Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Card #45: Rick Cerone
Who Can It Be Now?
Richard Aldo Cerone was born on May 19, 1954 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended high school at Essex Catholic High School and college at Seton Hall University. While at Seton Hall, he played in the 1974 Amateur World Series and won a gold medal alongside fellow future major leaguers Steve Kemp, Ron Hassey, Marv Foley, and Barry Bonnell...and why three future major league catchers were necessary for an 11-day competition, I do not know.
After his junior year at Seton Hall, Cerone was drafted 7th overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 1975 June Amateur Draft. It was the same draft and same round in which Rick Sofield was drafted, and Cerone turned out to be the most successful first round pick that year.
On his signing, the Indians sent Cerone directly to Triple-A Oklahoma City. Cerone hit .250/.375/.350 at OKC in 170 plate appearances. He came up to the majors that same year in August for a few games, and then again for three games at the end of the season for a mediocre Indians team managed by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Cerone followed a similar pattern in 1976: start the year in Triple-A (this time in Toledo) and then get called up for 7 games starting in August.
Apparently, those 14 games convinced the Indians that they did not need Cerone around. To be fair, the Indians appeared to have no clue what they were doing at this point. They traded two catchers -- Cerone and Alan Ashby -- to the Toronto Blue Jays. Cerone went to the Jays because the Indians were fixated on getting Rico Carty back to the team after the Jays grabbed him in the expansion draft. Joining Cerone in the trade for Rico Carty was John Lowenstein. Lowenstein spent spring training with the Blue Jays before he was traded -- back to Cleveland.
Cerone again split the 1977 season between the majors and Triple-A. In a weird anomaly created by expansion, Cerone actually spent his time in Triple-A with the Houston Astros Triple-A Affiliate in Charleston, Illinois because Toronto did not have a farm system level above short-season A ball.
In 1978, finally, Cerone was in the majors to stay (other than rehab assignments). He split time at catcher with Alan Ashby for a terrible Blue Jays team. He finished with a .223 AVG, a .284 OBP, and a .298 SLG -- wow, are those numbers ugly -- and an OPS+ that was 36 percent below the average player in the league.
The Blue Jays were seemingly impressed by these numbers and let him play 136 games as a starter in 1979. Cerone hit for a little bit more average and power -- .239 AVG, .358 SLG.
Despite this, Cerone was still somewhat in demand. After the 1979 season, the Blue Jays sent Tom Underwood, Ted Wilborn, and Cerone to the New York Yankees in exchange for Chris Chambliss, Damaso Garcia, and Paul Mirabella. The Yankees were looking for someone to replace the irreplaceable -- Thurman Munson -- after Munson's death in a plane crash on August 2, 1979.
Perhaps because he was back home and playing for the team that he loved as a child in Newark and against all odds and statistical projections, Cerone had his best season in the major leagues in 1980. He hit 14 homers, had 85 RBI, hit .277/.321/.432 (his only SLG above .400 in his career), and finished seventh in the MVP race behind George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Rich Gossage, Willie Wilson, Cecil Cooper, and Eddie Murray -- and ahead of Rickey Henderson and Robin Yount, among others.
Cerone never again reached those lofty heights. Certainly, as a catcher, injuries took their toll, but Cerone simply turned back into what he was before 1980 -- a solid defensive catcher whose hitting would be a negative if he had to play regularly for his team. The Yankees traded for Butch Wynegar after the 1981 season, and Wynegar (a switch hitter) took over the main catching duties. Cerone was buried on the bench a bit by Billy Martin in 1983 -- a year that Cerone described as, "a tough time. In 1983, Billy was 91-0. The 71 losses he blamed on somebody else".
Yogi Berra barely used Cerone in 1984, paving the way for Cerone to be traded to the Atlanta Braves for pitcher Brian Fisher. His time with the Braves was unremarkable; one Braves blog calls Cerone the #9 worst Atlanta Brave ever. Perhaps because of this, the Braves decided that they would rather have Ted Simmons's skeletal remains on their bench in 1986 and traded Cerone and two minor leaguers to the Milwaukee Brewers for Simmons. From there, Cerone went back to the Yankees, then to the Red Sox, then back to the Yankees, then to the Mets, and then to the Montreal Expos.
Cerone did have one brief year of glory as a backup in 1990, though, on his third tour of duty with the Yankees -- he had his one, and only, .300+ AVG in a 49-game, 146 plate appearance season. Otherwise, he was in demand as a backup catcher who would be stretched as a starter.
We Got the Beat
If you had to ask me what player or players I would have expected needing to come up with a new headline for related to being a musical talent, I would have gone through at least fifty or one hundred names before I got to Rick Cerone. But, that's why we have this Go-Go's classic from 1982 here -- because someone used vinyl to record Rick Cerone's singing voice for posterity.
Yes, in 1981, Rick Cerone and The Dusty Road Band released a song called "A Long Run Home." It was a song recorded for the benefit of earthquake victims in Italy. The New York Times in 1981 referred to it as an "uptown country-western song." I have not yet been able to find a version that you can listen to online. I also did not look too hard to try to find it.
While not technically a screen appearance, the New York Times article by Murray Chass linked above notes that Cerone was hired by something called "10" Jeans -- whom he selected over Jordache -- to promote their blue jeans.
I've lost the citation, so forgive me for that, but here's a very trivial note: Rick Cerone was both the first player to debut and the last player to retire from the 1975 Draft class.
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
On a personal level, I met Mr. Cerone after one or two Brewers games in 1986 when he spent his one year in Milwaukee. He was pleasant and quick to sign autographs for kids, from what I recall, and he enjoyed talking to people about baseball even after games. There weren't enough players like that even then, so it was always appreciated.
Rick Cerone was a decent player for a long time, and in 1982, there was an open question as to whether the 1980 season was an aberration or whether it should be the expectation. Certainly, in the offseason after 1980, people thought Cerone was going to be the next Yankees catching star. It didn't turn out that way for him, but he led a successful career.
Indeed, his baseball playing career led first to an eight-year stint behind the microphone for the Yankees and Orioles in the 1990s. After that, Cerone brought baseball to Newark by founding the Newark Bears and the independent Atlantic League in 1998 (he later sold his interests in both). He is so well respected in Newark that the city named its best baseball field for him -- it's Rick Cerone Field at Branch Brook Park. Indeed, Cerone was named one of 40 "New Jerseyans We Love" by New Jersey Monthly magazine along side such luminaries as Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen -- at least at some point.
Cerone is also active in charitable events. He has participated in at least one golf tournament to benefit the Sean Kimmerling Testicular Cancer Foundation, named for the former WPIX anchor and pregame announcer for the Mets who died of the disease in 2003 at the age of 37. He was honored as Man of the Year by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's Northern New Jersey and Rockland County Chapter for his "hands-on help in raising awareness and funds towards diabetes research."
Today, if you want to meet Cerone and have some money to spend on it, you can. Would you like Rick to join you for lunch? It's just $2,750. He will even come to your wedding for that price. If you'd rather play a round of golf with him, that will run you $3,500. For a personal appearance, you can get an hour of Rick's time for $4,400.
Wow, he charges lawyer rates.