Happy 80th: Giants to honor Cepeda's big day

First 20,000 fans at Saturday's game to receive replica of HOFer's statue

Happy 80th: Giants to honor Cepeda's big day

SAN FRANCISCO -- Among the five statues outside AT&T Park that honor the Giants' San Francisco-era Hall of Famers, Orlando Cepeda's likeness is the only one that isn't captured in athletic activity. Cepeda's 80th birthday reminds us why this is so.

Cepeda accented his performance with attitude -- an infectious joy that helped shape his identity.

"That's how he got his nickname, 'Cha Cha,'" former Giants pitcher Bobby Bolin said Friday. "He was always happy."

Thus, the statues feature Juan Marichal's marvelous leg kick, Gaylord Perry's stylish delivery, Willie Mays' swing at its graceful conclusion, Willie McCovey's iconic follow-through -- and Cepeda's smile as he's preparing to play catch.

"I'm glad you noticed," said Cepeda, adding that former Giants president Peter Magowan insisted on the statue's beaming visage.

So it's fitting that the Giants will celebrate Cepeda's big day by distributing replicas of his statue to the first 20,000 fans to enter the ballpark for Saturday's 6:05 p.m. PT game against Arizona. These patrons will receive a keepsake of what Cepeda's all about.

As a Major Leaguer, Cepeda swung with ferocity. He batted .297 with 379 home runs in 17 seasons, including the first eight and a half years with the Giants. From his prodigious 1958 debut, when he earned the National League Rookie of the Year Award, through the controversial 1966 trade that sent him to St. Louis for left-hander Ray Sadecki, Cepeda hit .308 with 226 homers and 767 RBIs for San Francisco. He prompted awe simply by standing in the batter's box.

"His bat looked like it was extended to the sky," former utility man Joey Amalfitano said. "It looked like he had a telephone pole in his hand."

As a practicing Buddhist, Cepeda knows of only one way to behave.

"Be nice to people," said Cepeda, a native of Puerto Rico. "Show people respect. Show people that we're blessed. That's the way I feel. That is the way my mother raised me."

Cepeda, whose milestone birthday is actually on Sunday, appreciated the blessing of becoming an octogenarian.

"Eighty years old, man? Wow! Incredible!" he said.

For Bolin and Amalfitano, both of whom played with and against Cepeda, the passing of the decades has not eroded memories of his skill.

"He could look bad on one pitch," Bolin said, "and if you threw him the same pitch, he would square it up. He wasn't a 'guess' hitter. He just went after the ball."

Amalfitano recalled a gargantuan homer that Cepeda hit off Cubs left-hander Dick Ellsworth at Wrigley Field.

"I swear, he hit this ball that struck one of those big girders that holds up the scoreboard," said Amalfitano, a Giants special assistant in baseball operations. "It got under the scoreboard, between the floor of the bleachers and the base of that scoreboard, and I like to say that it ricocheted in there for about two innings, like a tennis ball. I'm exaggerating, but that ball was crunched."

Amalfitano didn't exaggerate when he addressed Cepeda's character.

"They couldn't honor a better guy," Amalfitano said.

Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.