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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Remembering Leo Cardenas, The Superstitious One

[Revised version, Sat., 5-8-10 @ 9:05 PM]
A SAVIOR ARRIVES FROM CINCY
Leo "Chico" Cardenas, AKA "Mr. Automatic" was the excellent, veteran shortstop the Twins received in trade from the Cincinnatti Reds in November, 1968.  He was among the last of the fine Cuban players to make it out of Castro's island paradise before the borders were sealed. And despite being the most superstitious player in Twins history, he really wasn't the most colorful character on a squad loaded with goofballs (i.e., Dave Boswell and his firearms) and volatile crazies (Manager Billy Martin and his fists of fury).


Cardenas had feuded during the '68 season with then-Reds Manager Dave Bristol, and figured he would be left In unprotected in the draft for selection by the new San Diego Padres (National League), or Kansas City Royals (American League).  Both were to begin play in '69.  It was his hope that Padres Manager Preston Gomez (who managed him in 1959 while in Cuba) would tab him as the first shortstop in San Diego.  Instead, the Reds went and traded him to Minnesota for Jim Merritt.  It was a tough call for Twins owner Cal Griffith to part with the talented Merritt; but the shortstop position was his weak link, and he bit.  As it happened, it was a good fit for Cardenas since the Twins had a strong track record in nurturing players from Latin America;  Jim Kaat, when asked what the "TC" stood for on the Twins hats, would joke "Twenty Cubans."

Cardenas would cement the Twins' lineup, playing excellent shortstop and batting 6th in the order for the 1969 Division Champions.  After the rapid demise of former '65 all-star Zoilo Versalles, the quartet of  Jackie Hernandez, Rick Renick, Ron Clark and Cesar Tovar all mangled the position in 1968 most horrendously ( the apparent wisdom: four lousy candidates were better than just one). Statistically, 1969 was Leo's best overall season.  He was a fine catalyst in helping his second base partner, Rod Carew, achieve his first great season. Indeed, he was a major contributor to the first Twins team for which I fell into irreversable and pathetic infatuation.


NOT  EXACTLY "PEDRO SERRANO" OF MAJOR LEAGUE -  BUT CLOSE!
Evil personified
 Leo was definitely "out there" on the voodoo wacko scale.  Earlier in his career, he was known to shower in his uniform to ward off evil spirits.  Opposing players knew he feared the letter "x," and took the opportunity to scratch it in the dirt near his position to scare him.  Thought: would he have consented to playing alongside Nellie FoX or Jimmie FoXX?? For some good, perverse fun, teammates would drop a chicken feather near second base, knowing he ascribed fearsome, supernatural powers to them. Really scared the pinetar out of him!  While in one prolonged batting slump, he locked his bats in the trunk of the car, vowing not to let them out until they "got better." All of which reminds me of the Pedro Serrano character in the movie, Major League.

ADVENTURES IN CARDBOARD: THE TOPPS 1968 "MANAGER'S DREAM," #480
This card favorite gives me a laugh: it's as if Leo's pinching himself, as if to ask "Uh, how'd I get in a picture with these studs?" With this 1968 Topps baseball card, we see Leo with two great Latin outfielders, the great Twin Tony Oliva,  and Pirate immortal Roberto Clemente. It's probably from the '66 All Star Game in St. Louis, at Busch Stadium. The weird anglicizing of Clemente's name, along with Oliva's use of his brother's passport to gain entry into the U.S. (real name, Pedro) in the early '60's meant that none of these guys had their given name used on the card.  What is up with that, Jack (or, rather, "Joaquin")?  And didn't Leo get fed up with that Chico stuff?

AND IN THE END...
Ultimately, Leo's quick legs turned to plaster around 1971, his skills definitely trending downward, like those jagged Wall Street line graphs.  He moved on to the California Angels in 1972, the Indians in '73, and finally ended his odyssey with the Texas Rangers in 1975, at age 36.  Along the way, he accumulated debts, and a well deserved reputation for a quick temper which led to fisticuffs one day in the late 1990's.  He also never got around to filing for U.S. citizenship, which got him a knock at the door from the feds...ooops!   It was as if he'd taken on some of the same brawling tendencies of his old manager and friend, Billy Martin.  Strange and sad...so much at odds with his normal sweet disposition and smiling persona.  When last heard from, Leo was getting his life back together.  Very nice to hear!

Twinkler Out!

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