The Ghosts of Cesar Cedeno

“He can play all three outfield positions – at the same time.” – Expos manager Gene Mauch.

“At 22 Cedeno is as good or better than Willie (Mays) was at the same age...I don’t know whether he can keep this up for 20 years, and I’m not saying he will be better than Mays…But I will say this kid has a chance to be as good. And that’s saying a lot.” – Leo Durocher.

Cesar Cedeno signed with the Astros as a 16-year old amateur free agent in October 1967. He started his pro career with Covington of the Appalachian League, and - at 17 - hit .374/.410/.504. 36 games of that were enough for the Astros to send him to the Florida League, where he hit a modest .256/.308/.322, to be expected for a player who was four years younger than his competition. At 18 in the Carolina League, Cedeno hit .274/.339/.380, showing more patience at the plate than he had the previous season. He was hit by a pitch 14 times and stole 24 bases in 142 games.

1970 was his breakout year. For Triple-A Oklahoma City, Cedeno hit .373/.402/.691 with 14 home runs in 54 games to go along with 14 doubles and nine triples while playing a stellar center field. This was enough to earn a call-up to the Astros, where Cedeno's defensive prowess would allow manager Harry Walker to shift Jimmy Wynn from center to left. Cedeno would hit .310/.340/.451 for the 79-83 Astros, earning him 4th in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Cedeno would lead the league with 40 doubles in 1971, but his OPS dropped 100 points as he struggled to get on base (25 walks in 649 plate appearances) and whatever was falling in for a hit in 1970 found its way to defenders. But 1972...that was a special year. In his Age 21 season Cedeno again led the NL with 39 doubles, but he also hit 22 home runs, stole 55 bases (with a league-leading 21 caught stealing), doubled his walk rate, and hit .320/.385/.537. He was an All-Star, Gold Glove winner, and finished 6th in NL MVP voting. Cedeno's 7.8 fWAR season in 1972 ties him for 3rd-highest in franchise history, and the best offensive season by an Astros outfielder.

He would follow that up with another All-Star, Gold Glove campaign in 1973, and finish 11th in the MVP voting with a nearly-identical .320/.376/.537 season, stealing 56 bases and cutting his caught stealing from 21 to 15. There have been ten seasons in which an Astro has put up a 7.0+ fWAR. Cedeno has two of them.

And then in the middle of that 1973 offseason, Cedeno's life - and career - would never be the same. 

Around 2am on the night of December 11, 1973, after having spent the evening/night out at various Santo Domingo night clubs, the 22-year old Cedeno and a 19-year old woman named Altagracia de la Cruz checked in to a bungalow at the Keko (sometimes spelled "Keki" Motel) in "one of the poorer sections" of Santo Domingo's north side. Cedeno's wife - Cora - was at their Santo Domingo home. Cedeno and de la Cruz were "heard to be arguing" as they drove into the motel and checked into the bungalow. Still arguing, a "very drunk" Cedeno called the front office to order a bottle of beer, and "between five and ten minutes later," Keko employee Carlos Hernandez heard a gun shot. "After a short while" Cedeno took off in his car, stopping only to yell to the man stationed at the outside door that there was a dead woman in his room.

Jet Magazine would report in their December 27, 1973 issue that Cedeno went to the lobby of the motel and told an employee to call the police and let them know that "the girl staying with me shot herself accidentally" before driving off.

The employee dutifully called police who indeed found de la Cruz with a gunshot wound to the right temple. Cedeno turned himself in to police at 10am Eastern that morning, where he was held for questioning at the downtown Santo Domingo police station.

A police colonel who asked not to be identified said at an impromptu press conference, where Cedeno's parents, friends, and "curiosity seekers" had gathered, that Cedeno had mistakenly fired a shot from the Smith & Wesson .38 revolver he had been carrying with him.

According to police, Cedeno said de la Cruz had been curious about the gun and it was "accidentally fired when he tried to take it away from her." It was also noted that - two nights prior to the shooting - Cedeno had been involved in a police incident with two alleged prostitutes who, according to Cedeno, had stolen $5,000 worth of jewels from him. Cedeno was "very upset" that the story made its way into the Santo Domingo press.

Dan Epstein recounts in his (fantastic) book "Big Hair & Plastic Grass" that Cedeno said he tried to pull the gun out of de la Cruz's hand, but she pulled the trigger before he could do so. He would not be charged with murder as it appeared to be accidental. He would not be charged with illegal possession of a firearm. Cedeno would, however, be charged with voluntary manslaughter - the American equivalent of which is second-degree murder. He would be held at La Fe, a Santo Domingo police precinct, until legal proceedings were completed. 

Eleven days later the Santo Domingo court system went into holiday recess and legal proceedings would not resume until January 7, 1974. But on New Year's Eve 1973 Judge Socrates Diaz Curiel reduced the charges from voluntary manslaughter to involuntary manslaughter. Cedeno posted the $10,000 bond and was free, but was not allowed to return to the United States until he stood trial for the involuntary manslaughter charge. Upon posting bond relatives said he was "a little heavier and overweight," partially due to a knee injury he sustained during the 1973 season and not being able to work out.

On January 14, 1974 prosecuting attorney Frank Diaz moved to dismiss the charges against Cedeno for lack of evidence. "There appear to be no indications of responsibility compromising the innocence of (Cedeno)," he said, "and the prosecution believes he should be absolved." Cedeno told Judge Porfirio Natera that de la Cruz was handling the pistol when it went off - the shot was completely accidental. The coroner's report agreed. UPI reported that "police paraffin tests had shown that the gun was indeed fired by Miss de la Cruz.

Still, after a 90-minute trial Judge Natera overruled Diaz's request and found Cedeno guilty of involuntary manslaughter. "It's an injustice!" cried Felicia de la Cruz, Altagracia de la Cruz's aunt upon hearing the verdict. Though he could have been given a three-year sentence, Cedeno was fined 100 pesos, which he immediately paid. Two civil suits had were filed - one on behalf of Altagracia de la Cruz's three-year old daughter, and the other by Felicia de la Cruz and her husband. 

But Cedeno was a free man. Flanked by his 22-year old wife Cora, who was from Houston, and Astros president Spec Richardson, who had flown to Santo Domingo with other Astros officials "to offer assistance," Cedeno left the courtroom. Relatives said that he planned to return to Houston to have knee surgery.

Curiously, Kuhn would not levy a punishment against Cedeno. Kuhn was the commissioner responsible for suspending Leo Durocher for the 1947 season for "associating with gamblers." He argued against Curt Flood's free agency all the way to the Supreme Court - and won. He berated Jim Bouton for his book "Ball Four." Kuhn would later warn pitchers not to groove a fastball to Hank Aaron for his 715th home run.

In August 1973 - four months before the Cedeno "incident," it was determined that the commissioner could punish players for off-field behavior that "undermined" the integrity of the game of baseball. This authority wasn't implied, argued Kuhn's general counsel Alexander Hadden, was written in Article X, paragraph A-1 (b) of the Major League Agreement.

"Beyond the obvious threats," Hadden told the New York Times, "like gambling, if someone were involved in a series of acts that involve public notoriety - drug use maybe - something that held the game up to public abuse, I have no doubt (Kuhn) would act."

But Kuhn, curiously, did not act on Cedeno. He declined to comment on the proceedings: "I have just learned of the decision and I have no statement to make at this time." Whereas Kuhn had suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for two years for federal charges related to funneling money to a pro-Nixon re-election campaign in exchange for "future considerations," Cedeno was never fined or suspended. In Jimmy Breslin's book "How the Good Guys Finally Won," Edward Bennett Williams later asked Kuhn why Steinbrenner got suspended, but not Cedeno. "After all," Kuhn reportedly replied, "Cedeno did that in the off-season." 

In Kuhn's own autobiography he would explain somewhat more professionally, "We made out best efforts to determine if a cover-up had taken place, and whether there were any facts beyond those brought out in the trial, but our efforts produced nothing further."

Later during the week the Cedeno trial ended, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cedeno played in 160 games in 1974. Despite hitting a career-high 26 home runs and 102 RBIs, Cedeno's offense dipped from a .913 OPS in 1973 to a .269/.338/.461 line in 1974. Still, he received MVP votes, won his 3rd straight Gold Glove, and 3rd straight All-Star appearance. He would win two more Gold Glove awards in the following seasons. But from 1974-1981 Cedeno would hit .283/.353/.439, a .792 OPS.

Of course the shooting followed him. Sports Illustrated's Peter Gammons wrote in the August 1, 1977 issue, "Cesar has two answers to any questions about (the shooting): 'It never affected my playing,' and 'I'd rather not talk about it.'" At the time Gammons wrote his piece, Cedeno had not returned to the Dominican Republic since leaving after his trial.

Fans picked up on it, of course. In Gammons' story he reports shouts of "Who you gonna kill next?" raining down from the stands.

Teammates thought he'd be better off if he left Houston. Bob Watson told Gammons, "He was so young, so proud, I think he tried extra hard to prove to everyone that it never bothered him. He had a good (1974) season, but he altered his swing trying to hit homers." Joe Morgan told Gammons, "If he did (leave), he'd be the best player in the league." Gammons said fans didn't appreciate him, because Houston was a bad baseball town.

Things came to a head in the "relationship" between Cedeno and the fans on Tuesday, September 8, 1981. In his Age 30 season, Cedeno was struggling, he only played in 82 games of the Astros' 110 games (1981 was the Split Season year), nine of them between May 30 and August 10. His power vanished in 1981, he hit five home runs that season, posting a .271/.321/.382 line. In the first half of the season the Astros were 28-29, but roared back in the second half to win the NL West with a 33-20 record. The Astros went into that September 8 game at Atlanta having won 11 of their last 12 games, including three walk-off wins.

In the first inning of the game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium - a game that featured just 2800 fans - Cedeno charged into the bleachers and started fighting with a fan. Cedeno said after the game that the fan had been heckling him since the series started and the insults were such that he couldn't take it anymore.

Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium director Joe Shirley said two fans were involved, but were not charged with a crime. "They were simply verbal and abusive toward Cedeno," Shirley said, "using the world 'Killer,' and this provoked Cedeno to the point where he went over and allegedly grabbed one of the subjects."

Cedeno: "I have my family along on the trip. I do not enjoy anybody calling me anything that I'm not. Just for the fact that somebody paid six dollars I don't have to be insulted up to the point where they called my name and I turn around and they're gonna point at me and curse me out...The only thing I regret is that I got thrown out of the game and we ended up losing." (The Astros lost 3-2 on a walk-off double by Chris Chambliss). "I'm sorry for that. I do prefer not to comment on exactly what he was calling me. That's why I took action. Because he was talking directly to me and he was doing it for two days."

Cedeno would be fined $5,000 and traded to Cincinnati in December 1981 for Ray Knight. For the Reds from 1982-1985 Cedeno hit .265/.323/.393 with 30 home runs in 1575 plate appearances.

But early on the morning of January 23, 1985, Cedeno was arguing with his new girlfriend, Pamela Lamon, in southwest Houston and crashed his Mercedes into a tree. Police arrived, charged Cedeno with a DUI at 2:25am, and attempted to place him in the back of a squad car. Police Sgt. J.C. Mosier told the media that when arresting officers tried to put Cedeno in the backseat, "he attempted to kick the windows out of the police car." Officers had to bind his legs together. There was no video of Cedeno at the station, as was the custom for DWI suspects, because Cedeno was "too unruly to be videotaped."

Cedeno told police he had been arguing with Lamon when he lost control of his car. Both were uninjured, Lamon was not arrested, Cedeno posted an $800 bond and was released. He would be fined $400, placed on two years' probation, and ordered to pay $7,000 in property damage to the homeowners where the crash occurred.

Cedeno would hit .241/.307/.336 in 83 games for the 1985 Reds. Cincinnati coach Jim Kaat recommended to St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog that the Cardinals try to acquire Cedeno, because he could still play, and he wasn't getting along with Pete Rose. Cardinals 1B Jack Clark was injured, and the Cardinals were trying to make a late-season run at October.

In his first at-bat for the Cardinals, playing at home against the Astros, Cedeno deposited a Mike Scott pitch into the bleachers. In 28 games Cedeno hit .434/.463/.750 - six homers in 82 plate appearances. The Cardinals won the NL East with a 101-61 record. Cedeno would go 4x31 for the Cardinals in the postseason as the Cardinals fell to the Royals in the World Series.

That offseason Cedeno was a 34-year old free agent. He would sign a deal with the Blue Jays on March 14, 1986, get released on April 3 and sign as a free agent with the Dodgers on April 10. After 37 games in which Cedeno hit .231/.294/.282, the Dodgers released him. Six weeks later he signed a deal with the Cardinals, but never made it back to the majors. The most notable aspect of Cedeno's 1986, though, came at a bar in Nassau Bay when a man bumped into him, prompting Cedeno to smash a glass into his face, resulting in his arrest for assault.

He was a month away from standing trial on those charges when, on May 27, 1988, Cedeno was arrested on charges of assault, causing bodily injury, and resisting arrest after an attack on Pam Lamon - the woman with whom Cedeno had been arguing when he crashed his Mercedes in January 1985. Lamon was described as "a woman whom police identified as (Cedeno's) girlfriend and the mother of his child." Apparently angry over the custody of his four-month old daughter, Cedeno went over to Lamon's house in Webster at 4:30 in the morning. Webster police officer David Reiss said, "He went over there this morning drunk and started slapping her around." Lamon ran outside with the child, Cedeno took the baby from her and drove away. "It took three or four officers to put him in the car," said Webster police chief Reyes Sonora.

Still, in 1990, the Astros hired Cedeno as a hitting coach for their Gulf Coast League team in Kissimmee. Problems arose again on September 29, 1992. Pregnant again, Lamon was at Cedeno's apartment at the Polo South Apartments, about five miles away from Osceola County Stadium, when a disconnected 911 call prompted police to investigate. Upon arrival, Lamon - who had been locked out, told officers that Cedeno beat her for not cleaning their apartment. Officers were trying to subdue Cedeno and take him into custody when Cedeno took an officer's nightstick and started attacking them. He was charged with aggravated battery, resisting arrest with violence, and battery on a law enforcement officer. He was released on $2,500 bail. On a crime victim's statement, Lamon wrote, "Cesar has a serious drinking problem and only becomes abusive when he drinks. I have begged him to get help, but he won't."

When asked by reporters why Cedeno was not charged with domestic battery, police spokesman Sgt. Keith Rex could not answer. Assistant State Attorney Joseph Micetich said that charge is usually filed very quickly so as to make sure the defendant is not released.

Astros spokesman Rob Matwick, when reached by the Orlando Sentinel, said the team did not know of Cedeno's arrest, and would not speculate on whether it would affect his job with the Astros.

It didn't. Cedeno remained the hitting coach for the GCL Astros through the 1994 season, and again serving the organization from 1997-2001. Since 2012 he has been the hitting coach for the Greeneville Astros of the Appalachian League. 

So what to make of Cedeno's story? Certainly he had two all-time great seasons for the Astros as a franchise. Then...the shooting in Santo Domingo. After that he would struggle to regain the form of his 1972-1973 seasons, his past haunting him, and those around him.
-
Other sources:

1 comment:

Wes McMahan said...

Amazing work, crazy story!