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.