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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

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.

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