During the 1970s, nothing was more dispiriting to National League hitters than watching Cesar Geronimo glide effortlessly to the far reaches of Riverfront Stadium to turn their would-be doubles and triples into harmless outs. As the Gold Glove center fielder of the Big Red Machine, Cesar helped the Reds win five NL West crowns between 1972 and 1979. No slouch on offense, he reached double-figures in triples, homers and stolen bases, and batted over .300 in 1976, when Cincinnati fielded one of the greatest teams in history.
Cesar Francisco Geronimo was born March 11, 1948 in El Seibo, a town in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. During 15 seasons as a major leaguer, he was involved in more than his fair share of history-making moments. Now Cesar is making history back in his home country, as part of the Dominican Republic Sports & Education Academy -- a 501c3 charitable organization founded to build baseball academies in the DR where young players receive a formal education while pursuing their dream of playing professional sports. He spoke with JockBio editor Mark Stewart from the academy in San Pedro de Macoris, which opened in January 2013.
JockBio: What kind of work did your father do?
Cesar Geronimo: He drove for a car service. He would take people back and forth from El Seibo to the capital, Santo Domingo, which was about three hours each way.
Cesar Geronimo, 1971 Trading Card
JockBio: Is it true he was at a ballgame when you were born?
Cesar Geronimo: Yes. The night I was born, my father was in Santo Domingo watching the Dodgers play the Montreal Royals, their number-one farm team. When he came home and found out I was born, he thought I'd grow up to be a baseball player. Mostly, though, I played basketball as a boy. I didn't play much organized baseball - mostly we played in the streets. But in those games I was especially known for going after fly balls and ground balls real fast, and for my strong arm. My defense.
When Cesar was 14, his parents sent him to study at a seminary, with the idea that he would become a priest. However, he continued to develop as an athlete, both on the basketball court and on the diamond. Cesar towered over most of his teammates, reaching a height of 6'2". In 1966, baseball scouts began to take notice of his size, speed and grace.
JockBio: The story is that the Yankees signed you as a pitcher, even though you didn't like to pitch.
Cesar Geronimo: The Yankees looked at me twice when I was 17 or 18. The first time, I was playing the outfield. About a month later the scout came back and saw me hit and also throw a few pitches. It turns out that was the main reason they signed me, that they thought I could be a pitcher. I'd wanted to be a baseball player since I was three years old, so I was going to sign no matter what. I asked for $3,500, and they said no, the team would give me $2,000. I didn't care about money at that point.
Cesar split the 1967 season between two Yankee farm teams, pitching in one game and playing three in the outfield. Over the winter, he made a decision that would have a great impact on his life.
JockBio: You took it upon yourself to end the pitching experiment.
Cesar Geronimo: I did. When I came to Spring Training in 1968, they pointed me over to the pitchers. I told the Yankees, "No, I don't want to pitch." They said, okay, but if you don't hit we're going to release you. I agreed. I think I hit well enough for them to keep me in the organization, but my defense that spring, what I did in the outfield was unbelievable.
In his second pro season, Cesar opened a lot of eyes with his glove work, but struggled to hit his weight. The Yankees had no intention of adding him to the 40-man roster at this point, but the Houston Astros, always in the market for fleet-footed outfielders, grabbed Cesar in the Rule 5 Draft in December.
JockBio: So from a .194 hitter in the Class-A Florida State League, suddenly you're on a major league roster with stars like Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, Larry Dierker and Don Wilson. That's quite a step up. .
Cesar Geronimo: I would have been on Houston's Triple-A team, but the Astros had to keep me in the big leagues all year or return me to the Yankees. I played a couple of innings a week and got two hits for the year. It took me a while to adjust to hitting big-league pitching. My first time at bat was against Ron Reed. I hit a chopper to third base. My first hit came against the Reds. I hit a line drive off the fence for a double and scored on an error. In 1970, the Astros were allowed to send me to the minors, and they started me at Double-A. But I was back in the majors in June.
Cesar Geronimo, 1978 Topps
JockBio You were one of two talented young Cesars on that 1970 Houston club. Cesar Cedeno made quite a splash. People were saying he was the next Willie Mays.
Cesar Geronimo: He was very good. He was fast. He was a good hitter, with power. Cesar had all the things you wanted to see in a young kid. During the 1970s, we might have been the two best defensive center fielders in the league.
JockBio You played one more year with the Astros and then, after the 1971 season, you were part of that monster trade. Lee May, and Tommy Helms went to Houston for Morgan, Jack Billingham, Denis Menke and you. How did you take the news?
Cesar Geronimo: I was happy, because the day after the trade a scout told me I was going to play a lot, which is what I wanted. And the Reds were very good. I knew they were close to winning a World Series.
1972, Cesar - who batted and threw left-handed - manned right field in a platoon with a rotating cast of characters that included George Foster and Johnny Bench (when he wasn't catching). Cesar batted .275, fifth-best among the regulars. The Reds won the NL West and faced the defending World Series champs, the Pirates, in the playoffs.
Cincinnati dropped two of the first three in the (then) best-of-five NLCS format. After winning Game 4, the Reds faced Pittsburgh ace Steve Blass in the finale. Cesar homered off Blass in the 5th inning to shave a run off of the Pirates' 3–1 lead. The score remained 3–2 going into the bottom of the ninth.
JockBio That was quite an inning. What do you recall about your role in the drama?
Cesar Geronimo: Johnny Bench hit a home run to tie the score 3–3. We got two men on after that, and George Foster came in as a pinch runner. I hit a long fly to right field and George went from second to third. Roberto Clemente caught that ball - it was the last ball he touched as a major leaguer, as you know he was killed in a plane crash that winter. Then Bob Moose threw a wild pitch, Foster scored, and we won!
JockBio: You faced the A's in the World Series and it was the Gene Tenace Show.
Cesar Geronimo: Oh, he killed us. He and Joe Rudi. We should have won that series. It was very frustrating. Reggie Jackson didn't play in that series, he was out with a broken leg. But Tenace hit everything against us. We weren't expecting him to do that. We lost the seventh game in the sixth inning. Sal Bando hit a line drive to center and Bobby Tolan went in instead of breaking back. It was a difficult ball. I shouted "In! In!" when Bando hit it, and then it took off.
JockBio In 1974, the Dodgers beat the Reds out for the division title, but you were starting to gain recognition as one of the best outfielders in the game. You won your first of four straight Gold Gloves. What do you feel separated you from the other centerfielders of your era?
Cesar Geronimo: I had that long stride, and I got a good jump on the ball every time. It helped me catch a lot of balls that were very hard to get to. I also think that determination and hard work made me a better fielder than other guys. My thinking on every pitch was "Hit to me! Hit it as far as you can - I will catch it!" And you know, on many balls I didn't think I had a chance. But I'd get to them.
Cesar Geronimo, 1983 Fleer
JockBio: When I played the outfield, the thing I really enjoyed was that moment when you knew you were going to make a tough catch like that...but no one else in the crowd did. Everything is quiet when it settles into your glove and then there's that explosion of noise.
Cesar Geronimo: Yeah, that was great. I also experienced that when I was throwing out base runners. You know your throw is going to beat him because the whole play is in front of you.
In 1975 and 1976, the Reds took the final step and won back-to-back World Series against Boston and New York. The 1975 series against the Red Sox was a classic. Both teams scrapped and clawed the entire way.
Though not known for their power, Cesar and Dave Concepcion hit back-to-back homers off Rick Wise in Game 4. That game went into extra innings and Cesar led off the 10th with a single to right. Ed Armbrister tried to bunt him over, but Carlton Fisk fielded the ball and gunned it toward second. He and Armbrister made contact and Fisk's throw sailed into the outfield, enabling Cesar to reach third. Joe Morgan singled him home to tie the series 2–2.
Cesar hit another homer in the 8th inning of Game 6, sending Luis Tiant to the showers and giving Cincinnati a 6–3 lead. Former teammate Bernie Carbo tied the game with a three-run homer in the bottom of the inning and Fisk won it with a homer in the 12th to force a Game 7. Cincinnati prevailed with a comeback win in the finale. Cesar caught the final out.
JockBio You caught the final ball in the 1975 World Series. What kind of feeling is that?
Cesar Geronimo: I was so happy for me and my teammates. We were waiting a long time for a championship. So were Reds fans. I followed the Reds as a child, so I knew the last time they'd won was in 1939. It was an unbelievable feeling to catch the last out after Yastrzemski hit it. In 1976 against the Yankees I was going to catch the last ball, too - but George Foster wouldn't let me catch it!
JockBio: On that 1976 team, you were part of a .300-hitting outfield along with Foster and Ken Griffey. That was the one year you batted .300 as a big-leaguer. Was that an important achievement for you?
Cesar Geronimo: Yes. It was one of my dreams to hit .300. That year I got a few bloopers for base hits. Everything came out the right way.
The Reds finished second in the NL West in 1977 and 1978. In 1979, Cincinnati won the division again, but fell in the playoffs to the Pirates. Cesar hit just .239 that year, and the following season speedy Dave Collins took over as the everyday center fielder. Over the winter, the Reds traded Cesar to the Kansas City Royals - the defending AL champions - for infield prospect German Barranca. At 33, Cesar's days as a regular were at an end. His job in Kansas City was to tutor young Daryl Motley and give the Royals good defense in right field.
JockBio Did you go into KC with the idea that you'd be competing for a starting job?
Cesar Geronimo: No, I wasn't competing. I was a bench player from the time I went there - although I ended up playing quite a bit. Jim Frey, the manager, never thought of me as a starter. That was the year of the strike, and we had to win the second half to make it to the playoffs. I ended up being very important to that team.
JockBio: Your last two seasons with the Royals - 1982 and 1983 - you played for Dick Howser. In what ways did he differ from Sparky Anderson?
Cesar Geronimo: They were different kinds of managers. But you know the teams they managed were different. The Reds were trying to learn how to win; Sparky taught us how to do that. The Royals knew how to win, so Howser's job was to manage the talent.
Cesar batted .269 in 53 games with Kansas City in 1983, his final season as a player. He finished his career with a .258 lifetime average, but it was as a defender that he was a true difference-maker. Year in and year out, he ranked among the league leaders in putouts, assists, double plays, range factor and runs saved.
In the mid-1980s, Cesar worked as the head of the Dominican Republic Baseball Players Association. In 1989, he was hired by the Hiroshima Carp to run their baseball academy in the DR.
JockBio It seems you felt comfortable in different organizational roles.
Cesar Geronimo: I did ... I do.
JockBio: How did you get involved with Dominican Republic Sports & Education Academy, which opened this year?
Cesar Geronimo: I actually started a foundation in 2008, the same year I was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. During the ceremony I announced that I was helping young kids to play ball and also help them get an education and develop a skill for after baseball. I got involved with the Dominican Republic Sports & Education Academy from the start. I'd known Charles Farrell, the man behind this project, since 2000. In January 2013, we opened our doors to 15 students. Most are 13 to 15, with a couple older. As a board member, I tell the kids that baseball is a great game - and you should pursue it because it can be rewarding. But you should pursue education in the same way, because its rewards will continue to give.