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    The Book Pages: Remembering the LA Dodgers’ Penguin classic
    • June 30, 2023

    There are plenty of iconic Southern California sports highlights, but possibly my favorite took place in a suburban Sears in Pasadena.

    Growing up in Southern California, I was a huge fan of the Dodgers, especially their classic infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and my favorite, Ron Cey, a six-time All-Star third baseman and 1981 co-World Series MVP.

    While my friend was a fan of Garvey, whose unmussed affect didn’t appeal to me, Cey seemed endearingly human, a hardworking player who got things done. Even his nickname, the Penguin, which a college coach had bestowed upon him for his waddling gait, was hardly the stuff of glory.

    Cey has been on my mind since I found out from my colleague J.P. Hoornstra that the former Dodger has a new book out (with Ken Gurnick), “Ron Cey: Penguin Power” about his years with the team. I just got a copy and have been reading around in it, enjoying its low-key, conversational voice.

    “Ron Cey: Penguin Power” by Ron Cey with Ken Gurnick. (Courtesy of Triumph Books)

    The book also reminded me of the time I met Cey when I was a kid and he was still playing for the team.

    I’d read in the newspaper that Cey was coming to the Pasadena Sears for an appearance to promote a line of extremely polyester Dodger shirts the team had whipped up, possibly in some sort of bizarre co-branded campaign with the petroleum industry.

    But the chance to see a penguin in the wilds of Pasadena? I had to go. My memory goes blank at how it came together but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved some hard-core pestering on my part. Or maybe I just asked nicely and my lovely mom said yes. Let’s just go with that.

    Knowing I watched all the games and could mimic (poorly!) the batting stance of the entire starting lineup, my mom took time out of her Saturday to take me to line up to see Cey up close. I don’t remember what the shirts actually cost but they weren’t cheap and I’m fairly certain my parents’ budget at the time didn’t have a place for silky synthetic leisurewear. Times were tight.

    Inside the department store, the line stretched through the main aisle on the ground floor; it was full of young families, kids in their Little League uniforms and probably an autograph hound or two. The turnout wasn’t huge – maybe 100 people or so – but it was easily the longest line I’d ever stood in to meet someone other than Santa Claus.

    Would it be worth the price of a plastic shirt? To me, yes. I could see Cey up ahead, sitting at a card table ready to start writing his name all over our possessions the way we fans like it.

    Still, there was some unease. Many in line hadn’t understood that it was a no-shirt, no-service kind of deal, that we were gonna have to pay the piper to peep the Penguin. (These days, that’s pretty much a given at a signing event, but these were simpler times, young people.) (Also, sorry.)

    Things got a little heated as the chatter built up about the T-shirt thing, so a rep for the store did that move that always calms a crowd: Adopting the booming tone of an overwhelmed substitute teacher announcing that everyone had detention, she proclaimed to the crowd you had to buy a shirt if you wanted to have something signed by Cey.

    A collective groan arose with a slight undertone of mutiny that did not bode well for this event.

    Until Ron Cey went to bat for the fans.

    Dodgers third baseman Ron Cey at a Pasadena branch of Sears during his playing days. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

    My favorite baseball player proved I’d chosen my sports hero wisely. He bolted up – even possibly standing on the seat of his metal folding chair – and made his own announcement, sounding more than a little annoyed, but not at the fans.

    What I remember him saying was this: I never agreed to that, and I’m not doing that. Shirts, gloves, pictures – bring it; I’ll sign whatever you want. You don’t need to buy a shirt if you don’t want to.

    Then, with some of that barely concealed irritation starting to show, Cey added that if the store didn’t like it, he’d invite everyone to step outside into the parking lot where he’d sign anything for anyone for as long as they wanted.

    A cheer went up that rattled the Craftsman tool sets and shook Toughskins from their plastic hangers. Probably.

    Seeing the possibility that a long line of customers might abandon the store, the rep announced that Mr. Cey was correct, no one needed to buy anything – but, you know, it’d be nice if you did – and he’d sign your stuff.

    As far as I know, this graceful play wasn’t captured on film — other than the shaky snapshot of mine — and the only replay I’m aware of has come from my telling and retelling this story over the years, so you’ll just have to settle for my glorious memory of it.

    I’d been a fan when I went there, but seeing him stand up for all the moms with anxious, squirrely kids and grown-up guys clutching their battered old gloves sealed it for me. I’m grateful my mom took me, and I’m grateful I got to see Cey behave the way you hope your childhood heroes will. That’s priceless.

    And the shirt? My mom bought me one and it was scratchy and felt like being embraced by a humid Florida motel room, but I held onto it until at some point my Dad tossed it out, probably worried it was a fire hazard.

    Years later, I was playing softball with a bunch of writers and told my Ron Cey story to my friend and former colleague, Dan Epstein, the author of the baseball books “Big Hair and Plastic Grass” and “Stars and Strikes.” Dan’s joy at hearing the story reminded me of how special that day was.

    For more from Dan on a related topic, check out his excellent roundup of books about West Coast baseball (or he’s got a Substack, too).

    And there’s a coda: I took that photo of Cey – one! since film was expensive – and we went home. But after about 45 minutes, I got antsy and asked if we could go back. Someone, maybe my dad this time, took me back to Sears where I recall Cey was still sitting at the card table, though the crowd had dispersed. He’d agreed to stay for a certain amount of time and was fulfilling his duty.

    I remember sitting awkwardly next to him for a few minutes, unable to think of anything to say. I probably came off a bit like Chris Farley in that sketch with Paul McCartney where he blurts things out like, “You remember when you were with the Beatles?”

    That’s how I remember it anyway.

    Former Dodger Ron Cey signs autographs before the start of the 2015 California/Carolina All-Star game at LoanMart Field in Rancho Cucamonga, Ca., June 23, 2015. (Photo by John Valenzuela/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin)

    (And if you came looking for the other kind of Penguin classics, please check out the publisher’s website.)

    What are you looking forward to reading this summer? Please feel free to email me at [email protected] with “ERIK’S BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and I may include your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

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    Thanks, as always, for reading.

    Elizabeth McKenzie never wanted this book to end

    “The Dog of the North” is the latest novel by author Elizabeth McKenzie. (Photo by Donka Farkas / Courtesy of Penguin Press)

    Elizabeth McKenzie is the author of “Dog of the North” and several other novels set in California. She spoke with Michael Schaub about her favorite book recommendations and more for the Book Pages Q&A.

    Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?  

    “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami, “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders, “Nicotine” by Nell Zink, “The Unconsoled” by Kazuo Ishiguro, “The Hearts of Horses” by Molly Glass, “The Sea, The Sea” by Iris Murdoch, “The Dog of the South” by Charles Portis, “Atmospheric Disturbances” by Rivka Galchen, “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett, “Independent People” by Halldor Laxness.

    Q. Do you remember the first book(s) that made an impact on you? 

    “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle in third grade. “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut in high school. “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James in college.

    Q. Can you recall a book that felt like it was written just for you?  

    “Same Bed, Different Dreams” by Ed Park, coming out in October. I never wanted it to end.

    Q. What’s something – a fact, a bit of dialogue or something else – that stayed with you from a recent reading?  

    I’ve just read Brigitta Olubas’s “Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life” and was struck by the fact that Shirley and her husband Francis Steegmuller read aloud to each other before bed, including the entirety of Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

    Q. Do you have a favorite book or books? 

    For today, I’ll say “War and Peace,” “The Trial,” and “I Capture the Castle.”

    Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next? 

    “Pedro Paramo” by Juan Rulfo, “God Went Like That” by Yxta Maya Murray, “Crook Manifesto” by Colson Whitehead, and “Extended Stay” by Juan Martinez.

    Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

    My father was a librarian and book collector. He’d take our requests and bring home whatever we wanted to read next.

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    Bookish (SCNG)

    What’s next on ‘Bookish’

    Find out about the next Bookish event with the authors Eliza Jane Brazier and Jillian Lauren and hosts Sandra Tsing Loh and Samantha Dunn.

    Did you miss the last one with Mona Simpson and Peter Wohlleben? You can watch it here.

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