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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

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.

Any regrets?

"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.

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