had other personalities that aren’t baseball. It’s kind of fun to bring the two together.”
Dempster said he’s enjoyed doing Off The Mound on Marquee so far, even with the quarantine restrictions (you can see his at-home studio setup at right). He sees Off The Mound as both a fun thing for viewers and a way for players to show off different sides of themselves and promote charities they work with.
“I hope that we can keep it going. It’s been fun doing it on a weekly basis like this and giving people that avenue. And we’d love to be able to continue with the live shows. Both me and The Hemispheres, the band that I use, we’re really big into giving back and doing shows that raise money and awareness for causes. That won’t be every show, but that’s a big part of this for us. And we’ve done that even with the at-home shows, being able to give money to different charities that guys are working with.”
“I hope that we can continue to do that and talk about baseball, talk about life, show these guys as the humans that they are so that maybe if a guy strikes out with the bases loaded you have a little bit of empathy and don’t just boo them to the ground. They’re just humans out there playing a game. And at the same time, if we can make a difference in different communities, different charities; that’s something that’s really important to me, and hopefully we can continue that too. …We’re pretty excited about it all, and hopefully it goes good places.”
Off The Mound airs Fridays at 8 p.m. CT on Marquee Sports Network.