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."