Ron Cey got lucky in life.
The travels and baseball triumphs experienced during his ultra-successful career (predominately with the Los Angeles Dodgers) as an MLB infielder are enough to make anyone who has ever played the game jealous.
Cey’s memoir "Penguin Power" provides an easy, highly-detailed glimpse to what baseball life at the highest level offers.
During his playing days, Cey was part of something truly special. From June 23, 1973, then for the next eight seasons, Los Angeles’ lineup included Steve Garvey at first base, Davey Lopes at second base, Bill Russell playing shortstop, and Cey positioned at third base.
The stretch remains MLB’s all-time longest-running infield foursome.
So, when Cey’s book came across my desk, I was intrigued. I grew up in the 1970s, during a time when the Dodgers were regulars on NBC’s Game of the Week. The club appeared in three World Series during the decade. The names on the roster of the club that dominated on the West Coast all became too familiar to me. Cey’s included.
Curiosity got the best of me when I had the opportunity to know more about one of the all-stars of my youth. From watching Cey covering baseball’s “hot corner”, to speaking with him on my cell phone late last week, I had questions that I believe other baseball fans would like answers to.
First, how did Cey, who spent a dozen of his 17 MLB seasons wearing Dodger blue, get the nickname “The Penguin.”
Cey’s first minor league skipper then manager in Los Angeles, Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda is who put the permanent tag on him. As Lasorda saw Cey’s slow-running style, waddling-like, was too colorful and too inviting to ignore.
What’s truly refreshing in Penguin Power is Cey’s ability to display his interest in his profession, just as millions of MLB fans do. Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, Cey’s favorite player to watch and learn about was the great San Francisco Giants’ centerfielder Willie Mays.
“Mays was my childhood hero. Getting to know him personally and play against him was the greatest thing that could happen to me.”
However, Cey’s memoir almost didn’t come to fruition. There was some coaxing to be done, from Cey’s friends and family, to finally tell his story.
“First, I had some concerns if I had a story to tell. I had put up a lot of walls years back that I didn’t know if I wanted to open, or just continue to keep to myself. Once I was convinced that I had a story, I turned the corner. Now, I’m glad that I did it.”
Cey’s basic, and detailed message in Penguin Power simply is – childhood dreams do come true.
As fascinating as it is to read about baseball of the ‘70s and ’80s, and Cey does dish a lot of all-star names of that period, he admits to intentionally leaving some of his experiences out of his published conversations.
“I didn’t completely open the cupboard,” said Cey, the 1981 World Series MVP.
But, Penguin Power offers plenty of entertaining stories of his time spent at Dodgertown, Los Angeles’ former longtime spring training base in Vero Beach, Florida, to tight friendships forged with teammates Bill Buckner, Bobby Valentine, and Tom Paciorek. Plus, countless stories about Lasorda, the O’Malley family (then Dodgers’ owners), and Dallas Green – when Cey spent time with the Chicago Cubs.
Originally, Penguin Power began as a project in 2020. Due to COVID restrictions at the time, Cey never met in person with his ghostwriter. They reviewed stories and statistics over a 20-hour period through Zoom. Then, with the ghostwriter experiencing health issues, Cey was forced to begin his book project all over.
Fortunately for Cey, Penguin Power regained its footing, by teaming up with longtime writer Ken Gurnick. Gurnick spent nearly four decades covering the Dodgers daily at MLB.com and The Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
“I regrouped with Ken. He has a sense of the history and tradition of the Dodgers. And I felt comfortable with him. We shared a lot of face time together. He did a terrific job,” explained the six-time National League All-Star.
Cey, who spent 40 years employed by the Dodgers, is proud of the era he played the game. He rattles off some of his opponents, who are clearly among the greatest baseball has ever offered – Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, and Johnny Bench.
However, Cey is proud to remind you that he had the best position on the field on one of the most historic nights the game has experienced.
April 8, 1974. Atlanta, Georgia. Dodgers’ Al Downing in the fourth-inning pitching to Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron. The starting lefty gave up a career home run 715 to Aaron, the blast that put him ahead of Babe Ruth as baseball’s all-time home run leader at the time.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. That was my second full season with the Dodgers, and my first as an all-star. Aaron hit third in the Braves’ line-up that game,” explained Cey, who last played in the MLB with the Oakland A’s during the 1987 season.
The most intriguing and memorable discussion in Penguin Power is when Cey opens up about his friendship with Buckner. He tells of first joining the Dodgers in the early ‘70s and living within one mile of Buckner, who sadly is best remembered for his moment in the 1986 World Series as a member of the Boston Red Sox, in Game 6.
Positioned at first base, when a grounder hit in Buckner’s direction by New York Mets’ Mookie Wilson went under his glove in the tenth inning, the error forced a Game 7, which New York won.
‘When I first arrived, he (Buckner) asked me to live with him in Woodland Hills. We were friends for life,’ recalls Cey of his late friend.
For younger readers of Penguin Power, you learn that being a professional athlete, during wartime, had limitations on pursuing your career.
Drafted out of high school in 1966 by the New Mets, Cey opted to pass up the opportunity presented, in favor of playing college baseball.
This was during the Vietnam War. Men aged 18-26 at the time were required to serve 21 months (about 2 years) in the United States military. Cey took the direction of an educational deferment. Attending college full-time would delay his service for four years. Cey was offered and accepted a scholarship offered by Washington State.
When signing with the Dodgers in June 1968, Cey shares heart-warming stories of time spent growing as a person and professional ballplayer in the Dodgers’ system with his ‘brothers’ - Valentine, Buckner, and Paciorek.
Then when joining the Chicago Cubs in 1983 for four seasons, Cey explains what it was like moving on from the organization that he grew up in to a new system. He was pleased with Dallas Green, the man running the Cubs in the mid-’80s, and how he was treated.
“He (Green) was very respectful and kept all the promises he made. I was pleased with the transition. He changed the culture within the Cubs’ organization. I was asked for advice, and I think he appreciated my honesty.”
During our conversation, it’s clear that Cey is proud of his Dodgers’ heritage. With a mentality of always expecting to be getting to the World Series each season, making it four times in 10 seasons, as Cey remembers that period, it doesn’t get any better.
Cey may not have opened his baseball cupboard all the way in Penguin Power, but as much as he cracked it open, more than enough insight into Dodgers baseball, and the MLB of that time period, makes his memoir a must-read.
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