SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
October 16, 1991
Orlando Cepeda and San Francisco fell in love in 1958. The romance wavered but never died
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October 16, 1991

The Heart Of A Giant

Orlando Cepeda and San Francisco fell in love in 1958. The romance wavered but never died

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Among the Orlando People in attendance tonight is Armando Peraza, a Cuban in his 70's who is one of the finest of all jazz conga drummers. Sitting next to him is Mike Galo, a Nicaraguan-born former bantamweight boxer who quit the ring undefeated in 1962 and has been selling men's clothes at some of San Francisco's more fashionable haberdasheries ever since. He is here with his wife, Lorena, and her sister, Gloria Eckstein, who is the proprietress of Beale Street, a downtown nightclub. Says Galo. "I met Orlando at the Copacabana back in '58. He was soooo big in the Latin community here then. They loved him. I still love him."

Also in the box is Wayne Menicucci, president of the 300-member Orlando Cepeda Fan Club. The back of his jacket is emblazoned with a list of his hero's accomplishments: 1958 Rookie of the Year, 1966 Comeback Player of the Year, 1967 National league Most Valuable Player, 1973 DH of the Year. Menicucci teaches physical education at Rohnert Park Junior High School, about 45 miles north of San Francisco. "I grew up in the Mays-Cepeda-McCovey era, "he says. "I'm 46 now, but I'm still in awe of Orlando. He's done two assemblies at our school, and let me tell you, I've been there 24 years and I've never heard such ovations for a speaker. The man is amazing."

In 1987 Cepeda appeared in a Giants "fantasy camp" and met Giants vice-president Pat Gallagher. "Of all the ex-players we had there," says Gallagher, "Orlando was the approachable idol. I couldn't believe it; I kept waiting for the flaws to show in that great personality. But there were no flaws. He is such a genuine person, such an emotional person, that you feel like' hugging him. You get this sense that people just want to love him. I asked him if he'd he interested in coming hack to work for the Giants."

Cepeda was hired in January 1989 as a "special assistant for player development," but the job has evolved into more of a goodwill ambassadorship, with Cepeda representing the Giants at banquets, at hospitals, at youth camps. At the end of his first season on the job, Cepeda anxiously asked Gallagher, "I low am I doing?"

"How're you doing?" Gallagher replied. "I'll tell you how. You're going to throw out the first ball in the first playoff game at Candlestick." And with 62,065 fans watching, Cepeda stood on the mound before Game 3 of the 1989 Championship Series between the Giants and Cubs "with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was crying because I knew I was where I belonged. Oh, it was so beautiful to he wanted again. It makes you feel you've accomplished something after all."

In 1990, Cepeda was elected to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, joining Mays, McCovey, Marichal and Joe DiMaggio there. There is one more Hall to go.

Orlando Cepeda and Armando Peraza are on conga drums and Ray Cepeda—"We are not related, but we could be"—is at the mike with his electric guitar. They are jamming outdoors at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. The bay glistens behind them, and the Golden Gate Bridge soars above an approaching jog. Orlando, at 240 pounds, dwarfs his fellow musicians. He laughs and shakes with the rhythm, his great hands pounding the tubular-shaped drum. A curious crowd has gathered, and soon they begin dancing to the Latin beat; they are blithely unaware that the big man on drums was once a famous ballplayer. As the music swells, Rodney Byrd, a street saxophonist who has been working a nearby corner, decides to join in.

Byrd recognizes Orlando. "Hey, man, Orlando Cepeda! How about that?"

Orlando, his hands a blur, nods and smiles.

"Hey, Orlando, I used to live next door to Bobby Bonds down in Riverside."

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