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It was 20 years later that Cepeda, newly retired from baseball, returned to Puerto Rico with big plans. He was going to build a health spa, start some youth baseball camps and do clinics throughout the Caribbean. He was married for the second time and the father of three sons.
While Cepeda was giving a baseball clinic in Colombia, a taxi driver suggested that he could provide Cepeda with "some really good stuff." Cepeda had smoked marijuana on occasion—strictly, he insists, to be sociable. "I have never been addicted to anything in my life, smoke or drink," he says. "But back then, I was having trouble coping without baseball. I guess I had too much time on my hands." He says he asked the cabbie for just enough of the good stuff for himself and a little more for some of his friends back home. He thought no more about it.
On Dec. 12, 1975, Cepeda appeared at the San Juan airport to retrieve two boxes from Colombia that were addressed to him. He says he never actually saw the marijuana package, "but they say it weighed anywhere from 60 to 125 pounds." He was arrested for importing an illegal substance. "The next four years were a nightmare," he says. "I have only myself to blame. Whatever happened to me was my fault, but I lost everything—car, home. My wife, Nydia, had to go on welfare." After a 1976 trial in federal court, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. On the island where his father had been a god, he became a pariah. He had disgraced the family name.
Cepeda was released after serving 10 months; he was humiliated, despondent and broke. Eventually he came to the melancholy conclusion that on this island "there was nothing for me. Puerto Rico is a small place. They had not forgotten, and they had not forgiven." In 1984, he moved to Los Angeles and opened a baseball school, but it soon failed. An autobiography, High & Inside, didn't sell. Nydia—"a good woman who suffered right along with me"—divorced him. He was separated from his four sons. He had friends on the Dodgers, but the team was not happy about their associating with him. He stopped going to games at Dodger Stadium, exiled from the game he loved.
"In L.A., nothing worked," he says. "I was clean and trying to do better in life. I had made one mistake, and I suffered for that. I had hurt myself, my family, my friends. I was going through a kind of hell. I was depressed, angry. I was blaming everybody for what was going on. I looked terrible. All the garbage I'd accumulated in life was heaped around me. And then...everything changed."
Cepeda, in jogging clothes, sits before his Buddhist Gohonzon scroll. From a hook, he reads aloud: "As one grows older, he tends to lose his lively spirit and his hope for the future. Also, one tends to complain more. If this happens, most people will see their life and faith lose vigor. You should not let the strength or splendor of your faith waver, no matter how old you become."
One night in L.A. in 1984, Cepeda was talking with Rudy Regalado, a Venezuelan-born drummer who was shocked by his friend's downcast state. He suggested that Orlando join him at one of the meetings of his Buddhist sect, the Nichiren Shoshu. Cepeda, a nonpracticing Catholic, became an instant convert. He found new friends and a philosophy that seemed most miraculously to smooth the rough spots in his life, to curb a burgeoning persecution complex. He began chanting regularly and practicing the tenets of the Nichiren Shoshu religion. In Buddhism, he learned, "you don't blame anybody. Any problems in your life, you alone have created. You learn that even thing that happens in life is you. Only you can make the changes. Buddhism cleared the air for me. I discovered that winter always turns to spring."
Spring came soon for Cepeda when he met his future wife, Mirian, a Puerto Rican from New York. "I was chanting for a good woman," he says, "and she shows up at my doorstep." In 1986 he met a publisher named Laurence Hyman, who was interviewing former Giants players for a story. "I was perplexed that no one seemed to know where Orlando was," says Hyman. "I found him in L.A. and was instantly struck by what a dynamic, charismatic and knowledgeable person he was and how unchallenged he seemed to be. I told him I just couldn't believe he was wasting away in Southern California, that he wasn't living in the north where people remember him fondly. Come back, I told him, and something good will happen."
That July, Hyman persuaded Cepeda to join him for a game at Candlestick Park, a place he had not visited since the Giants traded him—banished him, in his view—20 years earlier. "He was very nervous," says Hyman, "but no sooner had he walked through the gate than people began rushing up to him to say hello and tell him how important he had been in their lives. He was in a state of emotional shock. I knew then he'd come home again."
Hyman calls the wildly diverse crowd that hangs out with Cepeda "Orlando People. "And they are at Candlestick Park this chilly evening, impressively eclectic, sharing Mezzanine Box 68 with Orlando and Mirian. Cepeda, crowned by a suede cowboy hat, circulates among his guests looking for all the world like the happiest man in the ballpark, which he probably is.