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ORLANDO CEPEDA : Following His Conviction for Importation and Possession of Marijuana, This Former Major-League Baseball Player Has a Home Based in Burbank and Life Based on Buddhism

January 21, 1985|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

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.

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