Word came down from above: Make the kid feel at home. Sure, said the clubbie ... but the clubbie always said sure. He bled Bucco black-and-gold, Pat Hagerty's superiors raved in reviews of his work as the Pirates' minor league clubhouse and equipment manager. He was master of a million chores, the guy who kept the radar guns juiced, the resin bags dry, the coaches' coffee hot, the lint out of the players' jocks and the alligators out of the pond at the team's complex in Bradenton, Fla. • But then he paused and pondered: How the hell does a white-haired 48-year-old Irish Catholic clubbie from Steubenville, Ohio, make an 18-year-old Sotho tribesman from Africa feel at home?
THE TRIBESMAN WALKED INTO PIRATE CITY WEARING A THICK BUSH OF BLACK HAIR AND A HOODIE STUDDED WITH STARS. NO, HE DIDN'T WALK. HE HOPPED, HE SKIPPED; SOMETIMES HE DANCED. HE COULD OUTLEAP, OUT-ULULATE AND OUTLAST ALL THE OTHER SOTHO IN THE DAWN-TO-DARK DANCING CEREMONIES AROUND THEIR ANCESTORS' TOMBSTONES BACK HOME.
His head swiveled, absorbing all the dorm rooms, all the emerald fields, all the bats, all the balls; more more than he had witnessed in his life. He headed toward the clubhouse, chafing to bust out his blue-and-red glove and get cracking on his dream of becoming the first African ever to play major league baseball.
The clubbie exited the laundry room that morning last October. What language, he wondered, would a black South African speak? Even if they could communicate, what would a Pat Hagerty and a Mpho Ngoepe have to talk about?
The kid extended his hand and flashed a glittering smile. "Hello, sir!" he sang out to the clubbie. "My name is Gift!"
Gift. That was a relief. So much easier than that mouthful, mm-POH nn-WEE-pay. Gift spoke English. That was double relief. The teenager's accent, singsong inflections and machine-gun delivery might be a challenge, but at least Pat wouldn't have to decipher the kid's four other tongues—two dialects of Sotho, some Zulu and Afrikaans—or play charades.
The clubbie escorted the kid down a hallway, past the framed photos of the Bucs gods, Pat's idols as a boy in Steubenville. Nope, Gift had never heard of Maz or Pops or even the Great One, Clemente; hell, he'd barely heard of the Pittsburgh Pirates before they offered him a minor league contract and a $15,000 signing bonus last August. Pat introduced him around, showed him where to chuck his dirty stuff and how a Pirate's locker should be organized, but his big challenge was keeping the kid corralled. Gift seized every bat he saw and swung it, fondled and flipped every ball; nope, sorry, the clubbie kept telling Gift, he could only get his physical today and learn the lay of the land.
The teenager peered at his competition: big boys, muscled from years in high school and college weight rooms, fresh from a decade of year-round AAU programs or seven-hour days on Dominican diamonds. Gift stood 5'8", weighed 178 pounds. Most of the mottled fields he'd played on were meant for rugby or cricket. His high school hadn't even had a baseball team.
He drifted through the Pirate City clubhouse, staring at the 225 lockers for players, the 70 for coaches, the nine for umpires and the 10 for Pat and his assistants. The kid entered the laundry room, studied the four big washing machines whirling suds, the three massive dryers ... and began bantering with the clubbie and his assistants as if they'd sat in the same Soweto barber shop all their lives.
Funny. They kept waiting for him to retire to his dorm room to revel in the 999-channel TV or join the other players in the rec room playing Ping-Pong, pool and video games. But each time Gift departed—for his physical, his lunch, his dinner—he bounced right back to the clubhouse and Pat. When the dryers finally fell silent that evening, the clubbie saw something he'd never seen, not in 15 years of working with American, Latin American, Canadian, Japanese, European, Australian and Korean professional ballplayers.