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Turning rocks into O's roles; Scout: Kids at play is 'Chu' Halabi's work. Chucking balls instead of rocks, 4 Arubans have grown into Orioles busting his window but warming his heart.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A quality baseball scout can recognize talent in the most unusual places, under some of the most unorthodox conditions. For the Orioles' Jesus "Chu" Halabi, that can mean a young boy chucking rocks at a moving target.

It can mean changing a kid's life forever, something else Halabi knows plenty about.

Halabi, who scouts Central and South America and parts of the Caribbean, found Radhames Dykhoff about 200 yards from the house he had built in Aruba. Dykhoff was 13 and never had played organized baseball. Halabi spotted him hunting rabbits with his son. The rest is his story.

"I saw him throwing some rocks and I said, 'Wait a minute.' I called my son over and asked his name," Halabi said.

"I didn't have a glove for left-handed pitchers so I just gave him a right-handed glove that I had at home. I made my son catch. The first darn pitch he throws, the ball goes right through a brand-new window. My wife came out and almost killed me. But I saw enough from that first pitch to work with him. That's how it started."

Today, Dykhoff is a minor-league pitcher who got to spend about two weeks with the Orioles in 1998. When his contract was purchased from Double-A Bowie, Dykhoff became the fourth Aruban player to reach the majors. Not coincidentally, the other three also had begun their professional careers with the Orioles. Each one of them, including pitchers Sidney Ponson and Calvin Maduro and outfielder Eugene Kingsale, were nurtured by Halabi.

Maduro broke through three years ago with the Philadelphia Phillies, but rejoined the Orioles' organization last season and pitched well enough this spring to win the fourth starter's job. Ponson already had nailed down a spot in the rotation, winning 12 games last season and being elevated to the No. 2 starter when Scott Erickson had elbow surgery in March. Kingsale will play center field at Triple-A Rochester, just a phone call away from his fourth stint with the Orioles.

"I'm very proud of what they've done for themselves, for their country," Halabi said.

Talk to these players, and they insist the opportunity never would have come without Halabi. He was the first scout to reach them. He remains the second father in their lives.

"That's because of the way he treats us, the way he feels about us, the way he cares about us on and off the field," Kingsale said. "Whatever he can help us with, he does."

Approaching Halabi in the Orioles' clubhouse after a recent exhibition game, Ponson reaches for his hand and kisses him on the cheek. Maduro wraps an arm around Halabi's shoulder as he sits on a metal bench near the parking lot. Kingsale plops down beside him.

"You see the relationship we have, with the hugs and kisses. All four of them are like that," Halabi said.

Ponson calls him in Aruba at least three times a week. The others do the same. In some ways, it's as if they never left the island.

"He'd invite us to his house and cook for us," Ponson said. "He loves us like his own sons. He doesn't just teach us about baseball, he teaches us about life."

"I call him 'dad' because he's like that to me in every way," said Maduro, who played youth baseball with Halabi's son. "If I have a bad outing, I call him. If I have a good outing, I call him. When I have a personal problem, he's the first one there to help me. When he travels to the States he's always there for us."

'Freckles' Ponson

Ponson was 10 when Halabi saw him for the first time. "He was a great kid," Halabi said. "A blond, freckled kid. In fact, his nickname back home was 'Freckles.' He was something special. He could throw harder than anybody when he was 13. He was blowing people away."

That's when he wasn't blowing his stack.

"He had a temper," Halabi said. "He knew what he wanted. He always wanted to be Roger Clemens. I told him if he wanted to be Roger Clemens, he had to work like Roger Clemens.

"He was a wise kid. He loves to party, he loves to go out and have a good time. But he also has a great heart. He just bought a car for his mother and he's going to buy another one for his sister. If I come over, the first thing he says is, 'Do you need something? Do you need money?' If the gang goes out he doesn't want anybody to pay. If nothing happens, he's going to be one of the best pitchers in baseball very soon."

Ponson, like the others, took less money to sign with Halabi. He said he turned down a $150,000 offer from the Atlanta Braves to accept $25,000 from the Orioles. It was done out of loyalty, and in part as a reward for Halabi's patience.

"When I was a little kid I wasn't easy to handle," Ponson said. "There was a lot of yelling. I was a bad boy, just being a kid, you know? I wouldn't want to practice so I'd just walk off and go home. We've been through a lot.

"Just at the moment I was ready to sign, other scouts just jumped in and started throwing around money. A lot of people would take it, but not with us. He's been with us a long time. We just didn't do it."

It took a recent health crisis for Halabi to recognize how much he has meant to each player. A blood clot that formed in his lung sent Halabi to a Fort Lauderdale hospital two weeks ago. He's on blood thinners and under orders to stay calm and avoid flying for another month.

"At night it's tough," he said. "When you lay down and try breathing, it's hard. Then you get a little scared. You don't want to breathe because you're afraid it's going to happen again. You can't sleep and you panic."

Comfort in the hospital came with each visit from the four players. They arrived daily, even when told his condition wasn't serious.

"I couldn't believe it," Kingsale said. "A couple days before that he was doing fine, then all of a sudden he had that clot. I was very concerned. We as players think that we're here today because of him and we can't afford to lose him."

Concern from his 'sons'

Maduro wanted to leave the complex immediately after receiving the news from Halabi's son, but was told not to worry. He did anyway.

"If we thought he was going to die, I would have left right away," Maduro said. "I probably wouldn't have even asked."

These displays of affection are repeated to Halabi, along with the many references to his "parental" influence. Suddenly, he's at a loss for words. They catch in his throat, and he's reduced to tears. Halabi tilts back his head and takes a deep breath as his eyes moisten. Seconds pass -- 10, then 20, then more -- and still nothing.

Finally, he says, "I always knew the feelings they had, but that just showed me so much. I told them, 'I'm not going to die. I'm going to get better.'

"We're very close, in a lot of ways. It's not only playing ball. Whenever something happens at home -- like right now Radhames Dykhoff's grandmother is sick -- it's the whole thing. It makes us all realize there are other things that are more important than baseball, and if they take care of those things, the baseball part's going to be good."

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