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Show Time The Mets gave Roger Cedeno a chance to strut his stuff, and the stolen-base leader hasn't looked back

Roger Cedeno, the New York Mets' sweet-swinging, basestealing
outfielder, is baseball's most improved player this year, and he
feels it's because he has been liberated. "I'm free," he says.

Cedeno broke into the majors in 1995 as a 20-year-old
switch-hitter and was soon touted as the Los Angeles Dodgers'
centerfielder for years to come. While the restraints put upon
him were not unusual (the Dodgers were quick to bench Cedeno
when he struggled, and they reined him in on the bases), they
caused him to put greater pressure on himself. By the time he
was traded to New York last December, Cedeno had spun his wheels
for four years, and many wondered if he would ever get on track.

"In Los Angeles if I had a bad day, they'd sit me down," Cedeno
says. "I went up every time thinking, I have to get a hit. Here,
if I go 0 for 4, I'll be back in the next day, and I'll go to
the plate knowing I'm going to get a hit."

Result: In 687 at bats with L.A., Cedeno batted .252. Going into
this year's All-Star break, he was leading the Mets at .332.

"In Los Angeles, I wasn't allowed to steal unless they gave me
the sign," Cedeno says. "When I did run I was saying to myself,
Uh-oh, I hope I don't get caught. Here, [Mets manager] Bobby
Valentine gave me the green light right away. I look at second
base and say, I'm going to get you."

Result: In his Dodgers career Cedeno had 23 stolen bases. At
this year's break he was leading the majors, with 46.

"One time in Los Angeles, I misjudged a fly ball and made a bad
throw," Cedeno continues. "When I came back to the dugout, one
of the coaches screamed at me that if I didn't do it right, I'd
be out of there. Next inning I'm thinking, I hope they don't hit
it to me. This year I misplayed a fly ball, and [Mets coach]
Mookie Wilson just put his arm around me and told me to stay
aggressive. I went out and started diving for balls."

Result: As a Dodger, Cedeno had seven career assists. As a Met
he had eight at midseason and had become a force.

At the start of spring training Cedeno was not even assured of a
roster spot, yet Valentine and his coaches told him that he
could bunt when he wanted, swing for power when he wanted, run
when he wanted. He was free. "We do that with a lot of players.
Some respond and some don't," says Valentine. "He responded
better than we ever hoped. And he's getting better."

If Cedeno even keeps his game near its current level, fans may
look back at the three-team trade involving the Mets, Dodgers
and Baltimore Orioles as one of the best in New York's history.
Cedeno and closer Armando Benitez came at the cost of catcher
Todd Hundley, who has struggled with L.A., and minor league
pitcher Arnold Gooch. Says Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who also
was a teammate of Cedeno's with the Dodgers, "Roger wasn't
relaxed in Los Angeles. Now he is, and he's had as much impact
on the lineup as anyone."

Another impact player who joined the Mets during the off-season
was third baseman Robin Ventura, who had a team-leading 64 RBIs
at the break. Ventura signed a four-year, $32 million free-agent
deal and was introduced alongside Cedeno at a press conference
in December. Last week Cedeno, who is making $487,500 this
season, recalled that day. "The media asked Robin about 50
questions," he says. "They asked me one. I felt bad, like no one
knew who I was. Then I told myself, They'll know soon."

--Kostya Kennedy

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON TRUCKIN' Cedeno has swiped more bases than he did in four years in L.A.

Pleasant Surprises

Here is SI's all-improved team, based on performances through
the All-Star break.


C Mike Lieberthal, Phillies .308, 18 HRs, 61 RBIs
A .252 hitter before this season, he may now be the league's
best all-around catcher

1B Sean Casey, Reds .371, 17 HRs, 57 RBIs
In only his second full season he has busted out to contend for
the NL batting title

2B Pokey Reese, Reds .298, 20 steals
Has gone from a career .228 hitter to a stellar replacement for
Bret Boone

SS Rich Aurilia, Giants .300, 13 HRs, 44 RBIs
Has four more home runs and only five fewer RBIs than he had all
of last season

3B Fernando Tatis, Cardinals .289, 18 HRs, 58 RBIs
Two grand slams in one inning put him on the map; with 14
steals, a threat on the bases, too

OF Luis Gonzalez, Diamondbacks .360, 14 HRs, 57 RBIs
A .268 hitter before '99, he's having a career year, highlighted
by a 30-game hit streak

OF Roger Cedeno, Mets .332, 46 steals
Has benefited on the base paths from the advice of teammate
Rickey Henderson

OF Jermaine Dye, Royals .302, 17 HRs, 66 RBIs
Jump from last year's .234 has been the result of showing more
patience at the plate

SP Kent Bottenfield, Cardinals 14-3, 3.78 ERA
Has transformed himself from a struggling reliever into the ace
of the St. Louis staff

RP Armando Benitez, Mets 6 saves, 1.39 ERA
Redemption after an erratic '98 with the Orioles; has settled
nicely into closer role