Unlike the beloved Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda was never a New York Giant. His first season in 1958 was also the Giants’ first one on the West Coast. He crushed 25 home runs that season, was named Rookie of the Year, and became San Francisco’s first homegrown Giants superstar. By the time bad knees forced him to call it quits in 1974, “The Baby Bull” seemed destined for the Hall of Fame with 379 home runs and 1,365 runs batted in, but everything came crashing down just a year later.
Cepeda went to pick up two cartons and two suitcases shipped from Colombia at San Juan International Airport in his native Puerto Rico on Dec. 12, 1975. The cartons were packed with 165 pounds of weed all wrapped in cowhide rugs. Once Cepeda loaded everything into his red Mercedes, U.S. Customs agents sprung their trap. They had been staking out the parcels for two days. Cepeda was busted.
With cuffs still around his wrists, he was marched into a federal courthouse in San Juan by six U.S. Marshalls later that day. The Chronicle described him as “extremely nervous.” Adding to the humiliation, the feds confiscated his car claiming that it was bought with drug money, even though it had been given to him as a signing bonus when he joined the Red Sox in 1973.
“I learned that one mistake, in two seconds, can make a disaster that seems to last forever,” Cepeda told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “I made a huge mistake. Bad judgment. Bad friends. Stupidity.”
Cepeda had been revered in his native Puerto Rico, but after his arrest he was reviled. Somebody killed his German shepherd puppy and shot another of his dogs in the ear with a BB gun. Kids told him that their parents didn’t want him to coach the sandlot baseball games that his 11-year old son played in. The manager of a San Juan gym told Cepeda not to work out there anymore.
“You are bad for business,” the manager said.
Cepeda planned on building a health spa of his own on a parcel of land in Puerto Rico he had bought for $40,000, but lawyers drained the money he’d need to launch a successful business. Although still a free man while his case waded through the court system, The New York Times called Cepeda “a prisoner on his own porch.”
Cepeda was finally sentenced to five years at the minimum-security camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on June 26, 1978 where he scrubbed toilets and washed underwear.
“The bigger you are in prison, in notoriety, the more they want to tear you down,” Joe Trout, who did time with Cepeda, told Sports Illustrated.
Cepeda initially denied knowing anything about the weed, but later confessed to smoking it to cope with the severe pain in his knees.
“Somebody gave me a joint and I felt great,” he told the LA. Times.
Cepeda was paroled on April 15, 1979 after serving 10 months. He returned to Puerto Rico, but things were just as bad for him there as they were before he went to prison. Cepeda packed up his family and moved to a cramped three-bedroom apartment in Burbank in 1984.
“People kept saying I was a disgrace,” Cepeda said. “My life was a disaster, and I was looking to change it.”
But Los Angeles was hardly the place where Cepeda could bounce back. When he went to Dodger Stadium to watch batting practice and maybe talk to some players, two men in suits asked him to leave. It seemed like his lowest moment. Cepeda even considered suicide, but his third wife, Mirian Ortiz, urged him to return to the Bay Area.
“What are we doing in L.A.?” she asked. “This is a Dodger town. We have to move to San Francisco.”
Cepeda expected more heartbreak when he went to a Giants game at Candlestick Park in 1986, but the fans mobbed him for autographs. The Giants gave him a job scouting talent in 1988, and he has worked in some capacity for the organization ever since.
Cepeda was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee in 1999. The Giants honored Cepeda with a statue near AT&T Park’s Second Street entrance in 2008.
“When things like this happen to you, that’s when I say to myself, ‘Orlando, you’re a very lucky person,'” he said during the statue’s unveiling.