Sunday, October 27, 2002

Cardenas mastered baseball; now, life is a different story

Ex-Reds shortstop left Cuba for greener American pastures, but when accolades ended, his troubles were just beginning

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Leo Cardenas, Cincinnati Reds 1960 to 1968.
(AP photo)
| ZOOM |
CLEVES - On a sparkling blue day, air crisp and not a cloud in the sky, former Reds All-Star shortstop Leo Cardenas awaits. He is seated at a corner table in the back of the Cleves Drive-in, a West Side restaurant famous for its fried chicken and apple-cranberry pie.

It is the afternoon of Game 3 of the World Series - the Giants vs. Angels - at Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco.

Cardenas, a four-time all-league selection in his nine years as a Red (1960-68), played with the Angels toward the end of his career.

Today, however, he is here to talk not about the Angels or the World Series, but about the restoration of his reputation, which has taken some hits in the past five years.

The interview was arranged when scout Charlie Knotts, a friend of Leo's, called to say Cardenas was having some problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Cardenas, who came to this country in 1956 as a 16-year-old kid with only a couple of dollars in his pocket and even less English in his head, never got around to establishing his citizenship, despite twice being married to American women. Every American has learned, somewhere in a civics class, that when a foreign-born person marries an American, he or she can become a citizen. But one still has to apply.

And - as with much in his life, except for that 35-year stretch that involved baseball - Cardenas simply never got around to it.

Cardenas is proud and personable, but at times his temper has gotten him into trouble. He was a terrific baseball player who still loves talking about the game - his brown eyes twinkle at the mere mention of it. But by the admission of his best friend, Cardenas was never the sharpest knife in the drawer. He is also not the most responsible.

Not a good combination.

"You're a thickhead!" Knotts hollers out to his friend of 18 years. "You heard me, Chico! You're a thickhead."

Cardenas, 62, smiles and nods. He knows.

He has been beset by marital-related financial problems made worse by having to pay the $7,000 medical bills of a man whose arm he broke in a fight four years ago (for which he spent three months in jail for felonious assault, although he claimed self-defense) and the $5,000 property bills for the damage he did to a car last year when he was an uninsured motorist.

He says most of his $2,800 monthly net pension from Major League Baseball is eaten up by these costs, leaving him only a few hundred dollars a month for living expenses, including rent. He lives with his son, Mario, who, along with Knotts, helps support Cardenas.

Cardenas' warmth is his greatest gift. He is an easy man to like. Cardenas enjoyed a 16-year big-league career, and he provided for his eight children.

"I'm a survivor," he said.

And what is his motivation for wanting to do this story, knowing it wouldn't be an altogether flattering portrait, given his life after baseball?

"I want to restore my good name, my reputation," he says. "I want to tell you my story."

Leonardo Lazaro Cardenas was the sixth of 15 children born to Rafael and Roberta Cardenas in Matanzas, Cuba, located 40 miles from Havana.

One of Matanzas' best ballplayers was Sandy Amoros, eight years older than Cardenas and an idol for the boy. Cardenas was 10 when Amoros first made it to the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950.

Cardenas' first baseball glove came at age 10 - a well-worn, long-fingered model, far too big for Leo's hands but a treasure nonetheless, because it had come from Amoros, who at the time was in the Dodgers' farm system.

There was nothing Leo loved as much as he loved baseball. He wrote notes to his teachers, saying he had to leave school early to practice baseball. This earned him a still-memorable spanking from his father, who held the note in his left hand as he swatted Leo's behind with his right.

So precocious was Cardenas, he had to add a year to his birth certificate so he could sign with the Reds in 1956 at age "17," even though he was only 16.

The Reds were big on the island in the 1950s, having forged connections with Cuban baseball men Bobby Maduro, Reggie Otero, Tony Pacheco (who later signed Tony Perez) and Preston Gomez.

In the spring of '56, the Reds flew Cardenas to Douglas, Ga., where he attended a camp with fellow Cuban-born signees Mike Cuellar, Tony Gonzales and Cookie Rojas, each of whom later made it big with other teams.

Cardenas was given a $500 signing bonus and sent to Tucson, Ariz. He spent 1957 and 1958 in Savannah, Ga., and 1959 with the Havana Sugar Kings, an independently owned team the Reds stocked with prospects.

"When I was a boy growing up, that was my dream - to play for the Sugar Kings," Cardenas said.

In mid-1960, the Sugar Kings were moved to Jersey City, N.J., which is where Cardenas was when the Reds called him up. The great Reds shortstop, Roy McMillan, had broken a finger.

"My first day in the big leagues, I watched from shortstop as my new roommate - Don Newcombe - threw a pitch and broke the kneecap of the Cubs' Ernie Banks," Cardenas recalls. "I remembered thinking, `Man, they play for keeps up here.'"

In the early 1960s, former Reds pitcher Jim O'Toole recalls, the badly slumping Cardenas told then-Reds manager Fred Hutchinson: "I want to fly home; I quit." The Reds, Cardenas figured, would pay his plane fare home.

"Hutch told Leo, `If you're not in uniform and on the bench in 15 minutes, you'll be out of here today. And we won't be paying for anything,'" O'Toole said.

In 10 minutes, Cardenas was on the bench and in uniform.

In 1964, in the seventh inning of the second-to-last game of the regular season, with the Reds leading 3-0 and within six outs of taking over first place in the National League in a three-team race, Phillies pitcher Chris Short threw a pitch that hit Cardenas in the back. Cardenas - bat in hand - headed toward the mound but was restrained by Phillies catcher Clay Dalrymple.

"Leo woke up a dead ballclub when he did that," said O'Toole, who pitched that day. "That just isn't something you did. You had to be smarter than that."

In the eighth inning of that game, Cardenas and second baseman Pete Rose inadvertently let an easy popup drop between them. O'Toole felt it was Cardenas' ball; manager Dick Sisler agreed. The play triggered the Phillies' winning rally, and the Reds were all but through. After the game, O'Toole went after Cardenas, who defended himself by reaching for the closest object - an ice pick. A teammate was able to wrest it away from him.

After four All-Star seasons in five years, Cardenas was traded to the Minnesota Twins because Reds general manager Bob Howsam believed Cardenas' range had diminished, and the Reds needed pitching. All Cardenas did in Minnesota in 1969 was play in 160 games and tie a 63-year-old American League record for most putouts by a shortstop. He played in 160 games the next year, too, helping the Twins make the playoffs each time. In 1971, Cardenas made his fifth All-Star team. In 1972, his salary topped out at $75,000 - big bucks back then.

Cardenas' final year was 1975, when he hit .235 in 102 at-bats for the Texas Rangers.

"Baseball wasn't easy - there were a lot of bumps and bruises - trying to stay in the lineup every day," says Cardenas, raising his left pant leg to reveal the 15-stitch scar left by the take-out slide of the Cubs' Adolfo Phillips at Wrigley Field. "I didn't come out. I wrapped it up and went back in. It's something I learned from Frank Robinson: Don't let anybody take your job.

"As a player, you show up, work hard. The club takes care of most everything else."

Left unsaid, but as obvious as that 15-inch scar, is that when Cardenas' playing career ended, he couldn't handle real life.

"He grew up with a dirt floor, no electricity, sleeping six kids to a bed in a three-room house," is the way Knotts puts it. "Money doesn't mean to Chico what you think it would. If he has it, he spends it. Money doesn't mean anything to Chico Cardenas."

Over the past 25 years, Cardenas has surfaced occasionally in the public eye: a newspaper feature here and there; a segment on local TV now and then. Cincinnatians would hear "Leo's molding hoses at Milacron," or "Leo's pumping gas in Bond Hill" or "Leo's cutting grass" somewhere.

Why hadn't Cardenas been able to parlay a 16-year major-league career into more? After all, didn't he say he had a 12th-grade education? (Yes, but it turned out not to be true. Just add up the numbers. He was playing ball in the States at 16; how old was he when he started school? "Three," answered Cardenas, his eyes twinkling.)

Four years ago, he took his most public hit, a front-page story titled "The Shame of Leo Cardenas," which detailed his being sentenced in Hamilton Common Pleas Court to three months in jail and five years' probation for felonious assault - which included his breaking out the windows of a car that his wife and a co-worker were sitting in, as they talked and ate lunch in Blue Ash.

When the co-worker of Cardenas' wife fled to the Blue Ash police station, Cardenas hit him in the arm with the bat and broke the man's arm. (Cardenas told the Enquirer last week it was self-defense. But there was no mention of self-defense in the court story or the Blue Ash police report.)

And, so, there you have it: a bat and an ice pick in 1964; a bat in 1998. Self-defense, Cardenas repeats. Otherwise, no connection.

But one has to wonder. Both bat incidents related to matters of the heart. Somebody had crossed Cardenas. He took matters into his own hands.

"Charlie, you would have done the same thing," Cardenas tells Knotts, in speaking about the second incident.

"No, Chico, I wouldn't have done the same thing," Knotts tells him. "That is the difference between you and me, and almost everybody else. You are a good man, Chico, but you are a thickhead."

Cardenas and Knotts met in 1984. Knotts was coaching JTM's baseball team at Three Rivers Park on the West Side. Cardenas' son, Leo Jr., was on the team. One day, Knotts saw a man, a wide smile on his face, come loping down the hill.

"Hey, you're Leo Cardenas!" Knotts exclaimed. "Just don't stand there, Leo! Get over there at third base and help me coach this team."

Later, Knotts got JTM to pay Cardenas $200 a game. Knotts knew Cardenas needed it. This was the equivalent of former big-league manager Billy Martin shaking Cardenas' hand and leaving a hundred-dollar bill in it. Martin knew what Knotts knew.

"Don't worry about me, Charlie," Cardenas once told his friend. "I have had all the honey."

He meant it literally. Between games of doubleheaders, Cardenas would swig honey and suck on a lemon.

"The fruit I can understand," Knotts told Cardenas. "The honey is good as a sweetener, but a whole jar of it? Honey is sugar, Leo. And that much sugar isn't good for a man."

And, yet, Cardenas kept eating the honey. In a way, he still does.

He has the joy, the twinkle, the spring in his step. Too often, though, he won't listen to reason. But by almost every account - from his friends, his former teammates, his 18-year-old son, Mario - Chico Cardenas is a swell guy. He has a heart of gold.

Cardenas hopes to get his green card next week. He is scheduled to go to court in December, this time for a probation violation, he says. He has fallen behind on paying the restitution in the bat incident of four years ago. He says he will get current and stay out of jail.

"I can't talk about the case, because it's open and pending," said Cardenas' attorney, Marina Marinakis. "All I can tell you is he's a nice guy. A very nice guy."


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