A tenth installment mirroring Boston Red Sox players of the present with one from my memories of the past. This is the designated hitters – David Ortiz to Orlando Cepeda.
David Ortiz is the greatest designated hitter (DH) in major league history, and the Red Sox started their DH history with a player who was a remarkable talent that eventually entered the Baseball Hall of Fame and later prison. In 1973, the DH was born and the phone of Orlando Cepeda rang with a Boston number. I realize that this will ignore the current DH J.D. Martinez, but Ortiz certainly will have his HOF day. A look back at two great hitters.
Just how good was Cepeda? In 1958, Cepeda was the National League Rookie of the Year with the San Francisco Giants. In 1967 with the Cardinals, Cepeda became the National League MVP, but in the World Series against the Red Sox hit just .103. And Cepeda could hit with a .297 career average and five seasons of 30+ home runs including leading the NL with 46 in 1961.
The numbers for Ortiz are extraordinary and even more extraordinary when you look at Ortiz’ final season when the slash was 38/127/.315 at age 40. Ortiz that season led the American League in doubles (48), RBI (127), Slugging (.620), and OPS (1.021). Just how accomplished could Cepeda have been with a good set of knees.
More from Red Sox History
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- Johnny Damon calls Red Sox out, reveals hilarious way he skirted Yankees’ grooming policy
- Remembering the best Red Sox Thanksgiving ever
- Red Sox World Series legends headline 2023 Hall of Fame ballot
Knees are a highlighted item for the 2019 Red Sox with Dustin Pedroia and Steven Wright remaining question marks with balky knees and that was the very condition that put a damper on Cepeda’s career. In his early years, “Peruchin” could motor with 75 steals in his first five MLB seasons. But his calling card was always his power right-handed bat. In 1973, that paid off for one last MLB fling.
The Red Sox signed Cepeda to DH and he did not disappoint. His first Red Sox hit was a walk-off home run against the Yankees. For the season, Cepeda hit 20 home runs and totaled 86 RBI and a .289 average. Where it fell apart was on the bases as it became clear Cepeda was a liability. Doubles became singles and ground ball became double-plays as Cepeda banged into a league-leading 24.
When you get on base you expect to score. The Red Sox finished fourth in the AL in runs (738), but Cepeda had just 51 despite a .350 OBP and 608 plate appearances. Cepeda simply clogged up the base paths, an issue that routinely surfaced with Ortiz. Despite his limitations, Cepeda was the AL DH of the Year.
Cepeda lasted deep into spring training in 1974 before being released and then went on to play in the Mexican League and for the Royals in late 1974. After hitting just .215 it was over for Cepeda, but then the sorry tale of post-baseball surfaces.
Pick a problem? Broken marriage? Check. Drug use? Check. Drug smuggling? Check. Assault? Check. Prison time? Check. The good news is Cepeda rehabilitated himself and eventually worked his way back into the baseball establishment, primarily with the Giants, but for one season Cepeda was “The Man” at DH.
Cepeda is a classic “What if?” regarding his baseball history. Just a shell of his former talent by his early 30s, Cepeda was obligated to play in the field. Wear and tear, especially on artificial surfaces, just magnified his knee problems. Cepeda was born 20 years too early and by the time DH was in the books even his still formidable bat could not justify his being in the lineup. But in his early career, Cepeda was every bit the player Papi was.