(This is Day 4 of our response to Tony L.’s 30-Day Baseball Card Challenge. See all our posts in this series here.)

By the time Cesar Cedeno made his Major League debut with the Houston Astros on June 20, 1970, he was a full-blown phenom before anyone really know what that word meant.

Signed by Houston as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1967 when he was just 16, Cedeno made promising stops at various levels of the Astros’ system in 1968 and 1969. Duly impressed by the 19-year-old’s performances, the team sent him to Triple-A Oklahoma City to start the 1970 campaign, but it was a short-lived assignment.1971 Topps Cesar Cedeno

Even as a teen, Cedeno was just too good for the minor leagues, hitting .373 with 14 home runs in just 54 games. Not surprisingly, general manager H.B. Richardson promoted the youngster, and manager Harry Walker put him in the lineup right away.

By the end of that 1970 season, Cedeno was the Astros’ starting center fielder and would finish fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year award balloting after hitting .310 with seven homers and 17 stolen bases in 90 games in The Bigs.

His future was as bright as a rocket flare.

Drab Cardboard Debut

The next spring, Topps honored Cedeno and all his promise with a solo rookie card (#237) in their 1971 set.

If you were a col lector looking at that card in 1971, though, you might have thought Cedeno had a long (or short) struggle ahead of him.

I mean, imagine you were a kid in middle America in 1971 and pulled this card. You’d have seen …

… the usual 1971 Topps black borders that made gloom a distinct possibility in any pack you opened.

… a Houston Astros card — you never saw the Astros play, and they never won anything.

… a mostly drab uniform (though the orange ‘H’ logo and Astros patch spiced things up a bit).

… a posed ba1971 Topps Cesar Cedeno (back)tting shot.

… a tree in the outfield behind Cedeno (?).

And most of all …

… a young man who looked pained to be standing where he was, doing what he was.

Was he confused? And if so, about what? The photographer’s instructions? Where he was supposed to be? How to hold a baseball bat?

Was he scared? Was he in actual pain?

Whatever the case, the photo of young Cedeno could not have inspired much hope that you were looking at the next “super-star” as the back of the card promised. And, when you found out that Cedeno’s 1970 stat line exactly matched his lifetime line, you knew you had to take any positives with a grain of salt.

Especially when he looked so … unhappy.

It was enough to make you swear off Cedeno cards forever.1983 Donruss Cesar Cedeno

Smiling at the Other End

Truthfully, I can appreciate the Cedeno rookie card from my perspective two decades into the the 21st century.

The Astros really weren’t that bad back in those days, finishing 79-83 in both 1970 and 1971.

And the uniform is now considered “classic,” with elements making regular appearance for the modern incarnation of the Astros.

And Cedeno’s expression? Well, he was 19 and probably still adjusting to life in America, away from his family. I can buy that, and it’s probably close to the truth.

But that grimacing mug on his 1971 Topps card is still anathema to the Cesar Cedeno that I know (in the baseball/baseball card sense … I’ve never met the man.).

My introduction to Cedeno came during my own baseball awakening in 1983 when he played for the Cincinnati Reds, who soon became “my team.” The first time I ever remember seeing Cedeno was on the front of his 1983 Donruss card.

I’ve already waxed extensively on the merits and beauties of this card, but suffice it to say that it’s more responsible for my hobby involvement than any other swatch of cardboard to ever roll off a printing press.

This is my Cesar Cedeno.

And, gosh darn it, my Cedeno is a bright and beaming baseball beacon that’s happy as a man should be when he gets to play the game he loves for a living.

So what hold bicycleappened between Cedeno’s 1971 rookie card and this masterpiece to turn him around?

I’d wager it was nothing sudden or especially profound — a gradual progression toward fulfillment that we hopefully all get to experience at some point.

In those early seasons with Houston, Cedeno’s trajectory looked like we thought it might. He had power and speed and won five straight Gold Gloves.

But he plateaued in his mid twenties, and then injuries started to rob his playing time. He appeared in only 50 games in 1978 and never saw action in as many as 140 after 1977. By the time the Astros traded him to the Reds in 1982 for Ray Knight, Cedeno was 31 and more than half a decade removed from his last All-Star appearance.

Still, the new start gave him a new role as the Reds starting center fielder, and he turned in a solid first season on the Riverfront.

I’d like to think that Cedeno’s 12-year cardboard transformation represents a man finding his place in the world and becoming comfortable — happy, even — with the “him” that he became.

Idealistic ramblings, for sure, and a lot of weight to place on two inconsequential baseball cards, but we all search for meaning in the world, don’t we?

And when you can find a nugget of it in your tattered shoe box, the day is always a little brighter. Just like “old” Cesar’s smile.