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New York Daily News

Cepeda Savors MLB's Latin Flavor


April 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Daily News, L.P. All rights reserved. 

It wasn't always this good for Latin baseball players. At one point, neither Sammy Sosa's flair nor Roberto Alomar's fluidity existed. But there was a time when racism was like stirrups or batting practice, just part of the game.

That was what a young Orlando Cepeda had to deal with when he came to the U.S. in 1955, a 17-year-old just trying to play baseball. He did, better than just about everyone else, and in 1999 became the second Puerto Rican to make the Hall of Fame.

Today he is back in San Juan, where he will throw out the first pitch before the Mets play the Expos in a game that will feature several Puerto Ricans on both teams. Thinking about how different things are now makes Cepeda smile.

"It's hard to explain," Cepeda said earlier this week. "There were so few Latin players back then. It wasn't like it is now, where everyone expects to see them."

Indeed, Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan will be packed this weekend. The Expos boast Jose Vidro, Javier Vazquez and Wil Cordero, and the Mets have what is believed to be the first all-Puerto Rican double-play combination in Alomar and Rey Sanchez. Cepeda laughs when he talks about Alomar, since he is close with Alomar's father and has known Roberto since he was just a young boy.

"Orlando knows me like one of his kids," Alomar said. "We, as a people, felt so happy (when Cepeda made the Hall of Fame), because we know what he went through."

Cepeda played with Sandy Alomar Sr. in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and that's where Roberto Clemente - the only other player from the tiny island to make the Hall of Fame - discovered the "Baby Bull." Cepeda's father, Pedro, was called the "Babe Ruth of the Caribbean," but when Clemente approached Cepeda's parents about bringing Orlando with him to the U.S., his mother was concerned.

His father, however, was not.

"My father said, 'You're going to do it because we need money. We have no money,' " Cepeda recalled. "So I went."

After a few years in the minors, Cepeda made his debut in 1958 and won the Rookie of the Year award. It was the start of a decorated 17-year career, which could have been even greater if not for several knee injuries. He hit a homer in his first game, helping the Giants beat Don Drysdale and the Dodgers. Ted Williams said Cepeda was one of the best hitters he had ever seen.

He still loves to talk baseball, calling Vazquez "the next Juan Marichal" and discussing the possibility of Puerto Rico getting an MLB franchise in the future. The Expos will play 22 games there this season, and Cepeda said it's not far-fetched for San Juan to have a team. His only concern is that for all the hype that Latin baseball players get nowadays, there may not be enough of a fan base. Soccer still rules, he admitted.

"It's so important for the Puerto Rican people to support it, so that in the future we can have (a team)," he said.

Cepeda never got to play a major league game in his home country. He threw out the first pitch of the 2001 season-opening series between Texas and Toronto, just like he'll do tonight. Because he was asked at the last minute, he came to San Juan without his family.

And before he left, he mentioned that he felt honored to be asked to do something to help support baseball in Puerto Rico. However, those in attendance tonight know that he has done plenty.

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