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From Shame to Frame
William Nack
July 26, 1999
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
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July 26, 1999

From Shame To Frame

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

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"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 Díaz, 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 Díaz's house. Someone killed his German shepherd puppy and shot his other shepherd in the ear with a BB gull. 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.

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