The Alexandria Dukes' Sam Khalifa is not your average minor league shortstop.
For one thing, Khalifa was the Pittsburgh Pirates' first choice in the June 1982 amateur draft. For another, Khalifa, a practicing Muslim whose father was born in Egypt, is probably the only player in baseball who has ever fielded a grounder in Tripoli, Libya.
Khalifa also stands out because he is an exceptional fielder with great hands and a strong, accurate arm. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound 19-year-old is also batting .263 with 28 RBI in his first full professional season; last year he hit .305 in 48 games with Greenwood of the South Atlantic League. But Khalifa's fielding is what could get him to the major leagues.
"I don't know how he can improve on his fielding," said Pittsburgh's assistant minor league director, Tom Kayser. "He's got just what you look for in a shortstop: good, quick hands and great body control. Sam was a fine hitter in high school and he just needs to play against progressively better pitching. We're very happy with his progress."
Unlike most kids though, Khalifa's father didn't teach him how to field back in Creve Coeur, Mo., outside of St. Louis. Rashad Khalifa didn't know baseball, but he did tutor Bobby Moore, then a wide receiver with the St. Louis football Cardinals, in the teachings of Islam; in gratitude, Moore took the name Ahmad Rashad.
The Khalifas moved to Tripoli in 1974 when the elder Khalifa, now an American citizen and a chemist by trade, became a United Nations adviser. Sam kept playing baseball "on a sand field which was watered until it was real tight, and then steamrollered," he recalled.
A year later, the Khalifas were in Arizona, and Sam was in the state's top five in the 12-15 age group in tennis and excelling in Pony League baseball. Khalifa gave up tennis for baseball at Sahuaro High School, but he did make all-city at quarterback and start in basketball.
Khalifa blossomed under the tutelage of Coach Hal Eustice at Sahuaro. After a tentative subvarsity year, Khalifa made the jump to the varsity as a sophomore and hit .310 with only two errors. He raised his average to .475 in 1981, and as a senior, batted .550 to lead Sahuaro to the state title.
Eustice, who has eight players in professional ball, including Texas pitcher John Butcher, said: "Sammy's the greatest player I've seen in my 23 years of coaching. He made plays in high school I hadn't seen before. He has what you call come-through ability, an innate drive. He makes the big plays and he doesn't blow the routine ones. He reads the ball off the bat real well and he's got unbelievable agility. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to play in the big leagues."
All along, Khalifa figured to be a high draft choice, but until his first-round status was assured, Khalifa was heading to baseball power Arizona State. The Pirates offered the $120,000 bonus, and it was off to Greenwood, and then this spring, to Alexandria.
Dukes Manager Johnny Lipon, a 13-year major league shortstop mostly with Detroit, said: "Sam has the makings of a major league defensive shortstop. He hits the pitch the other way, which is a plus. He should be a good hit-and-run shortstop and he's shown flashes of extra-base power. Shortstops can hit .220 in the majors, but Sam should hit .250. You can't teach his defensive instincts. It takes three years in the minors to make a shortstop a polished fielder, so another year on this level (Class A) wouldn't hurt him. He needs to increase his jump and the accuracy of his arm, but barring injury, he'll be a major league shortstop."
The only question is when. The Pirates' shortstop, Dale Berra, only 26, had a good 1982 season, but is struggling now. AAA shortstop Denny Gonzalez, 20, a fine hitter, is a natural third baseman. Ex-Dukes player Rafael Belliard, 21, is in Class AA, and like Khalifa, a fine fielder who seems to have learned how to hit. "We desperately need a utility player who can play shortstop," Kayser said.
For his part, Khalifa is "real pleased with my progression. They're just letting me get experience. I have to keep developing defensively and learning how to hit, especially breaking balls. I'd like to be in the big leagues when I'm 21 or 22. I don't think that's unreasonable."