All Hail the Utility Man
August 25, 2012
New Shea Stadium
Today’s essay is in praise of Ronny Cedeño, New York Mets’ all-rounder, known in baseball parlance as a “utility man.” That term sounds a bit ugly, like someone designated to pick the old gum from under the bench after the games. But in Spanish, the word util means “useful,” and that is the true essence of a player like Cedeño, able to field all three throwing infield positions with aplomb, handle the bat to move a runner over, and steal an occasional base. He’s ready when the team calls.
Saturday was one such day, and Ronny rose to the task. In the field, he leapt and speared a line drive that was destined for base-hit-land, and he was the pivot man on two double plays that kept the visiting Astros at bay. This, on a day when Mets’ ace R.A. Dickey didn’t have his best stuff.
Manager Terry Collins praised Cedeño after the game, saying “that’s why we got Ronny” and complimenting his soft hands (is there a soap commercial in his future?) and toughness in standing his ground on both double plays (he was knocked down on the first one). The Mets have lost 45 of 51 games; they are scrapping even against 100-loss teams like Houston. Every out counts, and Cedeño got five crucial ones. In a season that’s seen a Great Depression-like second half swoon for the Mets, Dickey’s quest for 20 wins and the Cy Young Award may be the only silver lining in a sky full of clouds rolling in from nearby LaGuardia Airport–and Cedeño’s stellar defensive play got R.A. to 16 victories today.
Cedeño, 29, is a player who may be resigned to a part-time role for the rest of his career. He’s a slick fielder and this season played 28 games at short, and 27 at second, and 3 at third. He’s a lifetime .247 hitter and in the bygone days when his countrymen like Aparicio and Concepcion patrolled the infield, that might have been enough to keep a job. But in today’s Major League Baseball, the stick carries a bit more weight, so Ronny may have to retroactively bask in his days of full-time glory as a Cub and Pirate shortstop while filling a slightly different role for the Mets, who have 22-year-old, .300-hitting Ruben Tejada as the shortstop of the future.
In this regard, Cedeño inherits the mantle of another great Venezuelan role-player who shone in the Big Apple—Carabobo-born Luis Sojo, who turned a modicum of talent, a lot of hard work and the willingness to play any position into 5 World Series rings in the 1990s and early 2000s (Arriving in the Bronx in 1996, he got stuck on the depth chart behind another 22-year-old named Jeter). Called “the greatest .200 hitter of all time” by Yankee announcer John Sterling, there is a rumor that the Zelig-esque Sojo actually drove the flatbed truck while the rest of the 1996 Yankees were waving to the crowd during the victory parade. I had a cohort who said with great pride that he considered himself the Luis Sojo of our department for his ability to handle a multitude of tasks from various managers.
While we admire obvious heroes like Jackson, Strawberry, Jeter or Seaver, it’s worth remembering that the world often runs on the gumption of diligent worker-bees like Ronny Cedeño and Luis Sojo. You have to win a lot of games to gain a playoff or World Series berth, and they aren’t all gotten by towering home runs or 15-strikeout pitching gems. Always willing to pick up a glove and man any position, lay down a sacrifice bunt or steal a base, utility men are the sort of colleague or teammate you always want on your side, dirt on their hands a blood on their knees, who would be proud to add the descriptor ‘multi-tasker’ to their resumes.
Postscript: Outside los Cardenales of Lara stadium in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, there is a statue of home-grown hero Luis Sojo, for in his country he was indeed a star, a five-time batting champion with more than 1,000 hits.
Ronnie Cedeño is the second Cedeño to play for the New York Mets, setting an all-time Major-League record for Cedeños.