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"O.K., Coach, no problem, fella!" replied Gift.
Then Barry, charmed by Gift's spunk, taught him footwork to improve his throws and double play turn, showed him how to use his knees and elbows to knock the piss and vinegar out of barreling base runners, and persuaded him—when Gift returned to the academy last August—to take the riskiest step of all: over to the left side of the dish, to become a switch-hitter.
Major league scouts at the 2008 academy began querying Barry about his South African protégé. The second week, Gift was summoned to the office and handed a telephone. Two Pirates officials on the other end told him they liked his glove, his fluid swing, his energy. Yes, he was raw, but they wanted to sign him and see him become the first African in MLB history.
Gift felt his body temperature rising. He had no idea where Pittsburgh was, couldn't name a single Pirate, had never even glimpsed the team in all those years he'd awoken in the middle of the night to watch an MLB game ... but my word, wait till he told Mommy!
He rose from his bed with a hollow chest one Monday six months ago, his last day in South Africa. The Randburg clubhouse was empty. His mother and two brothers had departed for work and school. He cooked pap and chicken on the two-plate burner so they'd come home to a meal, cleaned the house and draped the wet laundry over a fence. He listened to the songs that he loved to sing and dance to with them. He thought of his girlfriend and buddies, whom he'd cried with and said goodbye to the day before. He looked at the baseball his mother had given him, covered with her tiny, neat scrawl: You know where you came from. You must stay away from drugs. You must do your best. And you must behave good. You know you are a great player and you deserve it. I'm proud of you and I miss you and I will be there for you even if you are far away.
The one-week visit to Pirate City last October had been all adrenaline and awe. This time he would be gone for nearly nine months, a boy just a month past his 19th birthday a half-planet away from everything he knew. He packed his clothes and Bible, walked to the doorway, gazed one last time at his ball field and clubhouse, his front yard and home, then closed the door on his childhood and climbed into a friend's car to go to the airport.
First stop: the World Baseball Classic in Mexico City. Gift hit two triples for South Africa—both batting lefthanded and both off a pitcher with 12 years of major league experience, Mexico's Elmer Dessens. He flew to Bradenton in early March after his overmatched team was dispatched from the Classic in two games, made his second entrance into Pirate City, headed straight for the clubhouse ... and leaped into the clubbie's arms. Pat, as untouchy and unfeely as the next clubbie, blinked, nothing much he could do with an armful of South African ... except hug him back. "Hello, Patty!" Gift sang; no more sir.
Ohmygod moments awaited him. If only, in those ticking $2-a-minute phone calls, he could make his mother understand what it meant that day in May when he saw his first big league game, his beloved Red Sox whipping the Rays, or better still, the day that Alex Rodriguez—A-Rod, Mommy!—was trotting toward second during his minor league rehabilitation from hip surgery and tossed a smile and a nod right to the second baseman: her son!
But his new world was harder than he'd dreamed. He hadn't had the expert tutelage that American players received, nor even the years of structure in baseball academies that the Dominican kids had. He'd have to learn plate discipline after a lifetime of the hack-at-anything-close approach necessitated by South African umpires' boxcar-sized strike zones. He sizzled out of the chute, hitting .381 as leadoff man through Bradenton's first 21 games, then slumped in late July to .259 through Sunday. On the field he's been nearly flawless, committing just one error. Still, all but the highest draft choices are long shots to make it to the big leagues; where did that leave Gift?
Off the field it was harder yet, even for a kid who'd spent all his life assimilating. The African-Americans didn't seem to get him—his clothes, his accent, his life experience, his pinball energy. The Latinos mocked his blue glove and rocking gait—Chimpanzee, they called him—and the language barrier was too thick for him to breach with his charm. The white Americans were polite but often kept their distance; Gift's roommates vanished at night in their cars. His coaches were good men, but at every turn he could feel their judgment crawling on his skin. Pirate City felt like Testosterone Town, each player trying to elbow the others out of his way, if possible with a smile, to scale the cruelest of pyramids.