Twenty years ago today Sammy Khalifa played his last major league game.
Two and a half years later, his father, Rashad Khalifa, was killed, allegedly by Muslim extremists with ties to Al-Qaeda.
As a part-time shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1985 to 1987, Khalifa hit .219 and had an unremarkable career .579 OPS. But it wasn't in the batter's box where Khalifa made his mark: in a sport long in tradition and pioneers, Sammy Khalifa was the first Arab-American and Muslim-American in the major leagues.
Surprisingly, there is little celebrating Sammy Khalifa as a sports pioneer. Although there have been prominent Arab-American athletes in other sports (Doug Flutie, Rony Seiklay, etc.), Sammy Khalifa stands as the one and only major league baseball player with roots in the Middle East.
Fortunately, the career of the first Arab-American to play in the majors was long over before the Khalifa name would again make headlines. In 1989, a group of religious scholars in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa (religious edict) against both the father of Sammy Khalifa and author Salman Rushdie. (Rushdie also had a previous edict pronounced against him four days earlier by the Supreme Ruler of Iran.) Whereas Rushdie escaped assasination by living under police custody, Rashad Khalifa was not so lucky. According to Wikipedia, "he (Khalifa) was stabbed 29 times and his body drenched in xylol but not set alight" because of his establishment of religious sect he called the "Submitters". Again according to Wikipedia, the Submitters' doctrine stemmed from Khalifa's own interpretations of the Qur'an, including mathematical research into the religious text. Some still consider the Submitters to be a cult with no base in traditional Islam.
Currently, Sammy Khalifa lives in the Tucson area, no longer affliated with baseball.
Looking back, it is difficult to imagine the saga of the Khalifas playing out today. What if Sammy Khalifa had a longer, more distinguished major league career? How would his career have been effected by September 11th, 2001? What if, along with Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn, we recently inducted the first Arab-American ballplayer into the Baseball Hall of Fame? Could Sammy Khalifa have been a bridge to ease the current tension between the West and the Islamic World?
As further developments arise in the death of former NFL player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, it might be time to take a moment and remember Sammy Khalifa, the first Arab-American baseball player and the first athlete with ties to the war on terror.