By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Most longtime Toronto Blue Jays fans can tell you that Bill Singer threw the first regular season pitch in the franchise’s history on that snowy day at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977.
But who caught that first pitch?
The answer is Rick Cerone, who turns 67 today.
These days when baseball fans talk about Cerone, they generally remember him as the catcher who replaced Thurman Munson for the New York Yankees or for his clashes with George Steinbrenner. But before he starred in pinstripes, Cerone was the Blue Jays backstop who caught the club’s historic first pitch – a fastball from Singer that was called a strike by umpire Nestor Chylak.
Cerone told reporters after that game that his hands were numb for the first three innings, but that didn’t stop him from going 2-for-4 in the Blue Jays’ 9-5 win over the Chicago White Sox.
Born in Newark, N.J. in 1954, Cerone was a two-time All-American catcher at Seton Hall University before he was selected seventh overall by the Cleveland Indians in the 1975 MLB draft. He played just 46 games in triple-A before he made his big league debut on August 17, 1975.
He’d play seven games for Cleveland in 1976 prior to being dealt to the Blue Jays, along with outfielder John Lowenstein, for DH Rico Carty on December 6, 1976.
The Blue Jays knew they wouldn’t win a lot of games in their inaugural campaign, but they felt that one of their strengths was their young catchers. They had acquired both Alan Ashby and Cerone from Cleveland in trades the previous fall and the plan was for them to share duties behind the dish.
After his performance in the first game, Cerone seemed poised for a strong season with the Blue Jays when just five days later, he broke his thumb when it was hit by a foul tip off the bat of Detroit Tigers third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez. This sidelined him for more than a month and when he was ready to return, Ashby had assumed the starting job and Ernie Whitt was serving as the backup.
Cerone was assigned to triple-A Charleston where he batted .234 with six home runs and 40 RBIs in 70 games until he was recalled by the Blue Jays in August. He belted his first major league home run off Texas Rangers right-hander Nelson Briles in his first start after he was recalled, and with Ashby’s average hovering around .200, Cerone saw regular action for the remainder of the season. He finished the campaign with a .200 batting average in 31 games.
The 23-year-old Cerone would again split the catching duties with Ashby in 1978 and hit .223 with three home runs in 88 games. He also established himself as one of the best throwing catchers in the American League, nailing 33 of 82 (40%) of baserunners attempting to steal off him.
Cerone’s improvement convinced the Blue jays to deal Ashby to the Houston Astros on November 27, 1978. The move made Cerone the starting catcher and he proceeded to bat .239 with seven home and 61 RBIs in 136 games. He also again threw out more than 40 per cent of would-be baserunners. For his efforts, Toronto baseball writers voted him the club’s “Most Improved Player.”
The Yankees were also impressed by Cerone. Searching for a starting catcher after Thurman Munson had died tragically in a plane crash, the Bombers acquired Cerone as a part of a six-player deal on November 1, 1979. Cerone was shipped to the Yankees along with left-hander Tom Underwood and outfielder Ted Wilborn in exchange for first baseman Chris Chambliss, second baseman Damaso Garcia and left-hander Paul Mirabella.
For Cerone, who grew up in New Jersey, being traded to the Yankees was a dream come true and he wasn’t worried about the pressure of replacing Munson.
“Sure, the pressure will be there,” Cerone told the Canadian Press. “But I’m not going to try to duplicate Munson. I won’t try to take his place. I’ll try to be my own man.”
And that philosophy worked.
Cerone enjoyed his best major league season in 1980, batting .277 with 14 home runs and 85 RBIs in 147 games, while also throwing a league-best 51.8% of runners attempting to steal off him. His performance earned him a seventh-place finished in the American League MVP voting.
Cerone would play four more seasons with the Yankees before being dealt to the Atlanta Braves for right-hander Brian Fisher on December 5, 1984. He’d make two more single-season stops with the Yankees over the course of his 18-season big league career. On top of suiting up for the Yankees, Blue Jays, Indians and Braves, Cerone also played for the Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets before ending his career with the Montreal Expos in 1992.
In all, in 1,329 major league games, he batted .245 and had 998 hits – including 59 home runs.
Following his career, he served as an analyst on Yankees broadcasts for WPIX in 1996 and 1997 and then for the Orioles on HTS in 1998. That same year, he founded the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League. He sold the club in 2003.
In an August 2016 interview at a Yankees Oldtimers game celebration, Cerone described himself as a former “investor” who had retired to the Jersey Shore.
Here are five things you might not know about Cerone:
-Cerone was the first former baseball player to have his number (15) retired at Seton Hall University. Craig Biggio, Jason Grilli, Mo Vaughn and John Valentin are four other Seton Hall alumni who played in the big leagues after Cerone.
-He was the catcher when Blue Jays right-hander Jesse Jefferson threw a franchise record 12-inning complete game against the Red Sox at Exhibition Stadium on May 23, 1978. Cerone helped Jefferson navigate a Sox lineup that included Hall of Famers Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski and Carlton Fisk. That trio went 2-for-14 in the Blue Jays’ 2-1 win. Cerone caught the entire game and went 1-for-5. The Blue Jays won on a walk-off single by Rick Bosetti in the bottom of the 12th.
-When Cerone suited up with the Expos in 1992, he became the 21st major leaguer to play for both Canadian big league clubs – the Blue Jays and the Expos. He was the third catcher to play for both clubs after Sal Butera and Steve Nicosia.
-When Expos catcher Darrin Fletcher was placed on the disabled list with bronchitis in mid-May 1992, the Expos were left with two 38-year-old catchers – Gary Carter and Cerone. I tried unsuccessfully to find out who the oldest tandem of catchers on an active big league roster was, but it’s safe to say that Carter and Cerone must be close to being the oldest.
-Cerone was 11-for-29 (.379 batting average) off Hall of Fame flamethrower Nolan Ryan. Of his 11 hits, three were doubles and two were home runs. For the record, he was just 2-for-13 (.154 batting average) off Canadian pitching legend Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.).