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‘I Am Not Afraid of Anything!’

Victorious—Orlando Cepeda and his wife, Elba, in Concord, Calif., October 2023. Photo by Lily Tumbale.

The World Tribune interviewed Orlando Cepeda about his nearly two-decade major league baseball career and how his Buddhist practice enabled him to become a spirtual champion. At 17, Mr. Cepeda moved to the U.S. from Ponce, Puerto Rico, to play baseball and, in 1958, was called to be in the majors. In his first season with the San Francisco Giants, he was unanimously voted as Rookie of the Year and, in 1967, was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

After retiring in 1974, Mr. Cepeda experienced highs and lows that were widely chronicled in the press. After becoming a Buddhist in April 1983, he transformed his life completely. As a testament to a life well lived, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999 and, in 2008, the San Francisco Giants honored him with a 9-foot statue at AT&T Park. 

World Tribune: Mr. Cepeda, thank you for talking with us today. Can you tell us how you started playing baseball?

Orlando Cepeda: I grew up playing baseball. My father, Pedro Cepeda, was a great baseball player in Puerto Rico. He traveled all over—to Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Cuba—to play baseball. In those days, due to segregation, he wasn’t allowed to play organized baseball in the U.S. because of his dark skin. 

I always wanted to be like my father. I was fortunate enough to have the ability to play baseball and had the opportunity to come to the States when I was 17. In those days, almost every player was white, so I was a pioneer Latin baseball player. 

I grew up poor in Puerto Rico. Back then, baseball players didn’t make much money, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to play. I wanted to be like my father and to support my mother. I felt that the only way I could escape poverty was to play ball. I didn’t know anything about being Black or being Latino. So when I moved to the U.S., it was very hard. 

WT: And yet, you achieved many things and had a great career. 

Cepeda: Yes, I feel so fortunate. I was voted the Rookie of the Year and the National League’s Most Valuable Player, and in 1999, I was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I feel very grateful in life. I have achieved everything I wanted and consider myself blessed. But I feel most grateful about finding Buddhism. Anyone who has the opportunity to know about Ikeda Sensei, Nichiren Daishonin and the Gohonzon should feel most fortunate. 

WT: What were you going through when you encountered Buddhism?

Cepeda: I was introduced to Buddhism after I retired from baseball. Up until that point, the only thing I knew was how to play ball. When I quit playing in 1974, I felt empty. I didn’t know what to do. My friend Rudy introduced me to Buddhist practice, and I told him, “I don’t need anything.” I grew up Catholic. He told me to try it and see if it worked. 

So, I did. Almost instantly I felt my life change. Buddhism gave me everything. 

I had been bitter, blaming everyone for my unhappiness. There was so much negativity in my life that I didn’t know I had, but once I started chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, everything became clear. Everything changed completely.

The biggest realization was that I needed to change. I didn’t need to look outside of myself. I got to know myself better. There were so many things in front of me, and it was up to me to go after it.

Two of my big goals when I started chanting were to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and to find a great partner. I have achieved both. 

Every night before I go to bed, I read something from Sensei—whether it is in the Living Buddhism or World Tribune or in one of his books. When I read his words, it feels like I’m getting guidance from him. 

WT: You met Sensei on multiple occasions, including in 2006, when you presented him with a San Francisco Giants jersey with the number 200 on it to commemorate his 200th academic honor. What was that encounter like?

Cepeda: I remember it like it was yesterday. I feel so fortunate that I could shake his hand and see him in person. When Sensei greeted me, he put his hand on his heart, and he bowed.

He is the most important person in my life right now. He taught me about human revolution. I’ve gone through a lot, but I don’t feel down when I think about all that Sensei has gone through. I just keep going based on his guidance, and I have conviction that everything will be fine. He taught me the power of the Gohonzon, and he also taught me that illness is also my mission for kosen-rufu. I know that with this practice, I can make the impossible possible.

WT: You talked about your illness. Can you tell us a little bit more?

Cepeda: I had my first knee surgery when I was 15. I wasn’t supposed to play ball. My father decided to go ahead with the surgery so that I could walk. Playing baseball was out of the question. But I told my mother that I was going to play no matter what. 

Even with my knee problems, I played for 20 years. But right now, at 86, it is hard for me to walk. I’ve had so many operations on my knees that I have to be in a wheelchair. When I fly to different cities—New York, Chicago, Texas—I’m in a wheelchair. In the beginning it was hard for me. People used to watch me run bases, and now it’s hard for me to even walk. But I read a quote from Sensei. He says no matter what happens, don’t let illness stop you.

Now I challenge my situation head-on. I’m the one living this situation. I say to myself: I want to use my illness to show actual proof in life. I will chant daimoku, do activities for kosen-rufu and show the power of the Gohonzon in my life. 

I have so many friends who I used to play ball with who are unable to walk. So I see it as my mission to get better and walk again. I’m getting better slowly. My struggles are a way to help other people. Like Sensei says, if you have a challenge in life, use the Gohonzon and the power of faith. With Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and Sensei, anything is possible. 

WT: Do you have any advice for young people fighting for their dreams?

Cepeda: So many people don’t trust anybody… or they complain. I don’t ever complain. I chant. Sensei says that there is a reason for everything. 

When obstacles appear, it is a great way to learn about life. As long as we face them head-on and remain undefeated, that is happiness. Happiness is to deal with problems and chant not to be defeated. I am not afraid of anything!

Those With a Dream Will Not Be Swayed

These excerpts are from Ikeda Sensei’s discussion with SGI-USA youth and high school division leaders in 2000. It can be found in Discussions on Youth, pp. 416–17.

Ikeda Sensei: One thing that sets humans apart from other animals is that we cherish dreams and hopes for the future. If you have a big dream, it can prevent you from being swayed by trivial things. Even if you should experience a temporary setback along the way and think you cannot go on, the important thing is to keep moving forward without giving up. 

What is failure in life? Making mistakes does not signal failure, but giving up on yourself when you’ve made mistakes or are feeling discouraged does. Not getting back on your feet when you’ve suffered a setback or disappointment—that is failure. True victors are those who get up again each time that they fall down. 

I believe you all know Orlando Cepeda, who was a major league baseball player. Last year [1999], in what was a great personal victory, he was finally inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Mr. Cepeda played professional baseball for 17 years, mainly with the San Francisco Giants. He gained fame as a great power hitter. 

Everybody thought he would easily make the Hall of Fame. But things took a turn for the worse after he retired from baseball and was arrested on drug-related charges.   

You cannot gain entry into the Hall of Fame just by having a superb baseball record. You must also possess an exemplary record off the field. When Mr. Cepeda was arrested, he lost everything.

However, in 1982, when his life hit rock bottom, he encountered Nichiren Buddhism. From that moment on, he began to challenge himself anew. He devoted himself not only to changing his own life but also to helping young people get back on the right track. His efforts and contributions to society were taken into consideration and, in what many have described as a miracle, he was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame last year [1999]. 

Sensei: When I met Mr. Cepeda, I was impressed by his strong faith and conviction. 

Answers and solutions to the problems and sufferings of youth do not suddenly appear. But it’s vital that you do not run away from your problems, and that you have the courage to continue facing them. Even though you may not find an answer to your problems right away, please continue to tackle them squarely. 

By doing so, you will find someday that you already have the answer. Therefore, the important thing is your sense of mission and the causes you decide to champion.

October 13, 2023, World Tribune, pp. 10–11

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