From Shame To Fame

When Orlando Cepeda is inducted into the Hall of Fame this week, it will mark the end of a long comeback from disgrace and despair
July 25, 1999

On May 18, midway through Orlando Cepeda's day of introduction to the Baseball Hall of Fame--like all newly anointed members, Cepeda was getting a guided tour of the Cooperstown, N.Y., shrine before his official induction, which is on July 25--the Hall's curator, Ted Spencer, was leading him into a room whose entrance bore the legend PRIDE AND PASSION: THE AFRICAN AMERICAN BASEBALL EXPERIENCE. All afternoon the 61-year-old Cepeda had moved with pride and wonder from one exhibit to the next, from the mannequinlike statue of his friend and compatriot Roberto Clemente dressed in his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform number 21, to the center of the Hall itself: the gallery of wall plaques depicting, among others, the faces of his old teammates Juan Marichal, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey from the San Francisco Giants, and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock from the 1967 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. In a theater of the museum, Cepeda saw a video documentary of his life in baseball and watched, disbelieving, as the aging visages of Stan Musial and Ted Williams spoke in tribute to his leadership and hitting skills.

"Williams and Musial talking about me?" Cepeda whispered. "Incredible! They're my idols!"

Escorted to a basement storeroom, where he donned the requisite
white gloves so as not to damage the Hall's buried treasures,
Cepeda wielded one of Babe Ruth's bats. "All the Latin players,
like Clemente and me, used this model, R43," he said. Next he
spied Ty Cobb's tiny, tattered outfielder's mitt, with the hole
in the center of it. Moving on, he saw a pair of spikes that had
belonged to Cool Papa Bell, the Negro leagues outfielder with
the legendary speed, and the talk of baserunning prowess jogged
Cepeda's memory. "I saw Minnie Minoso score from first on a wild
pitch!" he said.

Yet nothing he heard or saw that day matched the moment when
Spencer led him into the room that honors the black experience
in baseball. Turning to the curator and a small entourage of
Hall administrators, Cepeda asked if they happened to have the
photograph of the team that Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican
Republic dictator, sponsored in 1937. "It had all the best Latin
and Negro league players," Cepeda said. "Josh Gibson, Satchel
Paige, Papa Bell, Silvio Garcia ... and my father." Perucho
Cepeda, known as the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico, was among the
greatest Latin players of his day, an icon throughout the
Caribbean until his death in 1955, at age 49, from malnutrition
relating to malaria. Before he died, just as 17-year-old Orlando
was leaving Puerto Rico for his first minor league stop, Salem,
Va., he told his son, "You will someday be better than me,
Orlando."

"Don't say that, Papa," the son protested. "I cannot be better
than you."

No sooner had Cepeda asked about that old picture than the Baby
Bull turned and faced a glass case containing Negro leagues star
Buck Leonard's battered traveling bag, Josh Gibson's signed 1946
contract with the Homestead Grays and, wait a minute, voila!
There was the photo Cepeda had been telling them about. He named
the players one by one. They were all in uniform, with C.
TRUJILLO emblazoned across the front. Cepeda's finger pointed to
the top row, to the second face from the right. "That's my
father," he said.

It was one thing for Cepeda to hear Williams call him "one of
the very best hitters in my years in baseball," but it was
inexpressibly another to see the old man, in Cooperstown, in a
browning photo that was taken the year Orlando was born and
depicted a kind of Hall of Fame itself. "It's amazing," Cepeda
said. "I didn't know my father was here, in that picture, like
he was waiting for me. What a surprise!"

Of course, after all he had been through, nothing much could
really surprise him anymore. Almost from the day Cepeda retired,
he began a long, spiraling descent into a maelstrom of personal
difficulty. That he finally made it into the Hall of Fame in
March, when the Veterans Committee voted him in, was more than
he had come to hope for. Not that Cepeda lacked the numbers: a
.297 career batting average, 379 home runs, 1,365 RBIs. He was
the 1958 National League Rookie of the Year, the 1967 MVP and a
seven-time All-Star. Just five years ago, when the Baseball
Writers of America rejected him for the 15th and last time (he
fell seven votes shy), he was the only eligible player with an
average above .295 and more than 300 homers who was not in the
Hall.

No, it wasn't the numbers. On Dec. 12, 1975, a year after
retiring from baseball, Cepeda was arrested at San Juan
International Airport after claiming two packages sent to him
from Colombia that contained, according to authorities, 170
pounds of marijuana. At the time Cepeda did not admit that he
smuggled any marijuana, but he says now that he had agreed to
pick up five pounds for use by himself and friends. "I learned
that one mistake, in two seconds, can make a disaster that seems
to last forever," Cepeda says. "I made a huge mistake. Bad
judgment. Bad friends. Stupidity."

Over the next 24 years Cepeda's life became an odyssey. First it
was one of suffering, denial and escape from reality, of
drifting away from friends and family, and feeling the
humiliations of jail and of ostracism in his homeland. Then came
a slow, painstaking religious conversion, and the prodigal son's
return to San Francisco and the Giants. All of which culminated
in his election to the Hall and his triumphant homecoming in
Puerto Rico.

"The biggest victories come over yourself, when you control your
mind and your destiny," Cepeda says. "My life has been a drama
of inner change."

Nothing could possibly have prepared him for the fury that
followed his arrest. He had been a national hero, a figure even
larger than his father once was. "When you play baseball, you
have a name and money and you feel like you're bulletproof,"
Cepeda says. "You forget who you are. Especially in a Latin
country, they make you feel like you are God." He had been
nearly as revered as Puerto Rico's first Hall of Famer,
Clemente, who died in a December '72 plane crash while flying
supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Cepeda's fall was
all the greater, all the swifter and more precipitous, because
it was viewed in contrast to Clemente's elevated state of grace.

"Clemente was a saint, a martyr," says Mariano Diaz, one of
Cepeda's closest friends from Puerto Rico, "and Orlando was
supposed to continue Roberto's legacy. So Orlando was judged. He
no longer walked with Clemente. To the people, it was like
Roberto was pointing down at Orlando and saying, 'Bad boy! You
sinned, and you disgraced your people.'"

Cepeda became a recluse who moved between his and Diaz's house.
Someone killed his German shepherd puppy and shot his other
shepherd in the ear with a BB gun. He lost almost everything.
The Boston Red Sox had given him a red Mercedes as a signing
bonus in 1973, but that was the car he had used to pick up the
marijuana, so the government confiscated it. He had shelled out
$40,000 to buy a parcel of land in Puerto Rico on which to build
a health spa, but now he could not get a job, lawyers ate his
savings for dinner, and he lost the money and the land. Except
for his wife, Nydia, and a few friends, Cepeda was alone.

Looking back, he sees a life that had gone out of control before
the bust. At the time of his arrest he was 38, youthfully
handsome and smoking weed with boyhood friends from the ghetto
in Puerto Rico while living the hedonist's life. "I had a lot of
money," he says. "I was playing around with five women. I was in
heaven."

Then, as sudden as a siren, that life was over. All that he had
was the nightmare of its aftermath. On June 26, 1978, having
been convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to sell
and sentenced to five years in prison, Cepeda entered the
minimum-security federal camp at Eglin Air Force Base in
Florida. "Looking back," he says, "the best thing that happened
to me was going to jail."

If his fall in Puerto Rico had humbled him, life at Eglin
brought him to his knees, literally. "The first couple of days
he was cleaning toilets," recalls fellow inmate Joe Trout, who
became a friend. "Then he graduated to washing all the
underwear. You don't think that's humbling for a former
All-Star? The bigger you are in prison, in notoriety, the more
they want to tear you down."

Ten months into his sentence, on April 15, 1979, Cepeda won his
parole. "The last two weeks were the hardest," he says. "No one
would tell you anything. They were playing with your mind."

Not that it was any easier on the outside. He bounced around for
nearly five years. He tried a season as a batting coach and
scout for the Chicago White Sox but blew that job by failing to
show up for assignments. He went to work as a coach for a pro
team in Puerto Rico, but he got fired there, too. He made
custard that he sold to restaurants, but that didn't work out.
When he tried to start a baseball clinic in Los Angeles, too few
parents trusted him with their sons. "He still had this stigma,"
recalls longtime friend Pedro Rosario.

Like his father before him, he also had a wandering eye. Cepeda
had fathered one son out of wedlock while married to his first
wife, Annie, with whom he had one son, Orlando Jr., and whom he
divorced in 1973. He married Nydia in 1975 and they had two
boys--Malcolm and Ali, named after Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
After leaving prison, he would be hit with a paternity suit over
another child he had fathered.

In the summer of '84 Cepeda moved his family from Puerto Rico to
Burbank, Calif., to begin anew. "I couldn't get a job," he says.
"People kept saying I was a disgrace. My life was a disaster,
and I was looking to change it. Start from scratch, so my kids
could learn English and grow up the American way."

It was more of the same old chaos in California. No work, no
money, no prospects. Only the stress brought on by daily
struggle. "Sometimes I didn't have money to pay the rent," says
Cepeda. "I did baseball camps and card shows, but nothing
regular." Citing marital problems, Nydia soon returned to Puerto
Rico with Malcolm and Ali and filed for divorce, leaving Orlando
with 19-year-old Orlando Jr.

To escape his woes, Cepeda went to Dodger Stadium to watch
batting practice and schmooze with the players. He was leaning
against the batting cage one day in '84 when two men in suits
approached. "Sorry, but you have to leave," one said.

"I am Orlando Cepeda," he said. "I used to.... "

"We know who you are," said one of the suits. "You have to move
on."

Humiliated in front of the players, Cepeda left the stadium in
what he calls his darkest moment. He thought briefly of ending
it all. "So many things went through my mind," he says. "I came
home about seven, and my son asked, 'Dad, what's going on?' I
said, 'It's all right.' I lay in bed and thought, He depends on
me. I'm the only one he has."

Cepeda survived all such bouts of despair. After searching for
years for a faith to cling to, he had just found a Buddhist
sect, the Nichiren Shoshu, whose teachings were designed to give
a man not only a sense of peace and calm but also tools to deal
with his bitterness and anger. He attended daily meetings and
began the practice of chanting, over and over, two hours a day,
the cleansing mantra of the sect: Nam myoho renge kyo.

Buddhism aside, a key figure in his transformation was his third
wife, Mirian Ortiz, a Puerto Rican travel agent from New York.
"I read his life story," she says, "and I said to him, 'What are
we doing in L.A.? This is a Dodger town. We have to move to San
Francisco.'" He had been traded to St. Louis in '66 for pitcher
Ray Sadecki in a deal that had backfired on the Giants, and
Cepeda wondered how the fans would receive an ex-con.

"He felt that he had been disgraced and there was no way back,"
says Laurence Hyman, then the publisher of Giants Magazine, who
visited him in L.A. in 1986 to do a story. Working to reunite
Cepeda and the Giants, Hyman talked the Baby Bull into attending
a game that season, and when Cepeda walked through Candlestick,
he was stunned by the reception. Recalls Hyman, "People stopped
and said, 'My god! It's Orlando Cepeda!' He was besieged for
autographs, and he was charmed by the whole thing."

Hyman brought him to Candlestick more than once, introducing him
to members of the Giants' front office, and Number 30 simply won
his way back. Orlando and Mirian moved to Northern California in
1987. In 1988 he scouted for the Giants and helped develop young
players. A year later the organization offered him a
$20,000-a-year contract as a special assistant for player
development. He gradually became the Giants' roving ambassador
of goodwill. Visiting Puerto Rican neighborhoods such as those
in North Philadelphia and the Bronx, he speaks of his ghetto
roots and sings a simple message: "You have no excuses. You only
have opportunities. Be somebody. Make a difference."

Cepeda began doing just that a dozen years ago, and he figures
it all came together in March, when he finally got the call from
the Hall. "I wasn't ready to get in before," he says. "I still
had work to do in healing myself." On his way to the press
conference to announce his election, the moment was sweetened.
"No one is going to wear number 30 anymore, Orlando," Giants
owner Peter Magowan told him. "It's retired." Two weeks later
the Puerto Rican government brought Cepeda home in triumph, with
a parade that began at the airport--the very one where his
downfall had begun--and wound its way to Old San Juan along
avenues lined with people.

In Cooperstown, after roaming the rooms and corridors, studying
the pictures and the plaques, Cepeda spoke of the pride he felt
in at last having a home in the Hall. "This seals it," he said.
"To get the recognition that every ballplayer seeks--this is
completion for me."

In far more ways than that.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTOR BALDIZON In the Pantheon On a May tour of Cooperstown, Cepeda discovered plaques of old teammates--and a photo of his dad. B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS Young Giant In '58 the ebullient Baby Bull (scoring against the Cubs) was Rookie of the Year and the toast of the Bay Area. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY VICTOR BALDIZON Cepeda began the practice of chanting, over and over, two hours a day, the cleansing mantra of his Buddhist sect.
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