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Mudville: October 18, 2021 11:08 am PDT
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Rise of The Penguin

The fabled Los Angeles Dodgers infield of the 1970s and early 80s was the epitome of consistency, production and stability – yet of the four members who comprised that renowned grouping, only third baseman Ron Cey played the position at which he was drafted.

The Washington State University product was the Dodgers’ third-round pick in what would turn out to be a legendary 1968 MLB Draft class. Los Angeles drafted six future All-Stars who would go on to make it one of the most dominant and winningest franchises of the 1970s. Davey Lopes [second round January Phase], Bill Buckner [second round June Phase], Tom Paciorek [fifth round June Phase], Doyle Alexander [ninth round June Phase], Steve Garvey [first round June Secondary Phase] and Cey, who was also selected in the secondary phase, were all selected in that draft.

Throw in Bobby Valentine, Joe Ferguson and Geoff Zahn, who were also drafted that year, and the Dodgers had a nucleus for a very bright future. Yet only Cey remained manning the hot corner, which was what he was drafted to do. Garvey was a third baseman while Lopes and Bill Russell, who was a ninth-round pick in 1966, were outfielders before converting to second and shortstop, respectively.

Which left Cey as the only one with a seat in the game of musical chairs, er positions, around the infield.

“I guess you can say that we were one of the greatest infields once we got the placement lined up,” Cey said. “We did a lot of juggling back and forth. Buckner was playing first, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell were being converted because of their athleticism and speed and I was the only one who played the position I signed for.

“They tried moving Garvey to the outfield and that didn’t work. Then they decided that they might be able to move Buckner out there because he was a wide receiver in high school and his ability to play the outfield would be a lot better. He bought into it and it opened a place for Garvey to play first base. We grew up in the organization together. Not only were we the longest running and most successful infield but we were also all home grown.”

And Cey’s star shone as bright as any of his infield cohorts. He remains fifth on the Dodgers’ all-time home run list, having hit 228 of his 316 career homers for L.A. He is also 10th in RBIs [842 of 1,139]. He was a six-time All-Star in Los Angeles and was a factor in the MVP voting four consecutive seasons. While he would go on to play four years in Chicago and one in Oakland, it is his time in Southern California for which The Penguin [Cey’s nickname] is best remembered.

“Did it matter that it was the Yankees? No, in the sense that we won. But to say we beat the Yankees felt pretty good. Would have also felt as good if we beat the A’s. ’77, ’78 and ’81 was a [television] network’s dream, though.”

NORTHWEST PASSAGE

Cey is a Washington native and spent his entire amateur career playing in The Evergreen State, first at Mount Tacoma High School before moving on to Washington State University.

He was originally selected by the Mets in the 19th round of the 1966 MLB Draft and had he chosen to sign with New York he would have provided them with stability at a position that has been historically unstable except for the years in which David Wright played. Cey might have also had a shot at playing on the Miracle Mets team in 1969 but opted for college over the Big Apple.

“There was some consideration of signing with the Mets but there was a dual issue there,” Cey, 73, said. “Number one, I had a college scholarship that weighed heavy back then. Heaviest of all was the Vietnam War. You had to be protected by some kind of deferment and student deferment was the preference. If the Mets had offered me something I couldn’t refuse that would have been an option. But it wasn’t so I took the college scholarship and went to school.

“It gave me an opportunity to get out of the house and be on my own for a little bit. I was thinking tackle my education first rather than [what was still] a hopeful occupation at the age. It would have left me unprotected if I signed with the Mets.”

Ultimately, Cey did get around the issue of being sent to Vietnam when he joined a military reserve unit. He would miss some spring training and regular-season time while on active duty but would ultimately reach his goal of becoming a Major Leaguer.

“I studied baseball in school,” Cey said. “It was no secret that school was a vehicle at that point in time. Unfortunately I didn’t use my education as well as I should have and I still have moments of regret about that. I teeter-tottered on the middle of the fence with that because back then you couldn’t fail out. You had to have enough accredited [class] hours and a standard GPA to remain eligible and stay out of harm’s way. If you fell out of that, you became classified 1A and if you got to that status, you would be on active duty and go to Vietnam.

“I played with it a little too much. I wish I would have taken it [his education] by the horns. But, being 18 years old, you take a few risks. It all ended up okay. I shake my head about those times.”

Ron Cey of the Los Angeles Dodgers bats against the New York Yankee during the World Series at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, NY in October of 1977. (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)

There was nothing to be concerned about as far as baseball went, though, for Cey. He hit .362 as a sophomore in 38 games at Washington State, leading the team in homers [eight], triples [four] and RBIs [33]. He was second with eight doubles.

That production prompted the lofty selection by the Dodgers, who didn’t send him very far after he signed. Cey began his professional career with the Tri-City Atoms, who were based in Kennewick, Wash., of the Rookie Level Northwest League. He led the league with 62 RBIs and hit .299, teaming up with Buckner [league-leading 54 runs scored] and Ferguson [league-leading 12 homers] to help Tri-City to a first-place finish on the four-team circuit.

Cey spent the bulk of the following season at Bakersfield of the Class-A California League, where he hit .331 with 22 homers and 56 RBIs in 98 games. He got a taste of the Double-A Texas League as well, appearing in 13 games with two RBIs for Albuquerque. He was back in Albuquerque the following year, limited in part by active military service. He appeared in 71 games, drove in 56 runs and hit .331.

It would be back in Washington, though, that Cey would have his breakout season in 1971, playing for Spokane of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He hit .328 with 32 homers and a league-leading 123 RBIs. His effort earned him a September call-up to the parent club and he made his Major League debut on Sept. 3, striking out against the Cincinnati’s Joe Gibbon. He would suffer the same fate two days later, this time striking out against Ross Grimsley.

Cey ended his season with high hopes, though, and figured on being the starting third baseman in Chavez Ravine the following spring. It didn’t work out that way.

Ron Cey #10 of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws a ball during spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

SHOCK, SUCCESS AND THAT INFIELD

Cey said that his late-season call-up in 1971 was “fun” despite the fact that he really didn’t get a chance to play or show what he could do. Still, he was buoyed by the fact that Dodgers general manager Al Campanis told him that the third base job was his to lose in 1972. With that in mind, he approached Spring Training the following year at ease.

But Campanis gave Cey no indication that he had changed his mind. When the Dodgers went to Miami for their Spring Training opener against the Orioles, Cey was in the lineup and did well, going 1-for-2 with a double, an RBI, a walk and a run scored. All was right, or so Cey thought.

“I’m playing third base and batting fourth, I went over to their clubhouse to say hello to Brooks Robinson and Elrod Hendricks, who I played with in Santurce [of the Puerto Rican Winter League]. I played five innings and as we were headed back to Vero Beach, I knew I wasn’t going to play the next day but that went on for two weeks and I didn’t smell an at-bat. I tried talking to Al but he wouldn’t talk to me so I talked to [future Los Angeles manager and longtime skipper in the Dodger system] Tommy Lasorda about it.

“I told him what was going on, that I had asked for numerous meetings with Al and he just kept putting me off. Then one day I got a notice from the financial office at Dodger Stadium about a deduction in my pay I didn’t understand. I called the head woman in the department and she said the deduction was for the state of New Mexico. I said we’re not in New Mexico but that’s where they had sent me. They had already pushed me out. So I went to Tom and told him that I was going home.”

Campanis finally met with Cey but brushed him off quickly, telling him that he had something “more important to do”. Cey was confused and upset. He decided he was going to go home to Scottsdale, Arizona. His wife was attending grad school at Arizona State and he was certain he could work out with the baseball team there to stay in shape.

Ron Cey of the Los Angeles Dodgers poses before a game at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. (Photo by Louis Reqeuna/MLB via Getty Images)

Lasorda, meanwhile, talked him down, told him to go home and then meet him in Albuquerque on a given date. When he finally did get to Albuquerque, where the Dodgers’ PCL affiliate was now located, he tore the league apart, hitting .329 with 23 homers and 103 RBIs in 142 games.

Albuquerque was a powerhouse, winning the league championship by topping a Mike Schmidt-led Eugene team. Cey’s teammate Tom Paciorek won the league MVP, Von Joshua won the batting title, and Lopes led the league in stolen bases.

“I stuck up for myself,” Cey said. “That, long term, was something the [Dodger owners] the O’Malley’s respected. I dealt with them a number of times. I was the first Dodger to go to arbitration in 1975. Al had warmed me not to do that but I stuck to my guns. After I won the arbitration case, I met with Walter and Peter O’Malley briefly at a luncheon and Walter said he was very proud of me for standing up for what I believed in.

“He also said don’t do it again. He meant it both ways and I took it both ways. But the bond between the O’Malleys and me was stronger and I’ve been working there for 25 years after the fact, I’m still there and that’s all because of the O’Malleys.”

Cey would finally take over third base in 1973 and remain there for the next decade. Though he hit only .245, he had 15 homers, drove in 80 and had a .338 on-base percentage, all of which allowed him to finish sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.

That season would also prove to be special for Cey because he got to experience Willie Mays, whom he idolized while growing up on the West Coast. Mays, who was traded to the Mets in 1972, and Cey squared off in Spring Training that season and then later again at Shea Stadium in New York.

“Tacoma was San Francisco’s Triple-A affiliate so as a kid growing up, 8, 10 years old I got to see all the players who went on to become legendary Giants like Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Tom Haller and Jim Ray Hart,” Cey said. “I saw [Willie] McCovey as well. The first time I got to play against Willie Mays, though, was in an exhibition game during Spring Training in 1973 in St. Petersburg. Willie was playing and his first time up he hits a line drive right to me. I’m thinking this is pretty cool. I was all excited about it and said thank you very much. I remember taking that ball into the rickety old clubhouse but I don’t recall what happened to it.

“Then during a game in New York, Willie hit a home run and I was in my 10-year-old stage of being a little kid. I was almost ready to go shake his hand as he was coming around the bases, I swear to God. I didn’t do it, but here I am playing against my idol. It still gets me.”

Several years later, after Mays retired, he was traveling with the Giants and was at Dodger Stadium. He and Cey took a picture together and Cey held onto the photo until he finally was able to have Mays autograph it in 2018 during a celebration of the Dodgers and Giants 60th season on the West Coast.

“I asked a guy who had contact with Mays and told him I wanted to bring the picture to see if Mays could sign it,” Cey said. “Is he going to be around? He told me that Willie said he’s going to be there but the only reason he was going to be there was because I wanted to see him. The guy who I had spoken to came over to the set meeting place and he said come on, we’re going to go spend some time with Willie.

“I spent about 20 minutes with him, he signed my picture and I reminded him he was my favorite player. It was a special event for me. We’ve been friends since. It turned out to be more than a favorite player thing. We became closer than that and it was bigger than life.”

Cey’s performance on the field was also starting to become pretty big as well as his power, production and plate discipline were on display. He began a stretch in 1974 that would see him walk more times than he struck out five times over the ensuing six years. He also made his first All-Star team in 1974 after he connected for 18 homers while driving in 97.

And, he became a cornerstone of the fabled Dodger infield that would be a model of consistency throughout the Seventies. Lopes was the last of the quartet to cement his spot, joining Cey, Garvey and Russell in the early part of the 1973 season. By 1974 they were the envy of the baseball world and would stay together through the 1981 season to become longest-running intact infield in Major League history.

“We had a few guys, including myself, that started to play every day,” Cey said. “’72 rolled into ’73 and Lopes and I played quite a bit in ’73. By June of ’73, that’s when the infield started playing together. We ruined a lot of guys’ careers. The Dodgers drafted a people and you’d hear stories all the time that would get to play would be in a different organization. We had a lock on that infield for eight-and-a-half, nine years.

“There wasn’t any infielder that was going to break that lineup. We grew up in the organization together. Not only were we the longest running and most successful infield, we were also home grown. We had a very productive farm system back then. It’s incredible that we were able to have that success internally. Every organization would like to produce its own players rather than have to trade for them or sign free agents. Most teams now can’t wait or won’t wait for that happen.”

The Dodgers, riding Cey’s big season and Garvey’s MVP-winning performance, reached the 1974 World Series but were no match for the mighty Oakland A’s, who had defeated Los Angeles in five games to win their third-consecutive World Series.

Cey admits the A’s had a better team led by a spectacular pitching staff that featured Catfish Hunter, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, Ken Holtzman and World Series MVP Rollie Fingers. While Cey had a big NLCS against Pittsburgh, he struggled against the Oakland staff, going 3-for-17 with no RBIs in the five games.

The 1975 and ’76 seasons saw Cey combine for 48 homers and 181 RBIs. He made two more All-Star teams and was once again in the MVP picture. Lasorda took over for longtime manager Walt Alston in 1977 and with the Dodger talent plus his familiarity with most of the players – he was their manager throughout their ascent in the minor leagues – had Los Angeles on top in the National League.

Cey contributed mightily to the Dodgers’ West Division title putting up career highs in homers [30] and RBIs [110] to earn his fourth consecutive All-Star berth and finish eighth in the MVP voting. He hit .308 with a homer and four RBIs in the NLCS victory over Philadelphia but once again struggled in the World Series. L.A. lost to the Yankees in six games with Reggie Jackson going off for three homers in the clincher.

“We’re down a game in New York and Reggie Jackson has a career night in the World Series,” Cey said. “We still had a chance but we had someone have one of those nights. Hats off to them and to him.”

Pedro Guerrero #28, Steve Yeager #7 and Ron Cey #10 of the Los Angeles Dodgers hold up the number 1 sign after being named co-MVP's of the 1981 World Series after the Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the 1981 World Series on October 28, 1981 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

The two teams would meet again in the 1978 World Series and once again Jackson would play a pivotal role. The Dodgers had won two of the first three games in the series and were leading Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, 3-1, in the bottom of the sixth inning. New York had runners on first and second with one out when Lou Piniella hit a smash to Russell, who dropped the ball but quickly recovered, stepped on second for the force and fired to first for what would have been an inning-ending double play.

Jackson, who was on first, stopped running a few feet from the base and jutted his hip out as Russell’s throw approached. The ball hit Jackson and caromed away, allowing Thurman Munson, who was on second, to score. The Yankees ultimately tied the game and won in extra innings and then took the next two games.

“’78 really hurt bad,” Cey said. “It killed me. It was the worst loss of my career. Period. We didn’t have instant replay and that play in Game 4 changed the entire complexion of the World Series. We were cruising and they were even lucky to come back after that. We get out of that inning and we go up three [games] to one.

“The interference was so obvious. Back then, the umps didn’t like to overturn people who made the call. If you look at it now, it’s obvious interference that allowed them to score runs that they wouldn’t have. It was a horrible, horrible loss. There really is nothing that can be said after that.”

The Dodgers finished third and second, respectively, in 1979 and ’80 but Cey continued to roll. He hit 28 homers each year and drove in 81 and 77, respectively. He and the Dodgers would get another crack at the Yankees in the 1981 World Series, though.

Cey’s production in the strike-shortened ’81 season was consistent with what he had been producing for almost a decade. He hit .288 with 13 homers and 50 RBIs in 85 games after seeing his regular season end on Sept. 9 when he was hit in the arm by a pitch from San Francisco’s Tom Griffin. He had broken his left forearm and should have been on the shelf for at least a month, but he came back in three weeks.

While Cey missed the Dodgers Division-round victory over Houston [an extra layer of playoffs necessitated because of the strike] he returned for the NLCS victory over Montreal. Then came the World Series and another errant pitch that would play a pivotal role for Cey.

Manager Tommy Lasorda #2 looks on as Ron Cey #10 is assisted off the field by trainers Paul Padilla and Bill Buhler of the Los Angeles Dodgers after he was hit in the head by a pitch during a game in the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

New York had won the first two games of the series in the Bronx before Los Angeles stormed back to win the next three at home. Game Five saw Cey get drilled in the head in the eighth inning by a Goose Gossage fastball, one that left him wobbly and woozy. While it appeared he would be out again for a considerable amount of time, he returned for Game Six three days later and collected a pair of hits while driving in a run to lead L.A. to the World Series title that had eluded them three years before.

Cey hit .350 with six RBI and was named Series co-MVP along with Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager. It would be the last big moment for the Dodger infield. Lopes spent most of the regular season on the disabled list with a variety of injuries and was traded to Oakland prior to the 1982 season.

“We were finally able to get over that hump,” Cey said of the ’81 World Series. “That was the last time the fabled infield played together. Lopes went to Oakland after that. It was fitting and appropriate that we won. It was overdue. I’m just glad we were able to finish it off and the fact that it was the Yankees based on history and tradition [added to it].

“Did it matter that it was the Yankees? No, in the sense that we won. But to say we beat the Yankees felt pretty good. Would have also felt as good if we beat the A’s. ’77, ’78 and ’81 was a [television] network’s dream, though.”

Garvey and Cey would follow Lopes out of L.A. following the 1982 season. Cey was traded to the Cubs and Garvey signed with San Diego as a free agent. Of the four, only Russell spent his entire career with the Dodgers.

Cey went on to have four productive years in Chicago, helping lead the Cubs to an East Division title in 1984.

“It bugged me that I couldn’t play my whole career with the Dodgers but they handled it well,” Cey said. “It goes back to the old-school way of thinking. The Dodgers felt you should trade a person too early rather than too late. They had an age standard and I was aware of that. I had a private meeting with Peter O’Malley and he felt it was best if they moved on. He said he would help me in any way he could so the transition would be smooth and I was glad to then go to Chicago and be part of Dallas Green’s team and a new tradition.

“Dallas said he was going to make the team a contender in a hurry – that happened and we won a Division title. He got Rick Sutcliffe, he got Dennis Eckersley and we added some other important pieces to the staff. Sutcliffe was 16-1 and Ryne Sandberg won the MVP. I led the club in homers and RBIs and we had a lot of fun in ‘84.”

Cey had 25 homers and 97 RBIs in ’84 but the Cubs lost the NLCS to Garvey and the Padres, who would then lose in the World Series to Detroit. His production slowly went down over the next two seasons and he was traded to Oakland in 1987, appearing in 45 games before getting released in July to end his 17-year career.

“That last year in Oakland was tough on me,” Cey said. “[Oakland manager] Tony LaRussa called me in the winter and wanted me to bring a first baseman’s glove to Spring Training. I told him I haven’t played there but he told me that I played in the Major Leagues for 14 years and as good as I was, I could play first base.

“They had Mark McGwire, though, and he was definitely the right choice. He hit 49 homers that year and to watch him and [Jose] Canseco take batting practice and launch balls out of the stadium was something I had never seen before. The handwriting was on the wall. I was closing in on 40 and I couldn’t make the adjustment to playing once a week. It took its toll. It was uncomfortable and I wish it could have been different but they did not make a mistake with what they were doing and they players they had. It was the right move to make.”

Cey has spent more than two decades working for the Dodgers. He says he wears multiple hats, one of which belongs to one of the greatest third basemen in the game’s history. He had an underrated career despite being an All-Star at every level and in every league he played. Cey received virtually no consideration when it came time for the Hall-of-Fame despite the fact that, if today’s metrics were in play, he would be a prime candidate.

“I’m disappointed how the Hall-of-Fame voting went,” he said. “They absolutely treated me as if I didn’t exist. When I retired I was fifth in [franchise history] in home runs, sixth in games and eighth in assists. I had a .961 fielding percentage; I twice led the league in fielding and in 1979 I had the fewest errors [nine] by a third baseman who played 150 games or more.

“Underrated depends on where you want to start the conversation. Definitely as time has gone by the metrics have raised my status. I have no doubt about that.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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