Friday March 01, 2019

Camera Day: Leo Cardenas, 1969

Leo Cardenas, Camera Day, Met Stadium, 1969

The 1960s Cincinnati Reds always seemed to be trading for pitching. Their most infamous deal was Frank Robinson for Milt Papas, but almost as bad, but a deal for which I’m eternally grateful, was one in Dec. 1964: Cesar Tovar to the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Gerry Arrigo. For the next eight seasons, Tovar led off a dominant Twins offense while accumulating a 25.9 WAR and becoming a fan favorite. Arrigo spent five years, off and on, with the Reds, went 24-27 with a 3.86 ERA a 277-206 K/BB rate, and a WAR totaling 2.2.

That’s a 23.7 WAR discrepancy vs. 26.5 for Robby/Papas (32.3/5.8).

The Reds GM who engineered both of these trades, Bill DeWitt, was gone after ’66, and the man who replaced him, Bob Howsam, pulled off some great ones, acquiring Joe Morgan and George Foster in ’71. But the Twins got a steal from him as well. In Nov. 1968, they acquired shortstop Leo Cardenas for pitcher Jim Merritt. 

If you look at the numbers, it seems like a wash. In 1970, Merritt won 20 games and finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He won the second game of the 1970 NLCS, giving up 3 hits in 5 1/3 innings enroute to a Reds sweep. He had a tougher go in the World Series. With the Reds on the brink, he started Game 5. Spotted a 3-run lead, he gave up a 2-run homer to Frank Robinson in the bottom of the 1st, then allowed two runners in the bottom of the 2nd. With two outs, he was pulled and relief pitcher Wayne Granger allowed everyone to score, then fell apart in the next inning and that was the season.

Overall, during four seasons with the Reds, Merritt went 39-32 with a 4.26 ERA and one All-Star berth. Cardenas went three seasons with the Twins, also with one All-Star berth (1971), and his splits were shortstop-like: .263/.325/.394.

A wash, right?

Until you look at WAR:

  • Merritt, Reds, four seasons: 2.7.
  • Cardenas, Twins, three seasons: 11.1

I loved Leo Cardenas. I was 6, this was my first baseball team, and my favorite players—after Killebrew and Oliva—were the Reds castoffs. Tovar because he was scrappy, played everywhere, and taught me how to lead off first base; Cardenas, I don’t know why I loved him. He was good and he had a pleasant face. He seemed like a nice person. Look at his left hand in the above photo. My father always mentioned it whenever we watched slides. As he’s getting his picture taken with fans before an August 1969 Twins game, he’s picking up trash. A mensch.

What I didn’t know? He was so massively superstititious he could’ve served as a model for Pedro Cerano in “Major League.” The quotes below are from Bob Showers’ oral history/picture book “The Twins at the Met”:

Killebrew: Leo was a worried guy. He was afraid that someone was holding his bat and casting a spell on him.

Carew: He was the most superstitious guy I ever played with. He had a little sack filled with all these different herbs. Supposedly, he’d gone to a witch doctor and she prepared a potion for him. He always kept it in his back pocket during a game, and you dared not touch it.

Every day when Leo came into the locker room, he’d clean out his locker; wipe it down and then spray some stuff in there. Then he’d stand with his back to the locker, take three pennies and throw them over his shoulder: Wherever they landed is where they would stay. Then he’d pack his stuff back in the locker the same way it was.

Though Cardenas was voted the Twins Most Valuable Player in ‘71, that offseason he was traded to the California Angels—for a pitcher, of course, Dave LaRoche, who never did much for us. One wonders why we got rid of him. Did we need pitching that badly? Was it the superstitions? 

More, why did the Reds back in ’68 trade him to us? They'd signed Dave Concepcion in ’67 but his ’68 minor-league numbers aren’t exactly Big Red Machine-worthy: a .594 OPS in A ball. Anyway, he didn’t make the team until ’70, so in the meantime the Reds used someone else at short. I laughed when I saw the name: Woody Woodward. As general manager of my Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, he engineered some infuriating trades of his own: Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin; Tino and Nellie for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock; a minor-league David Ortiz for a few weeks of Dave Hollins. About in ‘99, I did a phone interview with Woody for a Seattle magazine and apparently asked such tough questions the Mariners front office called my editor to complain about being “ambushed.” If I’d only known Woody helped, in some small way, to bring one of my favorite players to the ’69 Twins, I might’ve been more lenient. At the least, I would’ve asked about Leo, who is 80 now and living in Cincinnati.

Final thought: This wasn’t just a Manager's dream card, it was my dream card. Three of my favorites: 

Manager's Dream card with Tony Oliva, Leo Cardenas and Roberto Clemente

Initially, though, it confused me. Chico Cardenas? I think I thought it was his brother at first. When informed it was him, that “Chico” was a nickname, I was still confused. Why didn’t we call him that? More, how could he have been with another team? It was like finding out my brother had been with another family before he decided to hang with us.

Something else about the card: It contains three great Latin players of the 1960s and none of them have their correct given names. Bob was obviously Roberto, but for most of his career the press insisted on anglicizing it. Tony was Pedro, but he had to use his brother Tony’s passport to come from Castro's Cuba. Then Chico/Leo. I feel you could write a play or a novel about this one baseball card.

Posted at 05:21 AM on Friday March 01, 2019 in category Baseball  
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