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."