The Rough on the Diamond

On the desert outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, locals gather under the Great Grey Tree of Life to hear stories about the White Stick Man, who brings fortune and blessings to their beloved African homeland. But who is this mysterious American, and why do the griots sing his praises?
He is Blake Portis, the most unlikely prophet to ever step foot on the continent, an ex-athlete who has come to Africa only to escape the shame of failure and disenchantment from everything he once held dear. Through a chance encounter, Portis meets a peculiar doctor who has started a baseball program out of the dust. What he finds in Senegal – young boys with a passion for the sport and true, unadulterated talent – makes Blake remember what he loved about baseball in the first place. In partnership with the doctor, Portis helps guide the program toward its ultimate goal: an African-born player in the major leagues. Along the way, Blake Portis finds love, hope, and ultimately his own salvation.


SAMPLE CHAPTER: Read Chapter 1


Come, come!

Come children, come workers, come mothers and fathers, come ancient ones. Gather together, my brothers and sisters of Islam, under the Great Grey Tree of Life as we worship our God Allah. Come too, my Christian sisters and brothers in the spirit of loving and giving.

Come as we sing in praise of a foreign man who brought with him fortune and blessings to our beloved homeland. Come, come!

We sing of Bleck Por-teez, The White Stick Man, The Great Prophet of the Sporting Diamond. And we sing in praise of Uthman Diouf, a son of Islam and trusted medicine man, a most faithful and beloved brother to all of Senegal, who conjured The White Stick Man and carried him on golden wings into our universe.

Come, come! Let us thank Allah for these new generation shepherds who saved our children from a poor and ordinary life and made for them out of whole cloth a new and beautiful opportunity to bring glory to Allah and glory to your Virgin Mary and glory to Senegal!

Bleck Por-teez! Bleck Por-teez! Let us praise him! The White Stick Man of Senegal! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!
The smell inside the visiting team clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium was a mixture of sweat and vanilla. Sweat was the standard odor in Major League locker rooms; the vanilla came from an air freshener sprayed by a relief pitcher who embraced the nickname “Glade.”

We had just dropped our second game in a row against Pittsburgh, and nobody in the clubhouse was looking forward to facing the Pirates in the series finale the next day. The heat of early August had drained the Phillies of all forward momentum, and we had slipped to third place, nine games back of the division leader.

But I was fresh as a dewy spring morning. Over the past two weeks, besides riding an excessive amount of pine, I had played in only one game, catching the last inning of a blowout. And while my teammates were preparing to board the team bus back to the hotel, call their wives and summon their Pittsburgh girlfriends, I was cleaning out my locker for good. Instead of spending the evening with my very own Pittsburgh girl, I would crowd onto a 40-seat commuter plane to beautiful Scranton, Pennsylvania, home of the Red Barons, my new team.

Philly fans had been clamoring for this to happen since the Krauss kid was drafted. In fact, this very move had been called for by local media for weeks, ever since Krauss started lighting up Triple-A pitching. Problem was, Krauss was all bat. I’d worked with him a little during spring training. He had no catching instincts at all. He was a terrible game runner, and he had no idea where to position his glove except right down the middle. The kid thought “framing” was something they did at a poster shop.

But to be honest, I could see the logic. In fact, when the skipper gave me the news, I was a little relieved. At that point in my career, I figured it was better to go down to AAA and have a chance to play every day than sit on the bench in the Bigs.

My teammates, especially the pitching staff, stopped by my locker to wish me well.

“We’re gonna miss you, Blake,” said the ace with the ten-million-dollar arm. I’d worked with him on his curveball just a few days earlier. “Won’t be the same around here without you.”

“See ya back here in no time, Portis,” Glade shouted from his locker.

Guardo Lopez, the son-of-a-bitch starting catcher who also happened to be my roommate on the road, gave a vague nod in my direction. Guardo hated me (as much as I hated him), but he tolerated me because I didn’t bitch when he smoked weed in the room. But I knew if he got busted by a coach, I’d get to play the next day. Sometimes I would “accidentally” kick away the wet towel he placed at the base of the door to keep the smoke inside. One time he saw me do it. He was too stoned to retaliate that night, but the following afternoon my locker was full of tarantulas. The clubhouse attendant made a killing that day. I don’t know how much Lopez paid him to put the spiders in there, but I had to give the kid a thousand bucks to take them out.

Besides Guardo, most of the players offered a few kind, somber words.

Good god, how many times had I been through the ritual?  had spent much of my 15-year playing career bouncing around the professional ranks: traded four times, released three, drafted twice, and the Phillies  were my eighth big-league organization. Nine, if you count two separate stints with Montreal.

But that’s the life of a second-string catcher. I knew I’d be back up in a few weeks.

I reported to Scranton the next day, a couple hours before game time. Krauss was already gone, his locker cleaned out, my name taped over his. My uniforms were waiting for me. Most minor league teams don’t bother with stitching last names on the back. They just issue a jersey that fits, and the number is yours until you move on. My new number was 2. I’d never been a 2 before.

I was the oldest player in the room. Only one or two others had major-league experience, but I recognized a few faces from spring training. The first to greet me was another catcher, Tavaris Johnson. He was 22 years old and had been drafted out of high school by the Phillies three years earlier. Since then he had climbed the ladder quickly to AAA, but he was the backup to Krauss, and was eternally in the hotter prospect’s shadow. Johnson was a hell of a nice kid, and unlike his former teammate, he actually called a good game. We had become friends in Florida.

“Hey man, what’s up?” Johnson said, embracing me in a bear hug. “I’m glad you’re here! I was gettin’ sick of Krauss. Good riddance, dude.”

“How you doin’, T?”

“Aw, you know, hangin’ in. I’m better now, though. Skipper told me I’ll be startin’ as long as Krauss stays up in the Bigs.”

That was a bit of a surprise. I assumed I would be starting. I forced a smile, congratulated Tavaris and knocked on the open door of the tiny manager’s office. That’s when I realized I was fucked. Ed Billings stared back at me from his desk.

The man before me was the ghost of a piss-ant minor league second baseman I used to know. In my first year of pro ball, Billings tried to bulldoze me on a play at the plate. Problem was, Billings was five-eight, a hundred sixty pounds soaking wet. I was six-four and wearing pads. He lost. But it still pissed me off, and I didn’t forget. Two weeks later, when our teams faced each other again, I drew a one-out walk in the third inning. The hitter behind me grounded to the shortstop and flipped to Billings at second to start the double play. I had other plans, and went in spikes first. Billings was on the disabled list for the rest of the season.

I guess he didn’t forget either. With Billings as my manager, I knew I’d never see the field.

The Red Barons played the rest of the month without using me. By the end of August I had assumed a standard position at the end of the dugout with my head resting against my balled-up jacket, not quite asleep but not fully awake.

On the last day of the season, we were locked in an extra-innings battle on the road against the Rochester Red Wings. Every position player had been used. Except me. The pitcher’s spot was coming up in the lineup, and not even Billings would let the reliever go out on the mound another inning, much less try to hit. The skipper grunted, “Portis, get in there.”

It was the top of the 14th inning. One out, a runner on first and Tavaris Johnson on third base. A single would break the tie and allow us to bring in our closer.

After two hurried practice swings I stepped in to the batter’s box – the first time I’d seen live pitching in weeks. The left-hander looking in from the mound couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. I had not planned on playing that day, so I never saw the scouting report on the pitcher but in my half-daze on the bench I noticed a sharp fastball and a good changeup. I hadn’t seen him throw a breaking ball.

First pitch was that fastball, and it caught the inside corner for a strike. If he threw that pitch in the same location again, I’d own him. The next was another heater, this one missing high and outside. 1 and 1. I found out on the next pitch he did have a curveball. It buckled me, and the ump called strike two. He should have saved it for his knockout punch.

The lefty wasted one in the dirt to even the count. Then came that big slow changeup. I swung in front of it and fouled it off down the third base line.

I was pretty sure the kid would come across with the fastball again, so I told myself to stay focused on the pitcher, phase out the distractions in the stands and ignore the center fielder moving around out there. Just get in the goddamn zone.

And there it was. Fastball, low inside corner. My pitch.

I connected right on the button and felt the sudden relaxation crawl up my arms, the glorious feeling of numbness that comes with a well-struck pitch. The ball zipped into left center, sure to drop in for a double. Tavaris dashed home, touched the plate and turned back to see where the ball landed.

It landed in the glove of Manuel Rosado, the 19-year-old center fielder for the Rochester Red Wings.

Might as well have been Willie fuckin’ Mays out there. The Rosado kid played it perfectly. After I fouled off that changeup, I saw him take three steps toward left field, but I zoned it out. Even before I made contact with the fastball, he was sprinting, knowing where the ball would land. Rosado laid out and caught the ball on the dive, landing a full somersault and firing the ball back to third base.

Tavaris made a feeble attempt to run back to third, but it was no use. The third baseman caught the ball and stepped on the bag.

Double play. Inning over.

Rochester scored in the bottom of the 15th with a walk-off triple from the bat of Manuel Rosado.

The date was August 31, 1998. It was my only at-bat with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, my last at-bat of the 1998 season.

And it was the last time I ever played professional baseball.


About the author

For over a decade, Matt Kelsey worked as an editor, reporter, copy editor and sportswriter at newspapers of all sizes, from the 250,000-circulation Kansas City Star to weekly papers in small towns dotting the map across the Midwest. Kelsey has been honored for his writing and editing abilities by the Missouri Press Association, the Kansas Press Association and the Arkansas Press Association. His award-winning stories have included a colorful history of the Interurban Railroad in the Kansas City area; a hard-news series about a gruesome murder in northwest Missouri; and the tale of an Arkansas boy with autism as the boy's parents struggle to find sanity in an insane world.

In 2003, Kelsey graduated summa cum laude from Park University in Parkville, Mo., and in his senior year he won the Golden Pen Award, which is given annually to the university's best student writer. He has a bachelor's degree in communications-journalism with a minor in public relations.

Besides his career in journalism, Kelsey has also worked as a freelance writer and public relations consultant. In his spare time Kelsey enjoys reading, watching baseball - particularly his hometown Kansas City Royals - and spending time with his wife of 10 years, Jamie, and their cats.