- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
By age 10, if he played poorly or incurred someone's anger, he would climb onto a trash can and scramble onto the clubhouse roof, lie down and stare at the stars. When he saw a shooting star he'd make a wish, always the same one: to make a life of the foreign game he loved, the one he'd set his alarm at 2 a.m. to watch on cable television, beamed all the way from the States. To play major league ball.
But who could be angry at Gifty, as his teammates called him? He was the player who got everyone off the bench and cheering, the opponent whom every visiting side asked about as soon as it arrived. He was the life of every party in the clubhouse—a far more social place in South Africa than in the States—the kid queuing up the music and being summoned to center stage to dance. Try as those Mets might, they couldn't match Gifty on the dance floor or the ball field, and they couldn't help forgetting that he was black.
O.K., there was one person he could make unhappy: Happy. It drove her mad when he bounced balls off the ceiling and walls as she tried to cook in that little room. But Mommy, it's a baseball clubhouse! She'd want to wring the imp's neck when he used the outdoor passageway to practice sliding, set off firecrackers in the bathroom or soaked toilet paper and flung it so that it stuck to the bathroom walls just after she'd cleaned them, then answered her accusing glare with a joshing, "Probably was the white boys, Mommy." Sometimes, as she mopped the clubhouse, bathrooms and showers, he'd imitate her every move until she was just about to explode, then shower her with kisses and coo, "My word, you look beautiful when you're upset, Mommy! Oh, I love you, I love you so much, Mommy!" She had only one true deterrent when he'd balk at helping her swab the clubhouse: to hide his baseball gear and not relent when he cried all day.
She found the game silly and a tad boring, and was bewildered when her son, his school's cricket player of the year in seventh grade, abandoned both that sport and soccer to focus on baseball. There was no way to justify that to friends or loved ones back in Limpopo, where Gift—when he returned every Christmas—could explain his game to his cousins only by stripping the leaves off a branch and hitting fungoes with the biggest, fattest marula seeds he could find. "But I could have a big house if you played cricket or soccer!" Happy protested.
"I will be a professional baseball player one day, Mommy. You will see."
"I will be dead by that time," Happy groaned.
At least, she consoled herself, he'd found something that kept him off the streets, where he'd been mugged twice, head-butted to a bloody mess by one bully and fleeced of what little he had, twice even of his shoes. But the clubhouse wasn't much safer; thieves often removed roof tiles to shimmy inside, once stealing almost everything the family owned, leaving Gift's baseball glove, bat and spikes—who needed those? He'd alter his voice when he was home alone to trick the homeless people sleeping on the ball field, feigning conversations with his mother and his older brother, Christopher, who squeezed in three years ago.
The Mets, who'd often greet their clubhouse caretaker with a kiss when they arrived for games and join hands to chant, "One, two, three, Happy!" before taking the field, couldn't bear to see her or her son sad. They replaced most of what the family lost to thieves. They played Home Run Derby to raise funds when Gift, at 10, was chosen to play on a national team traveling to Brazil. They passed around the hat so that the boy whose mother couldn't afford to give him a birthday cake could play in Mexico for South Africa when he was 15 and in Cuba a year later, and so that he could take the most life-changing trips of all, to Italy in 2007 and 2008 to attend Major League Baseball's annual three-week European Academy for promising international players. Sure, Happy's blood boiled now and then when someone affiliated with the Mets would ask if she had washed her hands before serving a bacon roll. But mostly they'd given Happy and her son hope that South Africa, for more than one color of people, could be home.
It took about 30 seconds on Day One of the MLB academy in 2007 for Gift to catch the eye and ear of instructor Barry Larkin, the Reds' 12-time All-Star shortstop. Gift was the fireplug babbling at bewildered Germans, French, Dutch, Danes and Italians on the field. The one crowing, "Wow! Look at that wife and daughter!" as Larkin's family got into a car when the first day was done.
"I will shoot you," said Barry as his eyes—half twinkling, half glowering—sliced from his 16-year-old daughter to Gift.