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Cubs Still Question If They Really Do Have a Flightless Bird at Third

Times Staff Writer

Now preparing for his 14th major league season, his questionable status reviving memories of another time and place, Ron Cey says he was never happier to see a previous season end.

“I was physically worn and mentally beaten,” he said. “I needed to get away, think it through and try to put the puzzle together.”

The statistics--some the poorest of Cey’s career--were only part of it.

The third baseman, now 38, made 21 errors, one shy of his 1974 career high, and batted a career-low .232. He hit 22 home runs but drove in only 63 runs, 34 fewer than in 1984, when his Chicago Cubs won the title in the National League East.

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Devastated by injuries, the Cubs finished fourth last year. Cey’s wounds were to his pride.

He was dropped to seventh in the batting order and then benched temporarily as Manager Jim Frey tested right fielder Keith Moreland at third. The frustrated fans in friendly Wrigley Field suddenly weren’t so friendly, making it seem as if only Cey was to blame for the collapse.

Club President Dallas Green fed the flames, saying that Cey wasn’t earning his money, that maybe it was the beginning of the end for him.

A normally impassive Cey sulked and pouted in response, concerned about his and the team’s performance, as well as his being made a scapegoat.

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In the end, having struggled with the puzzle through a long winter of self-analysis, Cey decided that it was his own behavior--the pouting, the sulking, the tendency to be too hard on himself--that disappointed him most.

“I think I’m at greater peace with myself now,” Cey said the other day. “I wasn’t happy with myself as a player or individual last year.

“I didn’t handle it well. I let it affect me on and off the field. I don’t know if my family would agree, but I felt I took it home with me. I’m basically a happy person who loves what he’s doing, but last year I didn’t enjoy it.

“It was the first time I ever felt that way about myself and a season.

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“I’ve since been working hard to develop a better overall attitude.”

Cey reportedly displayed it during a meeting he requested with Frey after his arrival here this spring. One reason for it was to apologize for his behavior of last year.

Cey also wanted to get a fix on his status and an agreement that his performance of last year was affected, in part, by things he couldn’t control--the injuries reducing his RBI opportunities and increasing pressure on the players who remained healthy.

Frey applauded Cey’s attitude, and Cey said that he emerged with a sense of accomplishment, a better relationship with his manager and a feeling that Frey had done his homework, reanalyzing the third-base situation and the factors that had affected Cey’s performance last year.

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“The club has already put out a statement that my job is not in question,” Cey said. “I don’t feel I have to keep asking him, ‘Hey, Jim, do you mean what you say or am I misinterpreting it?’, though a lot of reporters keep asking me about it as if they didn’t hear it or didn’t believe it. I’m sure he’s as tired of it as I am. In essence, I guess I’m taking the heat off some of the other players.”

Frey has said that Cey deserves the benefit of the doubt and that there is no deadline.

Recently, however, the manager’s patience has seemed to waver. He told the Chicago media the other day that Cey, who is batting only .194 with one home run and four RBIs, has played about as poorly as he has hit.

It is believed that Moreland is more than ready to make the move to third. Brian Dayett would then become the right fielder. There have been rumors that the Cubs would even choose to release Cey, swallowing the final two years of his contract, a guaranteed $1,850,000.

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Said Green, who has brought in veteran infielder Manny Trillo as insurance: “I’ve said it loud and clear, and I’ll say it again: I think the third baseman has to have a good year for us to win.

“No one is blaming Ronnie Cey for last year, but he was one of those who contributed to our failure. He didn’t earn his money and he knows it. I feel he’ll bounce back. I’m banking on his pride and record of success.”

Cey, whose attitude remains positive despite a sore elbow and an anemic bat, said of 1985: “I know I fell off in run production. I’m man enough to accept that. It wasn’t the kind of year I would have liked to have had, but I’m not the man who lost the pennant. I refuse to take that blame. We won as a team and we lost as a team.”

The bottom line is that this still seems to be a crossroads, much like Los Angeles was in 1983, when Cey was traded to Chicago amid private comments by the Dodgers that the proud and aging Penguin had already slipped through the thin ice. Now, 71 homers and 250 RBIs later, Cey said:

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“This is a high-risk business. You have to prove yourself every year.

“Three years ago I was supposedly too old for the Dodgers, but I proved I wasn’t too old then, just like I’ll prove I’m not too old now. I’ve led the Cubs in home runs and RBIs two of the three years I’ve been here. Does one bad year make me too old?

“I’m physically and mentally capable of doing the same type of things I’ve done in the past.

“I couldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it because that’s never been my nature. I can’t lie to myself.”

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