Cesar Cedeno was the last Houston player out of the clubhouse that night, but the kids, 30 to 35 of them, had waited in the parking lot by the Mercedes with the Cedeno license plates. "Hey, Cesar," one yelled out of the middle of the swarm, "what're you hitting?" "About a hundred," Cedeno answered without looking up from his signing. "Carew's hitting .400," the kid persisted. "What's wrong with you?" "I guess," Cedeno sighed, "I've finally reached my potential." Cedeno's wife Cora got into the Mercedes and drove home. Cesar got into a Buick and drove across the lot to the Holiday Inn for a beer. "One person calls me a superstar, the next guy says I'm a bum," he said. "Sometime I wish someone would explain just what a superstar is."
A superstar is what Cesar Cedeno was supposed to be. By the time he was 22, back in 1973, he had been proclaimed "the next Clemente," while his former manager, Leo Durocher, said he was "better than Willie Mays at the same age." Cedeno had already batted over .300 three times, been an All-Star twice, was making $90,000 and, according to many baseball people, had more open market value than anyone in the game. But one thing people overlooked was that Durocher also said that "the only person with talent comparable to Cedeno and Mays was Pete Reiser, but he kept getting hurt." Now, when Cedeno should be entering the prime of his career, he finds himself finishing July hitting .206 with but three homers and 23 runs batted in. "When I came over here a year ago I expected to find a superstar," says one teammate, "but I haven't seen one."
On Dec. 11, 1973, 19-year-old Altagracia de la Cruz was shot by Cedeno's gun, in the Keko Motel in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Cedeno at her side. Ever since he has been dogged by the "incident" and by his failure to reach his "potential."
"He's at a crossroad," says Batting Coach Deacon Jones. "Either he's going to learn from this year's horrible experience and go one way, or he's going to be another 'could have been.' Remember Tommie Agee? Adolfo Phillips?"
It irks Cedeno that people talk about him in terms of potential. "No matter what I do, they think I had a bad year," he says. He is one of the best outfielders in the National League, with five gold gloves on his left hand already. He is a dangerous offensive player; he gets on base, getting hit by pitches and normally batting in the .265 to .295 range, and his stolen bases (55, 56, 57, 50, 58 the last five years) demonstrate that he is one of the top stealers.
What concerns Manager Bill Virdon and others is not just Cedeno's slump, but that somehow he is a different hitter at 26 from what he was at 22. "There's no question he's changed," says Coach Tony Pacheco, who helped sign Cesar at age 16. Cedeno should be able to leg-hit .290 on AstroTurf, but while he used to drive the ball hard up the alleys he is now pulling pitches off the handle and slicing others off the end of the bat. At 20, 21 and 22, he averaged 38 doubles a season. The last three years he has averaged 29, low for artificial turf, especially considering his strength (he weighs 203) and quickness. "He's had decent averages [.269, .288, .297] the previous three years," says Virdon, "but he really hasn't hit the ball hard consistently."
Even two weeks ago it seemed he was over the slump with two singles off Tom Seaver one night and a three-run triple to beat the Reds the next day. But those singles were loopers, the triple a one-hopper inside the third-base bag. "Pitchers keep making it tougher and tougher for him," says Jones. "This is the first time he's really had to face adversity or question himself. Everyone reaches a certain point where he has to come to grips with not being able to get by solely on natural ability. Most ballplayers reach that point right away, in the minors, and if they can't cope you never hear of them. Cesar is so talented, he went years in the majors before he had to confront it. Just hope it doesn't get any worse for him."
"Nothing can ever be worse than this year," says Cedeno. In spring training he severed finger ligaments while falling away from an errant ball from a pitching machine in a batting cage. He began the season going 6 for 48. But the low-point came June 20-22 in Montreal, when he went 0 for the series and dropped to .179. "I had to have him come to me," says Jones. "He's proud and a little stubborn. But he was so fouled up he didn't know where he was. We just tried to get him started all over again."
Then Cedeno asked Virdon to take him out of the lineup for a couple of days. "It was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do," says Cedeno. "I'm no .100 hitter, though, and that hurt my pride worse than sitting down." Since then, Cedeno has come back up some 35 to 40 points. "He'll end up with decent statistics," says one teammate, "but statistics are for people who don't know anything. He's never been the same hitter since that incident."
Cedeno has two answers to any questions about that incident: "It never affected my playing" and "I'd rather not talk about it." But it follows him. Fans still holler things at him like, "Who you going to kill next?" Bench jockeys have been known to call him "the fastest gun in the West." He hasn't gone home to the Dominican Republic since his trial. People have persisted in digging up dirt about the death, despite the fact that paraffin tests showed that the girl's fingerprints were on the trigger and in the end Cedeno was merely fined 100 pesos. "I remember going 3 for 4 in New York one day in '74," Cesar says, "and afterward there were dozens of reporters who only wanted to ask me about what happened in the Dominican. It was like that a lot. But I didn't talk about it. I never let people know what bothers me."
Astro First Baseman Bob Watson, who has been with the club since 1966, thinks it affected Cedeno. "He was so young, so proud, that I think he tried extra hard to prove to everyone that it never bothered him," says Watson. "He had a good season [.269, 26 homers. 102 RBIs], but he altered his swing trying to hit homers. After that, maybe pitchers adjusted, and he hasn't readjusted himself."
Cedeno admits that injuries have chipped away at his physical ability. He hurt his right knee in winter ball in 1972 and has been bothered by both knees over the years. He has had ankle problems, too. "It takes me 20 or 30 minutes to get loose every day," he says. What with those chronic ailments, the injured hand, a foot injury caused by a foul ball in San Diego July 4 and a wrist he jammed running into a wall, he has missed a total of 14 games. Many teammates say he should be playing with small hurts. "I know if I can play," says Cedeno in his own defense. "I have too much pride to play less than 100% and say I was hurt." When he does play, Cedeno is a daredevil. The night of July 4, he jumped high above the center-field fence to rob the Padres' Dave Kingman of a home run and save a victory. The next night he was hurt and he missed the July 6 game in Los Angeles, but the night after that he tried to play and, after hobbling down the baseline to steal a base and crashing into another wall, had to leave. He sat out against a rookie lefthander, Cincinnati's Doug Capilla, on Friday, yet came back against Seaver the next night. "He certainly never dogs it," says Virdon. "In fact, I guess you could say he plays with reckless abandon."
There is a theory that Cedeno simply needs to get out of Houston. "If he did, he'd be the best player in the league," says Joe Morgan, who went from unhappiness in Houston to superstardom in Cincinnati. The complaint is that Houston is a dead baseball town. The team has been in and out of receivership the last four years. "The spectators come in fur coats and ties," says ex-Astro Pitcher Dave Roberts, now with the Tigers. "They're either there to see the Astrodome or sitting in someone else's corporate box." Even Cedeno, who says he does not want to be traded, thinks the atmosphere suffers in comparison with that in Philadelphia, Cincinnati or Los Angeles. "There were 42,000 people in there tonight," he said that evening at the Holiday Inn, "and only six or seven thousand were rooting for us. I'm the only player that anyone recognizes on the street and that's probably only because my picture was in the paper so much after the incident. We get no national publicity." The unsung Watson has hit .300 four of the last five years, and Roger Metzger has never received due credit for his fine glove at shortstop. Few people know that the Astros—with J. R. Richard, Joaquin Andujar, Floyd Bannister and Joe Sambito—have the best crop of young pitchers in the league. But that's the same in any losing town outside of New York and L.A., and the Astros have had but two winning records in 16 years.
"The reason Morgan went on to do so well was that there are such good players around him in Cincinnati," says Watson. "If he goes 0 for 4, he has a Rose, Bench, Foster or someone to pick him up. But we haven't had great talent, so if Cesar, Jose Cruz or I go 0 for 4, we're noticed. It's our fault for losing."
To discuss what Cedeno might do in, say, Cincinnati, is irrelevant, say General Manager Tal Smith and his assistant, John Mullen. Cedeno is going to stay in Houston. "With our young pitching and a couple of other players, Cesar is a cornerstone of this team," says Smith.
"One good thing may come from this season," says Cedeno. "Maybe people will stop calling me the 'next Clemente' or the 'next Mays.' I'm just the first Cedeno, whatever that may be."