Digging out talent in Aruba is routine play for O's Halabi

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORANJESTAD, Aruba - Chu Halabi wheeled his SUV into a parking space near his chiropractor's office one morning last week.

"Got to get my back whacked before I leave town," the Orioles' longtime Aruban scout said.

He was headed for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he would stay with Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson, whom Halabi signed years ago and still counsels. His job was to attach himself to Ponson, who was recently detained for 11 days in Aruba after a beach fight.

Parenting Ponson meant Halabi also would be catching Ponson during some of the pitcher's workouts before spring training.

"Why do you think I need my back in shape?" Halabi, 59, groused good-naturedly.

Some might wonder if it's wise for a grandfather to catch a major leaguer with a 94-mph fastball, but Halabi shrugged.

"Been doing it for years," he said.

The story illustrates Halabi's life at the outer edge of organized baseball, where you're nothing if you're not resourceful.

As an Orioles scout in Aruba since 1981, he has mowed and raked countless fields that weren't so dreamy, worked out prospects at a golf driving range, identified players as young as 10 and built dorms behind his house so youngsters could stay with him and learn customs and manners before departing for the United States.

It's a life more than a job, and not always easy, but Halabi is still going strong.

"What he has done on that little island is remarkable," said former Orioles scouting director Tony DeMacio, who visited Halabi in Aruba and now works for the Pirates.

With a population of some 70,000, Aruba wasn't a pipeline to the majors until Halabi came along, but he has signed four natives who played for the Orioles: Ponson, fellow pitchers Calvin Maduro and Radhames Dykhoff and outfielder Eugene Kingsale.

Although Dykhoff pitched just one inning in the big leagues (in 1998), he was a classic Halabi find, discovered while throwing rocks at rabbits at age 13.

"He was my neighbor, and I saw him throwing rocks - hard," Halabi recalled with a smile. "I asked him if he played ball, and we went from there."

With his territory now expanded to include the other Dutch Caribbean islands as well as Aruba, Halabi is signing a new wave of players. Ivanon Coffie of Curacao played 23 games for the Orioles in 2000. Seven players from Curacao and Aruba were in the minor league system last year, including Quincy Ascencion, an outfielder from Curacao who led Aberdeen in RBIs.

"Chu has a keen eye for talent, and he really works to develop his guys. He has such passion," DeMacio said.

A stocky Aruban native, Halabi was born to Cuban parents, played catcher in college and scouted on the side while working as a teacher and policeman. He caught on full time with the Orioles through a friendship with longtime scout John Stokoe.

Married with two grown children, Halabi also has coached minor league teams, instructed during spring training, and now, parented a fallen-star pitcher during his years with the Orioles. But scouting remains his joy.

Operating as a one-man gang for more than two decades has come with its costs. Halabi has had two arm surgeries to repair damage caused by throwing so much batting practice. Five years ago, he was rushed to a hospital during spring training with a pulmonary embolism. Last March, doctors put him on a permanent regimen of blood thinners after finding a clot behind his knee.

Undaunted, Halabi has begun a new project - adding more dorms and a practice field in the space behind his house, where goats and workmen mingled earlier this month.

The dorms are where prospects spend weekends after Halabi identifies them, usually as middle-schoolers. He teaches them about life while drilling them in baseball fundamentals.

Even those who sign with other teams come to view Halabi as a second father.

"It's hard to put into words what he does for those kids. He helps them grow up," DeMacio said. "He's like the pied piper down there. All the kids flock to him."

On a recent morning, Halabi drove around the island touring his haunts as his cell phone rang incessantly. Staring at the fields where he found players and the driving range where he worked with pitchers, he was in a philosophical mood.

"You have to be a little lucky in this business," he said. "I have signed guys who were sure to be great, and weren't. But I also have signed guys who didn't project as well, but turned out to be great."

He is the face of major league baseball in Aruba and throughout the southern Caribbean, as well as in many countries in Central America and South America, where he has taught clinics while scouting for players.

"You never stop looking," he said. "I always think I'm going to find a great player tomorrow. And I might."

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