FACE TO FACE WITH MY CHILDHOOD HERO

FACE TO FACE WITH MY CHILDHOOD HERO

From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Face to Face with My Childhood Hero

It is not enough to know how to ride; you must also know how to fall.

Mexican Proverb

I can remember only one thing about the year 1967. I was five then. That was the year my hero shined the brightest in his Major League career.

The Baby Bull we called him, with his strutting walk, his long, towering home runs, his flashy plays at first base, his charisma. I will never forget my father patiently translating Jack Buck’s colorful comments into Spanish every time Orlando Cepeda stepped to the plate. I held on to my dad firmly as the ball was hit into the air. My dad’s rough “play by play” was full of emotion as the ball kept going back, “Atrás, atrás, atrássss y la bola se llevó la cerca!!!” I can remember only the ones that went out, twenty-five of them that year. Each and every one of them forever engraved in the sacred annals of baseball history.

Orlando excelled for sixteen years in the majors. There were others—Clemente, Aparicio, Marichal—but Cepeda was the star in my eyes. Every night, I went to bed dreaming of one day stepping into his shoes to carry on his tradition of excellence. On December 12, 1975, that tradition turned into a cruel nightmare. My hero, the man that I and hundreds of thousands of other kids idolized, was sentenced to a term in federal prison for a drug-law violation.

For years I mourned my hero as if he had died. It was beyond my understanding to put this occurrence into perspective. “God couldn’t make mistakes, so how could Orlando?” The question lingered in my mind for many years to come, until one day in 1986, fate brought me face to face with my childhood hero. Eleven years had passed, and time had answered many questions. I wasn’t bitter anymore, but I was still disappointed.

At a friend’s party on a Friday night, I met Orlando Cepeda, Jr., or as we knew him from television commercials, Orlandito. We began talking and hit it off right away. The twenty-year-old Cepeda was a funny character, never at a loss for words. We spent the night reminiscing about his father’s career. It was a dream come true to hear all these stories from a source who had experienced them firsthand. At the end of the party, we exchanged phone numbers, and he invited me to lunch at his house the next day. That night I didn’t sleep one bit—I was about to come face to face with my idol.

Saturday morning, I made my way to a very humble yet charming apartment in Burbank, California. I always pictured myself meeting Orlando at a run-down Little League field in my Puerto Rican hometown, Fajardo. In my fantasy, I would have just finished a doubleheader in which I went six for eight with two homers, five RBIs and a couple of stolen bases. I had played it through in my mind so many times: Orlando coming up to me, saying, “You’ve got what it takes, kid. I’ll see you in the big leagues.” This had to be the longest running daydream in my entire life.

As I approached the doorstep, I could smell the aroma of red beans seasoned with homemade sofrito and fried onions. This wonderful smell reminded me again of my childhood days when every home smelled that way around suppertime.

With great excitement, I finally rang the doorbell. The door opened, and there he was. He stood tall, looking pretty much like I remembered, perhaps a few pounds overweight. “Come in. Orlandito will be right down. You’re Carlos, right? Put it there, partner,” he said with a deep voice and warm smile.

“Yes sir, Carlos Bermúdez,” I replied, and shook the hand of a legend. Time stood still, and the electricity of those yesteryear dreams flashed back through my mind at light speed.

I entered the house and looked around, admiring all the baseball memorabilia on the walls and shelves: Rookie of the Year Award, 1958; National League MVP, 1967; Comeback Player of the Year, 1966; Designated Hitter of the Year, 1973. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane. He walked behind me and answered all my questions. I was overwhelmed by the strangest of feelings; here I was talking to a man I’d never met before, but one I felt I knew so much about. Even the men in the pictures felt like old friends: Mays, McCovey, Maris, Mantle, Perez, Brock, Musial, most of them Hall of Famers. My eyes suddenly focused on one of the photos depicting Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda standing side-by-side, holding their bats in a batting stance.

“Greatest player I ever saw,” he said. The comment struck me because, for me, Orlando was the greatest, and his father, Perucho, was probably the best Latin player in the history of the game. Unfortunately, he never had the chance to measure his talent against the big boys in the Majors because the American leagues still excluded dark-skinned players.

Orlandito came down the stairs, and we headed for the kitchen to dig into the succulent arroz, habichuelas y bistec encebollado, which was masterfully prepared by Miriam, Orlando’s wife. We sat at the table and talked baseball, baseball and more baseball.

As I listened to endless stories, I saw in Orlando a man who was good, pure and simple. He was as human as the next guy, and human beings make mistakes. My hero— now turned friend—had made a few mistakes and paid dearly for them, more than anyone will ever know, but he had paid enough, and his legacy for his performance on the baseball field was long overdue.

Dinner was delicious, and the time came to say goodbye. Once more we walked past the wall of memories, and I stared like a little kid in front of a candy store. Orlando stood there pensively, and with a stroke of the chin, he turned to me.

“Yes, Carlos,” said my hero, “it was all that, and then some. The smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the chants of the fans. Every time I swung that bat, I did it for you and all those little boys who dreamed of being up there themselves one day. Perhaps you won’t stand at home plate at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the game on the line . . .” He put his gigantic hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes and went on, “. . . but you will have your own glory, and I hope I’m there to cheer you on.”

Such words, coming from my hero. He admired the fact that I had come to Hollywood with nothing in order to pursue a writing career. He thought I had a great deal of courage. In a split second, I had become my hero’s hero. Go figure.

I shook his powerful hand one last time.

“I’m proud of you, son,” he said. “Don’t give up on your dream.” With that, I walked to my car, overwhelmed by a monumental feeling of hope. The void that was created back in 1975 had been filled.

My hero had regained his place in my personal hall of fame.

Carlos R. Bermúdez

[EDITORS’ NOTE: The veterans’ committee finally inducted Orlando Cepeda into the Hall of Fame in 1999. ]

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