I've written in the past that I loved watching Jeff Bagwell play baseball. He's the best all-around player the Astros have ever had; a superb hitter, base runner and a fantastic defensive player. I've never seen anybody who was better at turning the 3-6-3 double play and he was fearless when it came to charging the batter on bunts.
But before Jeff Bagwell, there was another Astros who was just as good, and possibly better, at all facets of the game. His name was Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno played on the team from 1970 through 1981, and at times, I think he has been a forgotten player to the majority of Astros fans. Of course, when Cedeno played, the team was mostly one of the worst in the majors and there were very, very few fans attending games in the Astrodome.
Cedeno came up as a 19-year-old from the Dominican Republic during the 1970 season. He played 12 seasons for the Astros, hitting 163 homers during a time when it was nearly impossible to hit a home run inside the Astrodome. He stole 487 bases, won five Gold Gloves for his outstanding defensive play in centerfield and went to the All Star Game in 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1976.
He twice hit for the cycle in his career, and he was the second player in MLB history to hit 20-plus homers and steal 50-plus bases in a season; hitting 22 homers and stealing 55 bases in 1972 and 25 homers and 56 stolen bags in 1973 -- the first player to do this was Lou Brock. He led the NL in doubles in 1971 and 1972, and his career slash line for his years with the Astros was .289/.351/.454 which was remarkable for a player playing in the Dome before the fences were moved in.
Yet Cedeno is not much celebrated in Astros lore. Part of the reason for that is probably derived from the fact he did not live up to the huge hype he was hit with early in his career. Leo Durocher, who was one of Cedeno's first managers, said Cedeno was the next Willie Mays, and that carried a lot of weight seeing as how Durocher had been Mays' first major league manager. But after his first several seasons, Cedeno's numbers began to drop, particularly his power numbers.
Cedeno also created many of his own problems. He was charged with the involuntary manslaughter of his mistress in December, 1973. Dominican authorities gave him a sentence of 20 days and a small fine. He suffered problems with his temper while playing, such as the brawl with Ray Knight on July 4, 1979 after Knight challenged the Astros to a fight. In 1981, after striking out during a game in Atlanta, he charged into the stands and fought a fan who was calling him a killer. And after his career, he continued to suffer brushes with the law caused by his temper, including more violence issues with girlfriends.
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I had the fortune of attending many Astros games as a kid, back when a good crowd in the Dome was 10,000. And I loved watching Cedeno play. I didn't know of his issues. I didn't know he wasn't living up to hype generated by one of his former managers. What I remember watching a fantastic ballplayer, easily the best centerfielder in the history of the Astros.
There wasn't a ball hit to any part of the Dome outfield that he couldn't get to, and it would have been fun to see what he would do with the craptastic outfield configuration at Minute Maid Park. And if there was anybody on those teams who was going to hit a home run, it was Cedeno, not that he needed a homer as he was a threat to score any type he reached first base. And you can't help but wonder what his numbers would have looked like had he not played on such bad teams, or had he played in Minute Maid Park with the Crawford Boxes to aim for.
And while Cedeno's currently a hitting coach for the Astros' Rookie League team in Greeneville, it would be nice to see the team find some way to honor him in Houston and give him his due. Sure he's had his on and off-field difficulties, but so have Roger Clemens and Jeff Bagwell. Cedeno's never going to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that doesn't mean he should remain a forgotten figure in the city where he played for most of his career.