In Pittsburgh last year, Pirates sportscasters dubbed him the "Cairo Kid," fellow players said he was one of the best young prospects around and Manager Chuck Tanner called him the team's "now and future shortstop." His name? Sami Khalifa, thought to be the first Arab ever to make it into baseball's major leagues.
Sami - or "Sammy," as he is to most people - was born in America, but his Arab heritage is still strong. He is the son of an Egyptian agricultural research scientist, Rashad Khalifa, who is a devout Muslim and an Islamic scholar, who has written five books on the Koran and on Islamic teachings and who encouraged U.S. football player Bobby Moore to become a Muslim. Sami himself speaks Arabic and says quite openly that his Islamic faith has helped in what is fast becoming an outstanding career in baseball.
To an extent, the handsome, rugged Khalifa lucked into the Pirates' shortstop position after starting the season with the Pirates' AAA team in Honolulu, Hawaii; in one of the most dismal, injury-plagued seasons ever, Johnny Le Master, the Pirates' fifth shortstop of the season, was sidelined with an ankle injury in mid-June and the Pirates brought up Khalifa.
But after that, luck had nothing to do with it. Fast and aggressive, Khalifa played in nearly every game for the rest of the seaon, hit .238 and typified what a Pirates spokesman called "the new attitude." He was, in fact, one of the few bright spots in a season that saw the Pirates lose 104 games, a far cry from the club's 1979 world championship performance.
To get to the big leagues, Sammy had to come a long way: from Fontana, California via Cairo, Egypt; St. Louis, Missouri; Tripoli, Libya and Tucson, Arizona.
Born in Fontana, while his father was studying for a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of California at Riverside, Sammy later lived in the Middle East - Egypt and Libya - when his father returned there to work.
An athlete himself - captain of the Ain Shams University swimming team - Rashad Khalifa had taught at Riverside for two years after getting his doctorate, but then accepted a job in Cairo with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture as head of horticultural research. Altogether the Khalifa's spent about three years in Egypt - where Sammy learned to speak Arabic and came to know his grandparents who lived about 80 kilometers outside Cairo (50 miles). After his stint with the agricultural ministry, Rashad took his family from the banks of the Nile to the banks of the Mississippi in St. Louis, Missouri, where he became a senior research chemist at the world headquarters of Monsanto Company.
During the family's stay in St. Louis the senior Khalifa met a professional football player named Bobby Moore, a wide receiver with the Cardinals, and began to discuss the teachings of Islam with him. Moore, now a popular football commentator for NBC television, eventually began to attend Friday services at a mosque in St. Louis with the Khalifa's and finally, after tutelage from Sammy's father, embraced Islam. He also changed his name to Ahmad Rashad, choosing the surname Rashad as a token of esteem for his teacher.
Meanwhile, Sammy had begun to play soccer and baseball. But then, in 1974, the family returned to the Arab world again - when Sammy's father was hired by the United Nations to work as an agricultural adviser to Libya - and Sammy decided that that was the end of sports; though he had begun to show traces of the athletic ability that would propel him into the major leagues, his first look at the athletic grounds in Tripoli's international school disappointed him. There was little, if any, grass on the playing fields. "We figured there wouldn't be much going on in the way of baseball," Sammy's mother [Stephanie Khalifa of Tucson, Arizona] said, "but fortunately we were wrong. Baseball was very popular in the school and, furthermore, there was good, stiff competition among the teams."
During this time, Mrs. Khalifa - who had met Rashad when they were both students at the University of Arizona - was always in the stands rooting for her son. She called herself a "cheerleader mother" during a telephone interview with Aramco World, but added that Sammy didn't need much pushing once he developed an interest in athletics. "He had a lot of enthusiasm ... He liked sports and always wanted to be a part of one team or another. He is also an excellent tennis player and was quarterback of his high school football team," she said.
Sammy's father is equally proud. "It's been a great thing, thank God, to watch him grow and see this. I can't say that he got his skill from me, though, for I was, how do you say it, a jack-of-all sports, but a master of none."
In Libya, the international school teams - the American facility was known as the "Oil Company School" - were a mixture of North Americans, Europeans and a few Arabs and Sammy thrived in a six-team league. He also learned some tricks that have aided him through the years. "It was an all-sand field and to get it ready for a game they soaked it and then rolled it with a steam roller. It made me learn to be aware of the ball. It makes artificial turf a breeze. You never really knew what the ball would do. Sometimes, it would just sink into the sand. In hindsight, it's sort of funny," said Sammy as he sat in the Pirate dugout, watching his fellow players take batting practice.
After a year in Libya, the Khalifa family returned to the United States again where Sammy enrolled in Sahuaro High School in Tucson and began to make a name for himself as an athlete. By the time he graduated in 1982, he had been named All-City, All-State, AU-American and Arizona Player of the Year. For good measure, he was also picked as Tucson's All-City quarterback. Earlier, though he was a sophomore, he had begun to play shortstop on the varsity team - and to think he might be able to make it in major league baseball.
According to Sammy, success was due partly to his high school coach, Hal Eustice, "the man who has done more for me than any other coach. I owe him, and coach Jack Lehmku, a heck of a lot."
Eustice says it was the other way around. Khalifa, he says, "was a truly amazing kid and a fine young man. He's always paying attention, always intense, always asking questions, trying to figure out how to do things better... When other kids were fielding 100 balls a day, Sammy was fielding 200."
According to Eustice, Khalifa's experience as a tennis player helped him get a jump on the ball as it was leaving the bat. "I think he just had great instincts, and he built on them; he always wanted to know how to get the advantage in the game. I think he did darn good for his half season in the big leagues. I'm sure he'll keep improving. In my three years of coaching him, he was constantly amazing me," he said.
He apparently amazed the Pirates' scouts too. In 1982, right out of high school, Sammy was the number one draft pick of the Pirates organization and was immediately sent to the Rookie League in Florida. He was also offered a scholarship at Arizona State University, which, he said, his father would have liked him to take. But he went with his first love - baseball - and after a week the Pirates, realizing they had a hot prospect, moved him up to Class A ball, where he spent the rest of the summer and batted a strong .305. Later that season Sammy moved up to the Carolina League and hit a respectable .270. "It was good training for me. Of course, you've got to put up with long, tiring bus rides and little motels. But that's all part of paying your dues. Everyone has to do it to make it."
In 1984, the roof fell in: he was hit by a ball on the left wrist the last day of spring training. He remembers it as a high, inside pitch that stung him hard and as a result he had to spend the first six weeks of the season sitting on the bench mending a broken ulna.
Two months later, lightning struck again. In a freak accident, another high inside pitch struck him on the same spot and again he was sidelined, this time for the rest of the seaon.
Despite the injuries Khalifa continued to impress Pirate coaches. He was sent to the Florida instructional league and in October that year was sent to the Hawaii Islanders, a Class AAA team - where he immediately won praise from manager Tommy Sandt. "He has range, speed and a good arm. He's a player on his way to the big leagues."
Sandt was right. In 1985, while the Pirates were burning up a series of shortstops, Khalifa was posting a .281 average with 23 RBI's and one home run, a record that helped the Islanders win the first half of their season. No one was surprised, therefore, when the call from Pittsburgh came on June 25. "I was so excited. It was what I had worked almost all my life for."
In announcing that the Pirates were bringing up Khalifa, spokesman Ed Wade said that team officials had been impressed with the way Khalifa had bounced back from his broken wrist, and that Chuck Tanner had liked what he had seen in the Florida instructional league.
Later Wade got even more enthusiastic. "He's a bright light for us in a dark and dismal season," He said. "We like his attitude, we like his hustle and the fans like him, too. He's fresh blood for a team that has needed some fresh blood. We hope he can do a lot more for us."
During his first game - against Montreal - Sammy very nearly did nothing whatever for the Pirates. Though he managed to force one runner at second base, he also missed a bouncing groundball that glanced off his mitt and rolled into center field and some fans, no doubt, began to wonder what the kid was doing out there with the big boys.
Then, at bat, Khalifa quickly won the fans back. In the sixth inning, he broke up a no-hitter with a grounder to left field that brought in two runs, in the seventh, he broke a bat hitting a blooper to center field, and in the ninth, with two out, he lined a ball into the outfield, a performance that won him player of the game honors, a watch and the praise of Tanner. "He's good. He's quick and he has the potential to be a major league shortstop for a lot of years."
His performance also won the praise of three fans from California: his father, mother and 16-year-old sister, Beth, who had flown from Arizona to see Sammy's big league debut. They saw him play twice more during the season, and in Los Angeles Sammy hit a homer for them.
For Khalifa, that first game in the big leagues was heady stuff - "the most exciting game of my life" - but the next night was even better: he hit two doubles in an 11-2 rout of the Expos, one of which sparked a six-run second inning. He even got cheered when he struck out.
As the season was winding down last fall, Tanner still had the same high opinion of his new shortstop."He has done an outstanding job and he will keep getting better and better. He's a hard-nosed type of player and he's been giving us all he's got all season. He's got to refine some of his points, but what rookie doesn't? He's capable of playing on a championship club and I figure he'll be our shortstop again next year."
In retrospect, Khalifa said he believed he had improved during his first season, but made it clear that he hadn't done it all alone. He had special thanks for first base coach Willie Stargell, a member of the Pirates 1979 championship team. "Tanner and Willie Stargell took me aside when I got here and told me it was the same game I was playing back in Little League. That helped," he said.
In a sport where players of different races and nationalities mix freely, Sammy said, the fact that he has an Arab background has never been a problem. "Sure, there's always some clubhouse ribbing and I've been called 'the shaikh,' but it's been in fun. I never felt any prejudice in Arizona or anywhere else. People respect me for what I am and that's good."
No one knows what is going to happen this year, of course, but Sammy is optimistic. "I'm already excited. I can't wait."
Brian Clark covers sports and outdoor activities for Aramco World magazine.