Wednesday, August 8, 2012
The cautionary tale of Cesar Cedeno
By David Schoenfield
Early in his career, Cesar Cedeno was touted as having the potential to be the next Willie Mays.
At one point, Cesar Cedeno was so good, so exciting, that Houston Astros fans began referring to the Astrodome as "Cesar's Palace."
At one point, Cesar Cedeno's talent and production brought comparisons to Willie Mays.
He hit .310 at age 19. He led the National League in doubles at age 20. At 21, he hit .320, led the league again in doubles, hit 22 home runs, stole 55 bases and won a Gold Glove.
"At 22 Cedeno is as good or better than Willie was at the same age," Astros manager Leo Durocher said early in the 1973 season. "I don't know whether he can keep this up for 20 years, 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."
In 1973, Cedeno hit .320 again with 25 home runs, 56 steals and another Gold Glove.
That offseason, back home in the Dominican Republic, Cedeno was involved in a domestic incident with his 19-year-old mistress. The two were drinking and playing with a gun, it went off, and the girl was killed. Cedeno eventually turned himself in and was charged with involuntary manslaughter, released after spending 20 days in jail.
The incident hovered over the rest of Cedeno's career. He was never again as good as he was at ages 21 and 22, and the popular theory eventually settled in that Cedeno was never able to properly deal with the death and the abuse from fans (in 1981, it finally boiled for Cedeno and he charged into the stands to confront a heckler). It's certainly possible that's what happened to Cedeno. "He'll end up with decent statistics," a teammate told Peter Gammons in a 1977 Sports Illustrated profile, "but statistics are for people who don't know anything. He's never been the same hitter since that incident."
Cedeno himself said the incident never affected his play. Bob Watson, another teammate, also had a theory. "He was so young, so proud, that I think he tried extra hard to prove to everyone that it never bothered him. He had a good season [in 1974], but he altered his swing trying to hit homers. After that, maybe pitchers adjusted, and he hasn't readjusted himself."
Two other things happened. After hitting 26 home runs in 1974, Cedeno's power did decline, hitting a combined 31 home runs over the next two seasons (he was still swiping 50-plus a year). Then in 1977, the Astros moved the fences back, turning the Astrodome into an impossible place to hit home runs. Cedeno also battled injuries. He first hurt his knee in winter ball after the '72 season and by '77 had two sore knees and bad ankles. "It takes me 20 or 30 minutes to get loose every day," he told Gammons.
In 1978, he suffered a torn knee ligament and missed the second half of the season. In 1979, he had hepatitis and lost 14 pounds. In the 1980 NLCS, he broke his ankle. He was still a good player at that time -- he'd hit .308 in 1980 with 48 steals, ranking second in the NL in on-base percentage and fourth in OPS+. He was just 30 years old, but the ankle injury essentially ended his days as a productive player, taking away his speed and ability to play center field.
I bring this up because in a roundabout way we circle back to Mike Trout, who just turned 21 and if the word phenom didn't already exist we'd have to invent it. Inevitably, the comparisons, if hesitantly, are being made. At Grantland, Jonah Keri looks at the greatest rookie seasons of all time and refers to an Al Kaline quote that invokes Mickey Mantle. Others have mentioned Mays; I may have done so myself at some point. Kevin Goldstein asked executives what kind of contract the Angels would have to give Trout to sign him to a long-term deal and figures like $100 million were tossed around.
Look, Cedeno had a lot off-the-field issues that may or may not have resulted from that shooting; he may have just been a bad dude who treated women poorly and spent too much time in nightclubs. I'm not suggesting Trout will turn into Cedeno. But Cedeno's injuries were real; and not every young player improves.
I'm comfortable in suggesting that Mike Trout basically has no ceiling. What can he do? He could be a perennial All-Star, a multiple MVP winner, a Hall of Famer ... he could be Mantle or Mays. We don't know. But in 1972, Cesar Cedeno had no ceiling. Keep that in mind.
For now, let's appreciate and enjoy what Trout is doing. And let's hope he never has to say the words that maybe haunted Cedeno:
"No matter what I do, they think I had a bad year."