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An Ode To Birthday Boy Orlando Cepeda
ALSO: MICHAEL HARRIS II DESERVES NL ROOKIE TROPHY OVER SPENSER STRIDER
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Did you know…
If the Atlanta Braves finish top-two for Rookie of the Year, they would be the first reigning World Series champions to do that.
In fact, only seven players have won the award while on the defending champs — none since Steve Sax of the 1982 Dodgers. The others were Pat Zachry (1976 Reds), Tom Tresh (1962 Yankees), Frank Howard (1960 Dodgers), Tony Kubek (1957 Yankees), Bob Grim (1954 Yankees) and Gil McDougald (1951 Yankees).
Speaking of the Braves, two-time All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies is hitting .333 with a two-run triple and home run in seven rehab games at Triple-A Gwinnett. Albies, who last played for the Braves on June 13 when he fractured his foot in Washington, would give the slumping Atlanta lineup a much-needed lift if recalled for the key series against Philadelphia that starts tonight.
Amazing: Mets set-up man Adam Ottavino, who usually works an inning per outing, is just short of the National League leader in stolen bases allowed . . .
Don’t be surprised if Albert Pujols, who has carried the Cardinals for more than a month at age 42, gets votes for National League MVP . . .
How long will the Yankees keep sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the top two slots of their batting order?
From “Baby Bull” to Icon in Bronze: Remembering Orlando Cepeda at Age 85
[Editor’s Note: Orlando Cepeda was among the former stars at Max Shapiro’s Braves Fantasy Camp in West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium in 1988, when I was one of the campers. He made an extremely strong positive impression. — D.S. ]
By Bill Pruden
Beginning in 1958 and continuing into the mid-1960s, there was no more feared hitter in the National League than Orlando Cepeda.
While a knee injury from which he never fully recovered impacted his overall career, Cepeda rebounded after losing almost a full year to the injury to again put fear in the hearts of American League pitchers when he finished his career as a designated hitter in the Junior Circuit.
And yet for all his baseball accomplishments in a career that was capped by his 1999 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the life and career of Orlando Cepeda, who turns 85 years old tomorrow, was as much about perseverance and resilience, both on and off the field, as it was about his baseball accomplishments.
Arriving in the major leagues to join the newly-relocated San Francisco Giants at the start of the 1958 season, the 20-year-old Cepeda, nicknamed the Baby Bull, took the National League by storm.
He had great baseball bloodlines as the son of Pedro Cepeda, often called "The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico" and "Babe Cobb" because of his hitting prowess. He was also known as “the Bull,” giving Orlando the nickname of “Baby Bull.”
On a Giants team that finished third behind the defending World Series champions, the Milwaukee Braves, the young first baseman was a valuable complement to teammate Willie Mays as he hit .312 with 25 home runs and 96 runs batted in, a performance that earned him the National League Rookie of the Year Award by unanimous vote.
It was also the forerunner to a six-season run in which he was an All-Star from 1959-1964. Indeed, in his first seven years in the big leagues, only once did Cepeda’s batting average fall below .300 (.297 in 1960).
During that same span he hit a total of 222 home runs and drove in 747 runs, topping out at 46 and 142, respectively, in 1961, a performance that earned him runner-up honors in the MVP vote behind Cincinnati Reds slugger Frank Robinson.
But after injuring his knee diving for a ball in left field, his 1965 season consisted of 33 appearances, 27 of which were as a pinch-hitter. Cepeda’s career had reached a crossroads and raised doubts about his future. It also made it more difficult for the Giants to keep both of their hard hitting first basemen, Cepeda and Willie McCovey, in the line-up. Barely a month into the 1966 season, on May 8, the Giants traded Cepeda to the St. Louis Cardinals for left-handed pitcher Ray Sadecki.
Though initially shocked and upset at the trade, it offered Cepeda a fresh start. Embraced by his new teammates, he again became an offensive force, hitting .303 as a Cardinal over 123 games.
The following year, he took his game and his team to another level. Hitting .325 with 25 home runs and a league-leading 111 runs batted in, Cepeda was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
After the Giants’ disappointing near-miss of 1962, Cepeda celebrated his first World Series win as the Cards defeated the “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox in a seven-game classic.
While his offensive numbers — like those of everyone else — dropped in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher,” Cepeda remained an offensive leader on a Bob Gibson-led Cardinal team that again reached the World Series, only to lose in the seventh game to the Detroit Tigers.
Undaunted by his less-than-average 1968 effort, Cepeda arrived at spring training ready to rebound, but in a surprise move on March 17, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Joe Torre. Deeply disappointed at leaving St. Louis and concerned about playing in the South, he ultimately enjoyed the experience, taking solace in being reunited with his good friend and former San Francisco teammate Felipe Alou while also relishing the chance to play with the iconic Henry Aaron.
Cepeda’s 1969 performance was an improvement over 1968 as he hit .257 with 22 home runs and 88 RBIs. However, it was in 1970 that the Cepeda of old returned with the right-handed slugger hitting .305 with 34 home runs and 111 RBIs. He started the 1971 season the same way before an injury to his other knee, followed by surgery, brought Cepeda’s season to a premature end after only 71 games.
Now struggling on two bad knees, Cepeda saw limited playing time as the 1972 season got underway and on June 29, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics for another former All-Star, Denny McLain.
Cepeda pinch-hit only three times for the A’s before his season came to an end and he was released. It appeared that the baseball career of Orlando Cepeda had come to an end. But fate -– in the form of a rule change — intervened.
On January 11, 1973, the American League decided to undertake the designated hitter as a three-year trial run. With the onset of the experiment, there was suddenly a market for a capable hitter who could no longer hold his own in the field.
No one fit that description better than Cepeda, who was quickly snatched up by the Boston Red Sox. He then hit .289 with 20 home runs and 86 RBIs, a performance that earned him the inaugural Designated Hitter of the Year Award.
Despite his stellar effort, new Red Sox manager Darrell Johnson decided the team was going with younger players and released Cepeda.
Unable to latch on with another big-league team, he played briefly in Mexico before signing with the Kansas City Royals in August. But his time there was short-lived and after 17 seasons, that was the end of his distinguished career. He finished with a .297 batting average and 379 home runs, not to mention numerous honors and accolades.
But baseball had been his life and now, out of the game, personal problems that had been building only worsened. Cepeda had married his first wife when they were both young and despite having had a child together, Cepeda’s continuing womanizing led to a divorce in 1973.
While he remarried in 1975, in December of that year he was arrested upon taking delivery of 175 pounds of marijuana. Cepeda owned up to using marijuana but denied being a dealer.
The damage to his reputation was staggering. A one-time hero in Puerto Rico, he and his family received death threats while at the same time his legal defense efforts left him in deep financial straits.
Finally standing trial in 1978, Cepeda was found guilty and sentenced to serve 10 years in prison. He would ultimately serve 10 months in a minimum-security facility in Florida, but upon his release he struggled to support himself and his family. A move to California in 1984 only exacerbated the family tensions, resulting in another divorce.
Finally, by his own account, Cepeda turned to Buddhism, a decision he said turned his life around. He took control of his life, accepted responsibility for the way he made a mess of things life and determined to go forward with a purpose. He also married for a third time and his wife Miriam provided a new source of needed support.
One of the first steps on his road back to respectability was his appearance at a Giants fantasy camp, where, to the surprise of most, he displayed an authenticity and humanity that was overwhelming. Giants officials were amazed, with one terming him "an approachable idol."
Indeed, Giants officials were so impressed that they offered him a chance to come back and work for them. With that offer, Cepeda entered a new chapter in his often- star-crossed baseball journey.
Working as a roving scout and hitting instructor, the former MVP contributed on the baseball side while also serving as an ambassador for the team. Whether it was working with kids in inner-city schools or appearing in Puerto Rico, where he was again welcomed, Cepeda put the lessons he had learned in his own life into action, providing guidance based in experience to receptive youngsters and younger players.
With the passing of years and with his life in order, the baseball establishment reassessed his baseball accomplishments. Showing a greater appreciation of all he had done, in 1999, a quarter-center after his last major-league at bat, Orlando Cepeda was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
And in 2008, 50 years after he had first donned a Giants uniform, the team unveiled a statue of the former slugger, immortalizing him in bronze outside AT&T Park.
It was a fitting tribute to one of stars from the early San Francisco days, as well as a recognition of the way he had battled through adversity to again contribute to the community with whom he had long been associated.
Bill Pruden is a high school history and government teacher who has been a baseball fan for six decades. He has been writing about baseball--primarily through SABR sponsored platforms, but also in some historical works--for about a decade. His email address is: email@example.com.
Strider Is Sensational But Michael Harris II Deserves NL Rookie Trophy
By Dan Schlossberg
Heading into play Tuesday, Michael Harris II led all qualified rookies in batting average (.311) and OPS (.904), topped NL rookies with 44 extra-base hits, and had 18 homers and 16 stolen bases in 94 games.
He had his first two-homer game in Seattle Sunday, connecting for the second one in the ninth inning with two outs, two strikes, and two men on. Things come better in pairs, as the Braves realize whenever Spencer Strider takes the mound.
Despite a 3-2 loss in San Francisco Monday night, Strider is 10-5 with a 2.72 ERA and ranks sixth in MLB with 192 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings, the highest whiff rate (13.75 per nine innings) of anyone with more than 60 innings pitched. That includes Gerrit Cole, Zack Wheeler, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander.
As for Harris, 21, he’s not only the youngest man in the majors but the first Braves player his age or younger to have a multi-homer game since Ronald Acuña, Jr. did it twice in 2018 and 2019.
When Acuña was NL Rookie of the Year in 2018, the Braves thought they’d never see such an impactful rookie again. Little did they know Harris II, then a junior in a high school less than an hour from Truist Park, would prove to be the second coming just four years later.
In many ways, the latest wunderkind is better than the original.
He makes better contact, has more success on the bases, boasts enormous opposite-field power, and has a knack for doing his best work in late-and-close situations. And we haven’t even mentioned his Gold Glove defense — the best the Braves have had in center field since the glory days of Hall of Fame contender Andruw Jones.
Simply put, Harris II is your National League Rookie of the Year for 2022 even if a majority of the voting writers choose Strider, who works once every five days.
Without Harris, promoted May 28 after less than half-a-season in Double-A, the Braves could not have stayed so close to the highly-paid, much-hyped Mets all season. Even with Steve Cohen’s loot behind them, and a payroll roughly $80 million higher than Atlanta’s, the Mets have not been able to shake the younger, less-experienced Braves.
Harris has already been rewarded once, receiving an eight-year, $72 million contract extension, but will likely be rewarded again, since the Braves are virtually certain to reach the post-season again, either as NL East division champs for the fifth straight season or as the top-seeded wild-card team.
After the season, Harris can add to his hard-won hardware with the Rookie of the Year trophy, Gold Glove, and World Series ring — if the Braves become the first National League team since the 1975-76 Reds to win consecutive World Series.
“No moment is too big for him,” said slugging Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley when asked about Harris. “He’s the same guy no matter what. It says a lot about him.”
Manager Brian Snitker agreed. “He doesn’t have a heartbeat when he comes up in big situations,” he said. “He can put a bad at-bat aside and still be very confident when he goes back up there. He’s pretty special.”
When this week started, Harris had a 4.5 WAR from both Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs. For the sake of comparison, Acuna had a 3.9 bWAR when he ran away with Rookie of the Year honors in 2018.
Harris hit five homers in the first 10 games of September and was virtually certain to finish with at least 20 — even though he missed most of the first two months. That’s a shock for Harris followers who realize he had 14 homers in 197 minor-league games.
In addition, he topped all big-leaguers in batting with men in scoring position, going 28-for-70 going into last weekend. No other player with 300 or more plate appearances or at least 65 at-bats with runners in scoring position could match that .400 mark.
With the Braves starting play tonight just one-half game out of first place, Harris is the secret weapon Snitker needs to ignite an offense that suddenly disappeared.
Matt Olson has been dreadful, with Acuña not far behind and Dansby Swanson maintaining his position among the league leaders in strikeouts — not bad for a pitcher but terrible for a shortstop. Riley and once-hot-hitting rookie infielder Vaughn Grissom haven’t done much with the bat lately either.
The team desperately misses the 30-homer, 100-rbi bat of injured second baseman Ozzie Albies, hitting well during a rehab assignment at Triple-A Gwinnett, and could move Grissom to left field, where Eddie Rosario has been marginally better than Marcell Ozuna in recent action.
Since Harris is more likely to get a hit or home run than Acuña, whose wounded knee has sapped his prodigious power, Snitker would be well-served to try this lineup in the critical Philadelphia series:
Harris II, CF
Acuña Jr., RF
It’s certainly better to shake things up and try to shake the demons that have bedeviled the best batting order in the league, causing four losses in the last five games. It’s also how Acuña became a leadoff man in the first place.
HERE’S THE PITCH weekend editor Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has been a Braves fan since 1957 and a baseball writer since 1969. The author of 40 books, he covers the game for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, and many others. His e.mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I was never a guy with a great pickoff move. My way to combat that was to get quicker to the plate and give my catcher a chance to throw runners out. As a pitcher, [speed on the bases] gave me so much more to worry about. I’d rather face a lineup of guys trying to hit home runs and never have to worry about holding guys close.”
— Hall of Fame lefty Tom Glavine, winner of 305 games
The Arizona Diamondbacks have had a decent second half with a 26-23 record with a +31 run differential since the All-Star Break . . .
Star southpaw Shane McClanahan, a 25-year-old Cy Young contender with a 2.20 ERA and great strikeout, walk, and groundball ratios, has been activated by Tampa Bay and will start tonight’s critical game against Toronto . . .
Justin Verlander, the favorite for the American League’s Cy Young, is also back from the injured list and resuming his pursuit of a 20-win season . . .
In the National League, Kyle Wright has the most wins (18) and stands a good chance of becoming Atlanta’s first 20-game winner since Russ Ortiz in 2003 . . .
The concurrence of Freddie Freeman’s surge and Matt Olson’s plunge have separated their batting averages by nearly 100 points . . .
With Aaron Judge able to test free agency this fall, the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants have emerged as chief rivals to the incumbent New York Yankees for his services.
Know Your Editors
HERE’S THE PITCH is published daily except Sundays and holidays. Brian Harl [email@example.com] handles Monday and Tuesday editions, Elizabeth Muratore [firstname.lastname@example.org] does Wednesday and Thursday, and Dan Schlossberg [email@example.com] edits the weekend editions on Friday and Saturday. Readers are encouraged to contribute comments, articles, and letters to the editor. HTP reserves the right to edit for brevity, clarity, and good taste.