Cepeda still paying for his big mistake Time running out on Hall of Fame bid

July 13, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

He is the Baby Bull no longer. He is 55 now, with a receding hairline, a tired look in his eyes and two of the worst arthritic knees you ever would want to walk on.

It is not easy being Orlando Cepeda these days.

There is that stain on an otherwise clean slate, the one that keeps the Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico from getting into the Hall of Fame.

In 1975, Cepeda tried to smuggle 160 pounds of marijuana into San Juan for a friend. He went to jail for 10 months, spent two more in a halfway house in Philadelphia.

Almost 20 years later, he still is paying the price. He has one year left on his 15-year Hall of Fame eligibility, then his candidacy goes to the Veterans Committee. He has been close, but not close enough.

"The Hall of Fame is the ultimate goal of every baseball player," Cepeda said yesterday at Camden Yards after playing in the Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball game.

"In my case, getting into the Hall of Fame means you can overcome so much if you try. I've been through a lot in my life."

Cepeda's Hall of Fame credentials are impeccable. He hit 379 career home runs, 33rd all-time. He drove in 1,365 runs, 51st all-time. He had a career average of .297.

Of the 18 retired players who have hit more than 300 home runs and batted over .295, only Cepeda is not in the Hall of Fame.

He was the 1958 Rookie of the Year for the San Francisco Giants. He was the 1966 Comeback Player of the Year for the St. Louis Cardinals, one year after major knee surgery. He was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1967, leading the Cardinals to the World Series with a .325 average, 25 home runs and a league-leading 111 RBI.

He hit over .300 nine times. He is one of four players in the history to lead the league in RBI for two different teams.

But when Cepeda fell in 1975, life never would be the same. He reached a low point in 1984 after his first wife left him and took the kids.

He was living in Los Angeles, and for a time, he considered taking his life.

Then he found Buddhism, and a way out, and he was on the comeback trail once again.

"I was bitter, mad and going nowhere," he said. "My life turned completely around [after he became a Buddhist]. I was more focused. It helped me."

He rejoined the Giants and worked in community service. He talks to kids all the time now, trying to channel his energy to help others. He works with Sports Fans Against Substance Abuse, goes to inner-city schools and works in the Athletes Against AIDS program.

"I tell them to focus on trying to build a future, going to school, setting goals for themselves," Cepeda said. "Be a better person. Life is too precious. I paid my dues, I went to jail."

The Giants think Cepeda has more than redeemed himself. They have taken him on a goodwill tour designed to let people know what kind of person he really is.

"He's paid his dues ten-fold," said Giants spokesman Bob Rose. "He's touching young people's lives every day. I challenge anybody to show me who is doing as much for the game as he is."

Cepeda, says he tries to stay positive about his final year on the ballot. "Last night I was laying in bed, picturing myself at Cooperstown, giving my speech," he said yesterday.

And if it doesn't happen? "I can deal with it," he said. "Sometimes, things aren't meant to be."

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