His mother, Maureen, was 21, three months pregnant with him and weeping in a Zion Christian church in 1989 when a prophet materialized beside her. That's what Maureen called the woman, whom she'd never seen before and never would again. "Why are you crying?" asked the stranger.
"My second child is due in six months," Maureen sobbed, "and the father just left me." The implications were clear. Some of her neighbors survived by swatting locusts with a branch, drying them under the sun and eating them.
"Everything will be O.K.," the stranger informed her. "Your baby will be a boy, and you must call him Gift, because he is a gift from God."
Maureen named him Gift twice: in Sotho with his first name, Mpho, and in English with his middle name, so the white man would know too. A year and a half later, tears flowing once more, she packed her clothes into an old paper bag, left her two boys with her parents and took a bus to Johannesburg to find a way to feed them, one more in a sea of undocumented black migrants searching for work in a country disintegrating from the effects of apartheid. She crawled under a seat and hid beneath a jacket when authorities boarded the bus. In Johannesburg she stayed with a brother and then a friend, ever fearful of arrest, clutching the thin hope that the Tembu tribesman who'd recently been freed after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, could alter her demoralizing existence.
She found her way to a baseball field in the suburb of Randburg. Like most of her countrymen, she'd never seen the game before, had no clue that American gold miners working in Johannesburg's Crown Mines had introduced the game to South Africa in the late 1800s or that the sport had survived at the club level. A group of young white Randburg baseballers, playing for an amateur club called the Mets, had sold hot dogs from a car trunk for years and raised just enough money to build a clubhouse consisting of a changing room for players, a small equipment room, a few toilets, showers and a "tuck shop," from which snacks, soda, beer and liquor were sold. No, the Mets couldn't afford to pay Maureen, but ... she could live in the tiny tuck shop in exchange for cooking, cleaning and working the cash register each game day—Sunday, her off day from cleaning homes elsewhere.
Maureen looked at the 7½-by-9-foot room. "Like putting people in a closet," Rory Vincent, a Mets coach, lamented later. But Maureen saw a bathroom of her own a few feet away, after a lifetime of slinking into the bushes. Shower faucets and hot water instead of a bucketful of goose bumps. Roof tiles rather than leaky straw from which cockroaches fell. Maureen leaped at the chance ... and became Maureen no more. Her cheery greetings to the regulars, her brightly colored head wraps, her exuberance about her new home turned her in no time into ... Happy! For what Met could utter that nickname without an exclamation mark?
And still, Happy would have remained a beautiful misnomer for a mother separated from her two children, and Gift never in a million years would have become a baseball player ... if not for the boy's boundless curiosity. Hoisting a bottle of cooking oil to his lips at his grandparents' house, the two-year-old didn't do what any other toddler would: blanch and spew at the first swallow. He downed the entire liter, and his bowels spasmed with diarrhea so dire that Happy, in a panic, scraped together 300 rand—just over $100, more than her weekly wage as a domestic—for a six-hour taxi ride back home to fetch her limp second son. She returned with Gift to Randburg, and once he'd rounded back to form, the coaches and ballplayers were so pleased to have a Happy and a Gift that they decided both could live in and light up their clubhouse. And six years later that Victor, the product of Happy's happiness with the club's Zulu groundskeeper, could stay too.
The family's quarters would remain that tiny room, so cramped by Gift's single bed, the thin mattress on the floor where his mother and brother slept, a small space heater, a two-plate burner that served as both stove and backup heater, a sink, a stool and a bucket for a chair, that there was barely enough floor space to plant a human foot. The changing room became Gift's living room and rec room. There he, Maureen and Victor would practice their new dance moves or drag their blankets and pillows at night to watch the TV on the shelf, to jump and scream and flap their arms like birds when their favorite soccer team scored, and to keep up with the news after apartheid collapsed, Mandela ascended to the presidency and their tribe became part of South Africa again in 1994. The Mets' shower became Gift's scrubbing room; their baseball field, 40 yards from his bed, his front yard. The new and larger tuck shop that was added later became Gift's kitchen, its refrigerator became his family's. Players tugging on their uniforms would sniff the meal that Happy often prepared—maize boiled and mashed into a kind of grits called pap—and say, "Smells good, Gift, what's for dinner tonight?"
The Mets adopted him as a tyke, taught him to play catch and swing a bat. He became their mascot, their water boy and their batboy, their most gifted young player as he climbed through age divisions ranging from T-ballers to adults ... and the only Met who was black.
When the others went home, he went right on playing, alone, using the fraying tennis balls that locals flung to their dogs in the outfield and the waterlogged balls uncovered by the mowers' blades. He fielded grounders he bounced off the clubhouse wall, launched pop-ups into the night sky to catch, flipped balls to himself to hit, ran base paths in the dark.