At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about the man playing ball with his kids in front of the apartment in a lower middle-class section of Burbank.
But there is something unusual about the way he holds the bat--the meat end shooting straight up from behind his right ear, hands tucked in tight under his right armpit, body bouncing on the balls of his feet, eyes growing larger in anticipation of the pitch.
That guy, you say to yourself if you’ve been any kind of a baseball fan over the last 15-20 years, looks just like Orlando Cepeda. No, it can’t be. Orlando Cepeda in Burbank?
That’s right, Cepeda, National League rookie of the year with the San Francisco Giants, N.L. most valuable player with the St. Louis Cardinals, most valuable player of every year for a long time in his native Puerto Rico, is living these days with his wife and four kids in a small, three-bedroom Burbank apartment, a couple of towering home runs from Dodger Stadium.
He might as well live a continent away.
Today, Cepeda has nothing to do with major-league baseball, his native country, or any of his storied past.
At 47, he’s living on his baseball pension (between $1,000 and $1,500 a month), money from periodic speaking engagements, his wife’s salary as a part-time bilingual aide at an elementary school--and the hope of launching a series of baseball camps for kids.
“I can’t complain,” Cepeda says, seated on a couch in his living room, wearing the Giants cap he wore in public for so many years. “I’ve lived the good times. I’ve lived the bad times. Not many people taste that.”
It was the last few years that soured Cepeda and caused him to relocate in Southern California. It has been nearly a decade since he was arrested at San Juan International Airport and charged with possession of approximately 165 pounds of marijuana, valued at $66,000.
Cepeda and a friend were arrested when they picked up two boxes containing the marijuana at a freight terminal, boxes that had been flown in from Colombia.
It has been nearly six years since Cepeda was released after serving nine months of a five-year sentence for importation and possession of the drug. Most of the time was served at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
It may be years more, if ever, before they forget in San Juan.
“Everything changed. They would still let you know what you did. They are never going to forget,” Cepeda says of the reaction of his countrymen to his drug conviction. “Every time my name was involved, they would bring it up. I have to live with that, but I didn’t hurt anybody. Whatever I did, I did to myself. It should be a lesson for myself and my family. Everything was blown out of proportion, but that’s life.”
To understand the magnitude of what has happened to Cepeda, you have to understand the height of the pedestal on which he--and the Cepeda name--once stood in Puerto Rico. His father was a ballplayer before him. Not just any ballplayer, mind you, but one good enough to be known as “The Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico.”
Barred from the major leagues in its pre-Jackie Robinson, whites-only era, Purucho Cepeda played throughout Latin America and in the Negro leagues in the United States, often matching legendary slugger Josh Gibson swing for swing.
The pressure of the Cepeda name drove Orlando’s brother, Pedro, out of the sport while he was still a teen-ager. Orlando himself did not play from age 10 to 15.
Then he heard from a friend that a Puerto Rican sandlot club needed a third baseman. They decided Cepeda would do fine. So did Pedro Zorrilla, a scout sitting in the stands. Having signed Roberto Clemente, Juan Pizarro and Jose Pagan, Zorrilla knew something about talent and he knew he liked Cepeda.
Before he was 21, Cepeda was playing first base for the Giants and was National League rookie of the year in 1958. He played in a lineup that included Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, and he soon earned the nickname Baby Bull. To his fellow Puerto Ricans, the son of Purucho became affectionately known as Peruchin.
A decade later, he was being called a savior in St. Louis when he led the Cardinals into the 1967 World Series. For his efforts--a .325 batting average, 25 home runs, 111 RBIs--Cepeda was named most valuable player in the National League.
Before it was over, he played 17 years and in more than 2,100 games--totaling 2,351 hits, 379 home runs and 1,365 RBIs. In 1961, he led the league in both homers, with 46, and RBIs, with 142.
The son of Purucho was worthy of the legend. He returned home in 1974 to run the Orlando Cepeda Baseball School. A life of testimonial dinners and a seemingly endless flow of tributes beckoned. The parade would seemingly last forever.
Would you believe one year?
After the drug charges, Cepeda went into seclusion. After prison, it was worse.
He admitted his guilt. “I used to smoke grass,” Cepeda said at the time. “I was going through hell with my knees, problems with my first wife and was being accused of not wanting to play ball. Somebody gave me a joint and I felt great.”
But his countrymen were unforgiving.
“Before, he would be invited everywhere,” his second wife, Nydia, says. “People would say, ‘Come to my house for dinner. Come here. Come there.’ He never paid for anything. But not anymore.”
Instead, Cepeda stayed home for weeks at a time. He has an extensive jazz collection. He would sit in a room in his house and listen to the music. For hours. For days.
“I think they will never forget,” Nydia says. “I don’t know how some people think they are saints. They would always be whispering behind our backs. You know when people are talking about you.”
Her husband thinks he understands why.
“When you have a big name, it’s nice,” Cepeda says. “But a lot of people can’t take it. They’ve got a degree--they are doctors, or lawyers or dentists--and they resent you for all you have. They just wait for something bad to happen to you so they can do something to you.
“And if they can’t do something to you, they would do it to your family.”
They did plenty, according to Cepeda. He said he was released from his job as a coach on an amateur baseball team for no apparent reason. He tried to put together an island-wide series of baseball camps in Puerto Rico. After a series of delays, he says, the government decided not to approve the enterprise.
“They just kept closing the door on my sport,” Cepeda said, moving the palms of his hands close together. “They didn’t let me make a move. The people who run the baseball leagues are people who are powerful. There was nothing happening for me.
“I couldn’t get no job. I couldn’t get no nothing. It was monotonous. I tried to get my baseball school to go all over the island. I love kids, but they didn’t let me offer myself and my knowledge for free clinics. How many times have I offered to work with youth and they turned me down?
“When they keep saying, ‘No! No! No!’ what can you do? I could have done something else, but I don’t want to work 9 to 5. I think I can do better in my field. I love my country. I am proud to be a Puerto Rican.”
Edwin Rivero Paulo, outgoing secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Sports and Recreation, said he never heard of Cepeda’s request for an island-wide clinic and that any such request would have had to come through his office.
“I never met Orlando Cepeda personally,” Paulo said. “He is a figure I admired, but I didn’t know he was trying to hire himself on. If he says so, that is correct, but I wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t know he was looking for that. He’s a hero. The people here all love him very much. He had some problems, but if he wanted to start over, he could be a good example.”
Luis Rodriguez Mayoral, director of player development for the San Juan Metros of the Puerto Rican Winter League, is an old Cepeda friend who watched with outrage the collective cold shoulder his people turned toward the family.
“Nowadays, it seems people find it tough to forgive whether it’s in Puerto Rico or Russia,” Mayoral said by telephone from San Juan. “People still cannot digest the fact ballplayers in general are human beings that make mistakes. The biggest idols on this island were Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Clemente. The fans saw them as superstars, as gods they put on pedestals.
“People felt let down by Orlando. You know this is a small island containing more than 3 million people. The general mentality is the old Spanish way. People are not open-minded like in the States. You have a Willie Wilson (drug problem), a Darrell Porter (alcoholism), a Steve Howe (drug problem). They had problems, but they are back in baseball. Here the mentality is antique. I can forgive anyone who errs in life.”
Like Cepeda, Mayoral sees part of the problem as jealousy.
“A lot of people have been in Puerto Rico for ages and have not been able to go to the States, or anywhere else, even once in a lifetime,” Mayoral said.
“Orlando came from a poor family, but made it big. I would say that eight of 10 people tended to envy him. Even though they were happy when he hit a homer, deep down they were envious. When Orlando had his downs in life, it’s cruel to say, but they get happy deep down. Lawyers here thought it was not fair for him to have earned so much money and fame as a ballplayer when he didn’t have to spend nights studying like they did. It’s a cancer called envy.”
Would Mayoral go as far as Cepeda did in claiming that unnamed government or baseball officials deliberately kept him out of baseball?
“I don’t dare say that, but I’m confident that was the case,” Mayoral said.
Said Rudy Regalado, another of Cepeda’s friends from Puerto Rico: “He never knew who was his enemy. He thought people were his friends, but he found out they were doing things behind his back. He was hurt. It’s hard to watch. In his own country, people don’t give him the chance to stand up like a man.”
Cepeda tried coaching at the major-league level, with the Chicago White Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies, but he didn’t like the travel or the pay.
So last June, he packed up and relocated in Burbank with Nydia and the four kids--Orlando Jr., 18; Hector, 14; Malcom, 12, and Ali, 8.
“I have got a lot of friends here,” Cepeda says. “It’s the best move I’ve made in my whole life. In six months here, my wife and I have had more fun than we had in Puerto Rico in 10 years.”
But even here, the baseball camp idea has been a hard sell. A Christmas vacation session in Burbank had to be canceled when only three youngsters signed up. Cepeda hopes to set up a series of camps for this summer and perhaps work with young people in a drug-prevention program as well.
“Everybody makes a mistake,” he says. “It’s history. I can be of value to any community. A lot of people address drug problems, but they have never suffered. I suffered. I never look back, but because of what happened to me, I should not be put in a corner to die. I’ve got a lot to offer. I can be a big help to people with drug problems.”
Outwardly, Cepeda has changed little.
There is a picture on a wall in his living room that shows him in an on-deck circle in a 1958 pose. The only obvious difference between that man and the one seated on a nearby couch is about eight pounds. The 6-2 Cepeda now weighs about 220 pounds, but looks as if he could still run out to Dodger Stadium and rattle a few balls off the 370-foot sign in left field.
He has nearly a full head of hair and, although the recent years have been a strain, it is not evident in his face.
The living room is strewn with photos of past moments and old friends--such as Clemente and Mays--but Cepeda prefers to speak of the future.
As he talks, the conversation is constantly interrupted by the swinging front door, as one son after another troops in or out, dressed in uniforms from various sports. Each draws words of praise from his father.
Orlando Jr., is a basketball and baseball player at Burbank High School. His father’s eyes light up when he talks about watching his son hit the backboards in search of a rebound.
He talks about Malcom, who joined a flag-football league although he had never played the sport, and scored 18 touchdowns in nine games.
“There would have been no education, no opportunity for them there (Puerto Rico),” Cepeda says of his sons. “That was a big reason I came here.”
The Cepeda family climbs into the family’s new, white van and drives to an upstairs apartment off La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. They remove their shoes before entering the apartment where about 15 people are kneeling and chanting before a religious shrine called a Gohonzon. These people are practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, a religion Cepeda has embraced since his arrival in Burbank.
Cepeda clasps a set of beads, symbolic of life, in his fingers and begins to chant--for material and spiritual gains. He has a Gohonzon in his own apartment as well, where he chants three hours a day--an hour and a half each morning and evening. He also attends these meetings twice a week.
“It’s beautiful. These are very happy people,” Cepeda says, looking around the room. “It’s not a religion. It’s a philosophy. You find yourself. You become aware of yourself. It’s common sense. It’s life.
“It used to be hard for me to chant for three minutes. I didn’t see how I could do it for 15 minutes. Now, I don’t go out into the street without chanting. I can’t wait to do it. The more you chant, the more your life is going to change. Once you start chanting, you control life instead of life controling you. Your wisdom increases.
“You become more disciplined, more calm. Things that used to bug me don’t bug me anymore. I used to go places, waiting for people to say something about what happened to me. Now, if they say something, I don’t care. I’ve got peace of mind.”
Cepeda was introduced to Buddhism by Regalado, a musician friend who has also relocated in this area from Puerto Rico.
“He has more confidence now,” Regalado said of Cepeda. “He was looking for something. With this practice, he got it. All the people who were his friends are nowhere now. But he has still found happiness, within himself and his family. He has incredible faith, like he’s been in this practice for 20 years.”
It was Regalado who talked Cepeda into coming west.
“He came to visit me in Burbank,” Regalado said. “I told him he didn’t have to go through that pain in Puerto Rico, to try it here. He needed to get away and think, to try to realize why what happened did happen, so he didn’t go crazy.
“I cried when it (his arrest) happened. I cry today, too, but my eyes are wet because I see him help children. I see him spend hours with his kids, enjoying himself. He does not have a lot now, but whatever he has, he is happy with. He doesn’t have the money he had in the past, but he has something that comes from inside.”
There is sentiment in Puerto Rico for Cepeda to return, say some of his friends.
“They should not close the doors. They should give him a chance,” said Houston Astro infielder Dickie Thon, a Puerto Rican native. “Let him show people he really means good, maybe in the way he works with kids.”
Regalado said there “should have been opportunity for a man who still loves Puerto Rico, his country. But I think if he comes back now, they are going to receive him, going to treat him different.”
Said Mayoral: “Billy Martin is not perfect, but everybody gives him another chance. Why not give Orlando another chance?
“But I think people are beginning to realize he is a human being. People are beginning to feel he should be given another opportunity. I think now, since he has struggled, he would be of more good to humanity. To me, he is like a living monument. I miss him. I think about him a lot. I would be happy if he came back. I can’t deny it.”
When the chanting is finished, Cepeda addresses the group, relating how his life has improved through Buddhism. He is cheered by the others in the room.
“The best friends I have are the ones I have met after my career was over,” he said. “They know me as a human being, not as a ballplayer.”