For a man in the late innings of life, 66-year-old Leo Durocher is in remarkable fettle. Emerging last weekend from 12 days in the hospital for treatment of an infected colon, he looked not a day over, say, 59. The hair, which has run, seemingly from time immemorial, from the base of the scalp to the edge of the collar, was full and tinted free of silver. The hands were steady, the flesh firm and pink and the mouth still the overactive volcano of popular legend.
Furthermore, his imperturbable spirit was not in the least agitated by the knowledge that the Houston Astros, whom he now manages, had won 14 of 17 baseball games under his subaltern, Preston Gomez, while he convalesced from the untimely ailment. "If he hadn't lost a couple," said Leo, laughing gamely, "I might never have gotten back into uniform." And when a visitor called to his attention that his office library unaccountably included a volume entitled How to Put Fun in Your Sex Life, he dismissed the impertinence with the curt reminder that "I know all about that stuff."
Still, for one so spry, Leo might have been accused during the course of last weekend's series with Cincinnati of succumbing to the careless bandying of superlatives common to those approaching their dotage.
His third baseman, Doug Rader, exclaimed Leo in one such moment, is the equal of Pie Traynor. Pete Reiser, whom he managed in the Pleistocene period, could have been another DiMaggio or Mays, he said, in yet another fit of geriatric rapture, had he not been disposed to plunge into outfield fences as if they were silk screens concealing the dressing chambers of the Copacabana chorus line. And Frank Howard or Clint Hartung or whoever was so strong that....
But few would debate The Lip when he rhapsodized about his incumbent centerfielder, Cesar Cedeno. Mere words, even those of Durocherian origin, seem unequal to describing what havoc Cedeno wreaked on the Reds and what damage he has been doing, for that matter, to almost everyone for the better part of two seasons. So when Durocher, founder of the Willie Mays fan club, could say, as he did last week, that "at 22 Cedeno is as good or better than Willie was at the same age," his competence was not called to question. True, at 22 Mays was a private in the United States Army, but everyone knew what Durocher meant, for Cedeno is making believers of the entire baseball fraternity.
"There must be something he can't do well," said Reds Manager Sparky Anderson after watching Cedeno rout his forces, "but I haven't found it yet."
"Cesar Cedeno," said the ordinarily cautious Gomez, pronouncing the name lovingly, "is the best young baseball player in the whole world."
"I don't know whether he can keep this up for 20 years," continued Durocher, suddenly aware now of prior extravagance, "and I'm not saying he will be better than Mays. No way anybody can be better than Mays. But I will say this kid has a chance to be as good. And that's saying a lot."
It does seem certain, anyway, that Cedeno is improving with age. That is also saying a lot, since last year at 21 he batted .320, hit 39 doubles and 22 home runs, scored 103 runs, batted in 82 and stole 55 bases. And defensively, he was named to the Gold Glove team. But then consider his performances against the defending National League Champion Reds last weekend in the first "crooshal" series of the new season:
On Friday night in the Astrodome he had three hits and two RBIs and, by stealing two bases, assumed the league lead in that department. He also extended his consecutive-game hitting string to 10 games and raised his average above .330. The bases he stole were in defiance of Johnny Bench, who, despite his off-season lung surgery, is as impressively sound of limb as ever.
In the fifth inning Cedeno stole second easily despite the determined attempts of Pitcher Ed Sprague to hold him to first. Sprague threw to the bag maybe half a dozen times, but Cedeno was undaunted by such attention. When Sprague finally returned his interest to the batter, Cesar was off in a trice. Then, having arrived safely at second ahead of Bench's futile throw, he set off for third moments later. But this was too audacious, too insulting to baseball's premier catcher. Bench cut him down with a perfect throw—barely. The Astros, inspired by such daring, won 5-1.
But wait. Friday was merely the preliminary to an even more exciting performance the following evening. In the first inning Roger Metzger singled off Cincinnati ace Ross Grimsley. Cedeno scored him with a howling triple to right-center, nearly overtaking him on the base paths. In the seventh, Cedeno singled to center, stole second and then scored in extraordinary fashion. Bob Watson, who follows him in the Astro batting order, hit a sharp ground ball up the middle that Shortstop Dave Concepcion could only knock down. Unable to make a play at first, Concepcion foolishly hesitated a second before retrieving the ball. This lapse was all that was required for Cedeno, who had stopped at third, to race for home. He beat Concepcion's throw easily, sidestepping substitute Catcher Bill Plummer the way O. J. Simpson might elude a linebacker.
Nor was this Cedeno's best play. In the fourth inning, with two outs, the Astros leading 1-0 and the bases loaded, Plummer singled cleanly to center, scoring one run from third. The swift Bobby Tolan, who had been on second, also steamed for the plate. Cedeno fielded the ball on one bounce and in a lightning motion threw perfectly on one hop to Catcher Larry Howard. An astonished Tolan was tagged out and a Reds rally was extinguished. The Astros went on to win 7-1. "You will not see a better throw in all of baseball," said an adoring Durocher afterward.
Cedeno, who is a native of the Dominican Republic, accepts such praise with characteristic cool. Despite all the claims made for him, he insists he is merely a creature of instinct.
"I don't think too much when I play ball," he says, then adds in seeming contradiction, "I make up my mind to go on the bases and I just take off. But look, I don't want to lead the league in stolen bases. Base stealers don't make enough money. I want to score 80, 90, 100 runs, hit over .300 and hit more than 20 home runs. All that would be fine." Of his showing in the Reds series, he said modestly, "When you're hot, you're hot."
At his age, Cedeno's hottest years should be ahead of him. He is 6'2" and, at 190, some 15 pounds heavier than when he signed with Houston six years ago. He is one of the fastest men in the game and he works faithfully to refine his natural gifts. He no longer attempts to pull every pitch to left field, and a new overhand throwing motion has increased the accuracy of his powerful arm.
With Cedeno, the Astros have both a top drawing card—the three-game Reds series drew 98,133 paid—and the sort of inspirational player who could lead them to their first championship. In the talent-rich National League West the Giants have the early foot and the Reds, though harassed of late by injuries (notably to Joe Morgan's knee and Tony Perez' hand), must remain favorites, too. But the Astros are serious contenders: it took a four-hitter by Cincy's Jack Billingham Sunday to stop their latest streak with a 2-0 victory, a game in which Cedeno again stole second on Bench.
Durocher, who took control of the team last August after being cashiered by the Cubs, has done little tampering. He has moved mini-slugger Jim Wynn to leadoff and he experimented in spring training with moving Watson to catcher, though he abandoned that project on opening day. As a leftfielder, Watson has been among the league leaders in RBIs. Lee May, the team's top power hitter, has not reached his best form yet, but he feels no pressure since everyone else is hitting so expertly. The pitching, particularly by Jerry Reuss and Don Wilson, has been exceptional. And then there is that blur in center field.
On the Astros' dressing-room wall hangs a portrait of a World Series ring with Durocher's name inscribed on it. "Our Goal This Year" is the accompanying message.
Leo has not earned the right to wear one of those rings since 1954. His centerfielder then was Willie Mays, age 23. Can he make it now with a 22-year-old? Just ask him.