Orlando Cepeda had the St. Louis Cardinals three games in first place, so last Friday when he asked for a night of rest Manager Red Schoendienst graciously kept him out of the starting lineup. But now, three hours later, it was the bottom of the seventh inning, and the Cardinals were losing 1-0 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. There was one out, with the tying run at second base and the lead run at first, and Shortstop Eddie Bressoud was scheduled to bat. It was obviously not a time for Orlando Cepeda to rest.
The clubhouse boy found Cepeda in the dressing room talking long-distance to a friend in Chicago. Click. He ran to the dugout, grabbed a bat and did a quick exercise to stretch his right knee. Then he bounced up the five steps onto the playing field, and 25,668 people screamed with such vehemence that Announcer Harry Caray's own delirium was stuffed right back into their transistor radios.
Tommie Sisk had permitted only two hits in the game, but Cepeda leaned on a three-two pitch. The ball shot between third base and shortstop, driving home Alex Johnson with the tying run and sending Julian Javier to third base. A minute later Javier, with some scintillating base running, scored on an error and the Cardinals held on to win the game 2-1.
"That was only my third pinch hit in a couple of hundred tries," said Cepeda, back in the dressing room. "I got one off Face in San Francisco in 1963, and I hit a home run off Nuxhall in 1965. But today was payday, and I had to earn my money. You know, when my father played ball back home in Puerto Rico and no get a hit on payday, we no eat for the whole weekend. Ah, mucho bueno. Mucho bueno."
It is hard to find a better reason than Cepeda for the Cardinals' presence in first place. He leads the major leagues in hitting and base hits, and he has driven in 63 runs. Each Cardinal batter who leaves a runner at third base with less than two out is fined $1, and the money goes into a fund to pay for a postseason—maybe even a World Series—party. Cepeda is going to have a lot of fun guzzling someone else's champagne; in 85 games he has contributed exactly $5. The Cardinals, of course, do have several dozen other hitters who can make you suffer, including Tim McCarver, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Roger Maris, Julian Javier and Mike Shannon, but their pitching staff will never be mistaken for that of the Chicago White Sox. And now that Bob Gibson is out with a broken bone in his right leg it may not even be mistaken for that of the New York Mets. Last Saturday night Gibson, who has averaged 20 wins a year for the last three seasons, was pitching to Roberto Clemente when Clemente rocketed a line drive back at the mound. Gibson went down in a heap, his face contorted by pain, and though he was able to hobble to the dugout the injury probably will keep him out of the lineup for at least a month.
Gibson's absence will hurt, but an injury to Cepeda would be disaster. "Without Cepeda, we are down with the Pirates, and look where they are," said Mike Shannon. "It's not just his statistics. It's also what happens in the clubhouse. It's intangible. I can't really explain. Orlando is a prestige player, and we have him—the other clubs don't. Put it this way: I'm walking down the street and two tough guys coming the other way want to start a fight. Then this friend of mine—a big guy—comes around the corner, and when the two tough guys see him they disappear. Well, my friend the big guy is Cepeda—you can't take him away from me. So I'm going to beat you."
The statistics reveal only a fraction of the satisfaction that is making Cepeda feel like a hero again. The injured knee that hobbled him for several years and was operated on in December of 1965 is now at about 95% efficiency. He is playing for a manager—the taciturn Schoendienst—he likes and respects, unlike Herman Franks, who is 2,140 miles away in San Francisco, and Alvin Dark, who is at the other end of Missouri. And he is the straight man in all the clubhouse acts that keep the Cardinals laughing and winning.
Orlando first injured his right knee in 1952, when he was 14 years old, and he had the cartilage removed that year. Then, in 1961, he reinjured the knee in a home-plate collision with Johnny Roseboro of the Dodgers, and from that day until he was traded to the Cardinals last year baseball was all work and no play.
"The knee hurt me all the time," said Cepeda, "and I always aggravate it when I slide or stretch or even hit. Some people think that because we are Latins—because we did not have everything growing up—we are not supposed to get hurt. But my knee was hurt. Dark thought I was trying not to play. He treated me like a child. I am a human being, whether I am blue or black or white or green. We Latins are different, but we are still human beings. Dark did not respect our differences.
"I had a hell of a series against the Dodgers. I won all four games. And Dark tells everyone, 'Orlando is giving only 48%.' He said that only Jimmy Davenport and Harvey Kuenn were giving 100%. That is crazy. Willie Mays always gives 100%. Dark tried to take my confidence away from me. Then in 1965, when Dark was coaching the Cubs, he apologized to me for not respecting that I was hurt."
Dark was replaced by Herman Franks before the 1965 season, and Cepeda presumed that he would find in Franks a friend. He had played for Herman during his first season of professional baseball and had socialized with him in succeeding years. "The day Herman signed as manager he came to my home in San Francisco," said Orlando. "I felt great. It would be a chance to play for someone who liked me, I thought, and someone who knew that my knee was injured." Orlando played in only 33 games in 1965, however, because his knee continually collapsed under strain. "1 could not move on my knee," he said, "but Herman thought I was not doing enough to get well. He always said I was not doing enough to help his club." Cepeda had the operation after the season, and then he worked around Puerto Rico to strengthen the knee before reporting for spring training in Arizona. "In the spring I went to Herman and begged him to let me play first base," said Cepeda. "I needed only work, I tell you. I needed to play. I begged them to play me. I was afraid of losing all my reflexes. But Herman, he told me that McCovey was a better first baseman than me. He told me that McCovey would break his back for him. He was telling me that I would do nothing for him. I asked him to trade me. He said they tried but that nobody wanted me. I know the Dodgers offered to trade Osteen for me. When the season started I would play six or seven innings in left field and then go to the bench. I wanted to be traded. I would look at the box scores in the paper and see who was playing first base. I wanted to go to New York or with Leo Durocher or here to St. Louis. I would see that Phil Gagliano or someone was playing first for the Cardinals and say to myself, 'That's where I want to go.' "
The Cardinals, meanwhile, had been attempting to trade for Cepeda since the early part of spring training. "Cepeda was the player we wanted," said Bob Howsam, who was the Cardinals' general manager at that time and now holds the same position at Cincinnati. "Branch Rickey taught me one thing: you must have balance on your ball club. We didn't have balance because we did not have a cleanup hitter. Cepeda was a cleanup hitter. We offered the Giants a choice of three players for Cepeda at various times. Then when the Giants came to St. Louis in May, Chub Feeney and I sat around at the ball park and worked out the deal. Cepeda for Ray Sadecki. But we were not going to announce it until after the game the next day." That next afternoon Cepeda, playing first base because McCovey was injured, completed a big series against the Cardinals. "I had about six RBIs, I think," Cepeda said. "My knee was coming along, and for a change things were going so well. I remember walking down the runway with Marichal and he had his arm around my shoulder. Juan told me, 'They won't trade you now.' Then in the clubhouse Herman came over to me, and I thought he was going to say, 'Nice going, Orlando.' But he told me I was traded. Herman is not my friend, I mean it. A trade is part of the game, but Herman did not trade me. He kicked me out."
When Cepeda was traded to the Cardinals. Schoendienst immediately told him, "You are going to play first base and you are going to bat fourth. That's all." And from that day Cepeda has been a happy ballplayer. "It is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me," he said.
Orlando is, indeed, the funnyman on the Cardinals. Before the trade, Sadecki played Joe the Bartender while McCarver played Crazy Guggenheim—and their daily repartee provided some clubhouse comedy. "But it was getting so old and worn out," says McCarver, "that the guys knew all the lines and were laughing at us instead. Then along came Cha Cha. That's what we call Orlando because it takes too long to say Orlando all the time."
In Philadelphia two weeks ago Schoendienst held a clubhouse meeting to discuss that night's opposing pitcher, Chris Short, the left-hander who throws a screwball that tails away from a right-handed batter. "You've got to stay with Short all night," said Schoendienst, and from the back of the clubhouse came Cepeda's hoarse voice, "You mean I got to go out with Short after the game?" The Cardinals were laughing, and then they went out and won the game as Cha Cha hit a home run off Short. Another time the Cardinals were playing the Giants, who had just recalled Bob Schroder to play the infield. "Who knows Schroder?" asked Schoendienst, meaning did anyone know if he was a highball hitter or a low-ball hitter—something like that. "Orlando," said Red, "do you know Schroder at all?" "Sure I know him," said Cepeda. "He's a good cat." Again the clubhouse exploded. Cha Cha had struck. Actually, the clubhouse in St. Louis is Cepeda's own room. The stereos that blare all day both belong to Orlando, and so do all the Ramsey Lewis and Dave Bailey recordings and tapes. The minitelevision is Cepeda's, too. "You know," he said, "if I do all this in San Francisco they would give me a funny look all the time and everyone would think there is something wrong with me."
There is nothing wrong with Cepeda. He exercises his knee every day for 45 minutes, alternately taking massages from Trainer Bob Bauman and lifting weights. And he is hitting better than he ever has.
"I have the ability to hit, and I always have confidence that I can hit. I am not a scientific hitter. It don't matter how you stand. You remember Bob Speake. He used to be with the Giants. He had the best swing I've ever seen, but he always hit .200 or something. I don't know how to hit. It's just what you do when the ball is right here—right over the plate. I follow the pitcher's arm and wait for the ball and keep my head down—like all those golfers." Cepeda flies his right elbow during his swing, which most likely explains why he sprays the ball to all fields with considerable power. A golfer who flies his elbow can never hit the ball straight.
Every time he gets ready to bat, Cepeda is told to "stay easy" and "relax" by Schoendienst and to "concentrate" by Cardinal Coach Dick Sisler. "Then I tell myself I'm gonna hit this cat," he says, "and boom, boom, boom."
As long as Cha Cha Cepeda keeps going boom, boom, boom, the Cardinals are going to be hard to beat.