23 years after tragedy, Sam Khalifa back in game

23 years after tragedy, Sam Khalifa back in game

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23 years after tragedy, Sam Khalifa back in game

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“I’m from the past,” Sam Khalifa said, spitting a few sunflower seed shells onto the floor of the Tucson Sahuaro dugout during a recent baseball practice.

Khalifa hadn’t just stepped out of a DeLorean from 1985. It’s just his way of saying his personal history doesn’t really come into play during his two years he’s spent as an assistant coach at his alma mater.

It’s a history packed with more life experience — tragic and triumphant — than most 49-year-olds have. It’s a history he’d prefer to not discuss.

He’d rather focus on giving back to Sahuaro’s baseball players and teaching the game he avoided for 23 years.

To the top and down again

Sahuaro coach Mark Chandler remembers the first time he heard of Khalifa. It was 1982, and Chandler, in eighth grade at the time, was in the stands to see Khalifa and Sahuaro beat Phoenix Brophy 6-3 in the Class 5A title game under legendary coach Hal Eustice.

“I remember seeing Sahuaro beat Brophy, and I was like, ‘Damn,’” Chandler said.

By the time they crossed paths again, much had changed for Khalifa. After winning that state title, Khalifa was drafted seventh overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates, the second-highest selection for an Arizona product. Three years later, Khalifa started at shortstop in place of the injured Johnnie LeMaster, making him the first player of Egyptian descent to play in the majors.

Khalifa hit .219 in 164 games for the Pirates across three seasons. He never appeared in the majors after 1987, and after missing a team bus with the Pirates’ Class AAA affiliate in Buffalo in 1989, he flew home to Tucson.

Five months later, his father Rashad, a controversial Muslim teacher, was murdered at the Tucson mosque he founded. If Khalifa had plans to return to baseball, they died with his father on Jan. 31, 1990.

Glen Cusford Francis, a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, was arrested in Canada for the murder in 2009. Nearly three months ago, Francis was convicted.

The return to baseball at Sahuaro — Khalifa is in his second year there — was not meant to heal any wounds from his father’s murder, nor will the conviction make much of a difference, he thinks.

“Nothing makes something like that go away,” Khalifa said. “It’s just something that keeps me busy, if you will. In some sense, it gives me something to do. It’s something that I did, so I can share, give something back and hopefully help somebody else become a better player.”

A closed book

Khalifa’s backstory is not unfamiliar to Sahuaro’s coaches and players. The 16- and 17-year-olds on the squad know about his playing career and family tragedy. They’ll ask about what it was like to play in Pittsburgh, but non-baseball subjects — including the two years he spent living in North Africa growing up — have been off-limits.

They don’t ask about Khalifa’s father, and Khalifa doesn’t tell.

“It’s in the back of my mind,” junior third baseman Jacob Northrup said. “I just don’t want to bring it up. I don’t know how he’d react about it.”

Khalifa would probably open those doors, but one has to knock first.

“(Khalifa) doesn’t like to talk a lot about his past, doesn’t push it, downplays it,” Chandler said. “You’d never know he was the starting shortstop as a kid with Pittsburgh. You’d never know it unless you drug it out of him.”

Getting back, giving back

Khalifa returned to coaching last year at the suggestion of freshman football coach Tom Pierson, who coached him in high school. From there, he connected with Chandler.

“I really hadn’t thought about coming back,” Khalifa said. “I was content being out of the game, I guess. And then I felt like I want to give something back, share my experiences.”

Khalifa is as soft-spoken a coach as he is a person. He’ll offer instructions to players and, remembering the benefits of taking ground balls with LeMaster, Tim Foli and Dale Berra, will do the same with the Cougars.

When Northrup moved from catcher to third base last year, Khalifa hit him 100 ground balls a day to help with the transition.

Occasionally, his competitive juices flow. Chandler remembers one such instance last year in a game against Tucson Salpointe Catholic. Junior Vinnie Tarantola remembers it, too.

Khalifa had already flared his emotions during what Chandler calls “one of the worst half-innings of baseball I’ve ever been associated with.” Then a Sahuaro player bowled over the catcher at home plate, which is prohibited at the high school level.

“He was all amped up, saying that’s good baseball,” Tarantola said. “The umpire almost had to throw him out.”

Though he enjoys his role with the program, Khalifa doesn’t know if he’ll coach long term.

“Frankly, I feel like my time, it’s done,” he said. “I’ve had my time. It’s hard to let go.”

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