The Long Shots


The Long Shots

A sports phenom shunned for drug abuse, a strongman down on his luck, and the leap of faith they took together. 

by Luke Alfred

The Atavist Magazine, No. 83

A journalist for two decades, Luke Alfred has served as sports editor and senior cricket writer at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of books about cricket, rugby, and the lost art of walking.

Editor: Jonah Ogles and Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: Allegra Lockstadt

Published in September 2018. Design updated in 2021.


John McGrath was hunting a ghost: a man more than two decades his junior who seemed to melt into thin air. Every few days in the spring of 2013, McGrath, a 46-year-old native of Ireland, climbed into his black Jeep and drove ten miles from his home in the city of Paarl, South Africa, to Mbekweni, a predominately black township. He guided the thick tires of his vehicle around the potholes and puddles dotting Mbekweni’s narrow streets. He drove past small shops and roadside kiosks selling apples, potatoes, cigarettes, snuff, and gum. McGrath kept his window rolled down so that he could ask passersby if they had seen the phantom he was looking for: Luvo Manyonga, a young man full of possibility.

McGrath knew a thing or two about possibility. A strength coach for competitive athletes, he’d recently spent 18 months training the South African women’s tug-of-war team for the 2013 World Games, an event held every four years featuring sports that aren’t part of the Olympics. The women weren’t expected to do well—other countries had far better teams—but McGrath cared little for odds, records, and other supposed predictors of athletic success. He believed in hard work, hope, and surprises. Six-foot-six, with a chiseled torso and sculpted arms, he embodied the principles of his training methods. He’d weathered personal obstacles to become a rower and, later, an old-fashioned strongman, bending steel bars and other unlikely objects in front of stunned audiences. With his guidance, South Africa’s tug-of-war team won the bronze medal at the World Games.

The games were the reason McGrath had first heard about Luvo Manyonga. As part of his preparation, he’d attended a two-day symposium of coaches, trainers, and members of the South Africa Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (Sascoc). The meeting was held at a hotel in Johannesburg, in a conference room where the walls were lined with life-size posters of South African athletes in action. One of the images showed Manyonga in midstride, as if running on air. He was long and lithe, his legs extended and arms spread wide, as if every muscle in his body were pushing, propelling, willing him forward. He was jumping because that’s what he did best: Manyonga was one of the most promising long jumpers the world had ever seen.

McGrath found himself staring at the image, but not because of Manyonga’s height, form, or technique. “It was something about his eyes that pulled me in,” McGrath told me. “I recognized something in his face.” What, exactly, McGrath couldn’t quite say. But he was transfixed.

Despite Manyonga’s prominent photograph, South Africa’s top sporting authorities only rarely spoke about the young man anymore. He’d broken the country’s long-jump record at the age of 18 and had won international medals. He’d been on track to compete at the 2012 London Olympics, but his demons had gotten the better of him. He’d tested positive for methamphetamine and been banned from competition for 18 months. Sascoc, which determines which South African athletes compete for their country on the global stage, had all but turned its back on him.

Squandered talent, delegates of the Johannesburg meeting told McGrath, shaking their heads. Their resignation sparked his interest. He decided to find Manyonga and offer to train the athlete widely considered too toxic to touch.

Tracking Manyonga down wasn’t easy. He was still using drugs and sometimes pawned his cell phone for cash, which made him difficult to reach. So McGrath went looking for the athlete at his family’s home in Mbekweni. Manyonga lived in a four-room house on Machule Street that was hot in summer and cold in winter. It had been built atop the ruins of another structure destroyed by fire. McGrath parked his Jeep and walked up a path strewn with rubble, the remains of the other home, to the back door. He was ushered into the cramped living quarters by Manyonga’s mother, Joyce, a short, gospel-loving domestic worker in her sixties, and Vuyiseka, his elder sister.

Joyce and Vuyiseka said they had no idea where Manyonga was. They rarely did. Around Mbekweni, the would-be track star was known to scrounge and steal to feed his habit. If McGrath wanted to find him, he could try two of Manyonga’s preferred hangouts—the community center and the railway station—or linger through the night at Rennie’s Corner, a dingy nightclub.

Or, Joyce offered, McGrath could talk to Eugene Maqwelana, who ran Living Hope Ministries, a local evangelical church. Maqwelana’s father had once played rugby with Luvo’s father. As a respected pastor, he was well-connected and heard almost every shred of gossip that circulated through the 30,000-person township.

When McGrath reached out, Maqwelana was surprised. White men with blue eyes didn’t appear in his church very often. The pastor knew that Manyonga, who sometimes attended Bible classes held by Living Hope Ministries, was sliding quickly toward rock bottom. “Luvo was so raw,” Maqwelana told me. “One night in my Bible class, I asked if anyone would like to say anything, and he said yes and stood up and asked us to pray for him. After that he just wept. You could really see that this boy was broken.” Any punt on the township’s pride turned prodigal son seemed worth taking. Maqwelana promised McGrath that he’d find Manyonga and set up a meeting.  

Through other youth in the Bible class, Maqwelana got word to Manyonga that his presence was requested at the community center, to meet with the pastor and an Irishman. In the township, if a pastor says he wants to see you, he isn’t giving you a choice. Social custom dictates that you show up looking your best—clean pants, pressed shirt, shined shoes—and listen respectfully to what he has to say.

Manyonga did one better, arriving at the appointed time with a white Panama hat on his cleanly shaven head. Maqwelana interpreted the dapper accessory as a signal that the young man was eager to impress, even if he wouldn’t admit it. Maqwelana believed that deep down, despite being 22 and cocky, Manyonga wanted salvation.

The pastor introduced the two men and then left McGrath to make his pitch. Manyonga slumped slightly in his chair, wearing the neutral face he reserved for the authority figures in his life—teachers, parents, and Pastor Eugene. Sensing his audience’s unease, McGrath turned his wooden chair around so that he could straddle it and lean his thick forearms atop the back. The posture was informal and friendly; it also took the edge off the perpetual pain in McGrath’s back, the result of injuries sustained over years of athletic competition.

“Listen, Luvo, I know where you’re at,” McGrath began, his voice thick with a liquid Irish brogue. “I believe you can be an incredible jumper, and I believe I have the skill to get you going toward your dreams.”

McGrath was careful not to wag a finger or spout holier-than-thou warnings and maxims. He didn’t want to come off as judgmental. He didn’t give a damn if Manyonga liked to get high, but here was the thing, McGrath said: Manyonga had the sort of talent that comes around once in a blue moon. There are precious few people who have both the ability and the opportunities necessary to become a Michael Phelps or a Usain Bolt. The track world had for all intents and purposes abandoned Manyonga. His family was worried sick. He had everything to gain. What was there to lose?

“So how about you come and train with me then, Luvo?” McGrath asked.

Manyonga pursed his lips and moved them sideways, screwing up his face as he mulled over the question. Finally, his mouth broke into a half-grin, charming yet boyishly shy.

“OK,” he said. “When?”

McGrath raised an eyebrow. “Tomorrow. I’ll pick you up at 10 a.m.”

“Get ready,” Manyonga said, “because I’ll show you who’s boss.”

“I know you will, Luvo,” McGrath replied.

With that, Manyonga stood up and walked out. McGrath watched him and his Panama hat go. He could only wonder if the long jumper would actually show up to train, but he knew that the stakes felt sky-high. By the age of 30, McGrath thought, either Manyonga would be standing on an Olympic podium or he’d be lying in a gutter, dead from an overdose. What McGrath didn’t know, and perhaps couldn’t, was that the choice Manyonga made that day would shape the course of the Irishman’s life, too.


Manyonga had sports in his blood. His mother grew up in the dusty Eastern Cape village of Dordrecht, where she sprinted and played netball, a game similar to basketball. His father, John, was willowy and long necked and became a rugby winger—a position often given to the fastest athletes—for teams in upcountry mining towns.

The couple moved from their rural home to the growing sprawl of the Western Cape in 1977, settling in Mbekweni, a township of concrete houses and tin shanties. Joyce got seasonal work picking grapes, and John operated a forklift and played for the local rugby team, Paarl Blues. Things were tight for the growing family even before John lost his job. By the time Manyonga was born in 1991, during the waning years of South Africa’s apartheid regime, John was consistently unemployed and frequently absent from home. Joyce took up the financial slack as a domestic worker for an Indian woman in Paarl, a town of vineyards and whitewashed houses.

Manyonga was a solitary child. He spent much of his time watching television by himself, pencils in hand, re-creating what he saw on the screen on scraps of paper. He drew cartoon figures, some of which still hung on the walls of the family’s Machule Street home when McGrath visited years later. “He was very quiet. He never had friends,” Vuyiseka said of her baby brother.

The only time Manyonga seemed to find his place in the neighborhood was when he played a game called three sticks, or drie stokkies in Afrikaans. Jumpers took turns hopping over the sticks, which were placed at regular intervals and moved farther and farther apart with each round. Anyone who couldn’t clear all three was eliminated. Manyonga was always the last one standing.

As he grew, so did Manyonga’s enthusiasm for jumping. He began leaping over random objects—car tires, plastic crates, cardboard boxes—lying around Mbekweni. By the time he was a teenager, he attracted street-corner audiences who clapped and gasped in admiration as he cleared long lines or tall piles of stuff. Jumping made him feel free and at peace. “It is as if when I jump,” he told me years later, “I am just in heaven.” It also gave him something to do so instead of getting into trouble with his chommies, boys he knew in the township.

In high school, Manyonga joined the track team. His school didn’t have the facilities or coaching to help him nurture his natural ability, but once or twice a season the team competed in regional meets at Coetzenburg Stadium, about 20 miles from Mbekweni, on the quiet, tree-lined campus of the University of Stellenbosch. It was at one such meet in early 2009 that Mario Smith saw Manyonga perform the long jump.

Smith was the no-nonsense, chain-smoking head of the university’s athletics department. “He’s a guy who looks at the data, runs the numbers, and keeps his emotions in check,” said Shaun de Jager, one of Smith’s track and field athletes at the time. What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.

The long jump dates back as far as the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece. It involves an athlete taking a running start, reaching a takeoff point, and leaping as far as they can into a narrow sand or dirt pit. When Manyonga prepared for a jump, he stood up straight, his head tilted toward the sky. As he hurtled down the runway, he adjusted his stride pattern so that he’d launch from his left foot, departing earth for air. At the apex of the jump, Manyonga’s favorite part, he seemed to yearn for his legs to grow just a little longer. Often, in that moment, he flashed his teeth, giving the impression that he was on the brink of a raucous laugh.

What Smith witnessed in Manyonga was a body moving with such casual grace that it was almost scandalous.

Smith approached Manyonga and asked to be his coach, even though Manyonga wasn’t a student at the university. It was a canny move: Smith recognized that he could do something for Manyonga and that the reverse might be equally true. Manyonga, a world-class talent, could make Smith’s name as a coach outside university sports, maybe even outside South Africa.

There were complications from the start. Athletes of Manyonga’s caliber typically adhere to a strict daily training schedule, but money for transportation from Mbekweni to Stellenbosch was in short supply. “Luvo couldn’t be there every day,” De Jager told me. Still, the young man’s ability blossomed. “The amazing thing was that Luvo could understand immediately what Mario said,” De Jager observed. “What took other athletes weeks took him days. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”    

The first major test of Smith and Manyonga’s partnership came in July 2009, when they traveled to Mauritius for the African Junior Athletics Championships. Despite having worked with Smith for only a few months, Manyonga jumped 7.49 meters and came in third. Before long he was hitting 8 meters in practice, good enough to put him in medal contention at the Olympics, should he ever get there.

In July 2010, at the World Junior Championships in New Brunswick, Canada, De Jager figured it was a no-brainer that Manyonga would seize gold. But it wasn’t so easy. Competitive long jumping has two rounds, a qualifier and a final. The top 12 jumpers in the qualifier advance to the finals, where each takes three jumps. The top eight then take another three turns. The person with the best distance across those six jumps wins. At the junior worlds, Manyonga’s only real competition was Spain’s Eusebio Cáceres, and after five jumps, Manyonga held the lead at 7.7 meters. Then Cáceres posted a 7.72, leaving Manyonga one last turn to retake the lead.

Smith, known for his cool, clinical demeanor, pulled from a blue packet the latest of many Rothmans cigarettes he’d smoked during the finals. He lit up in the warm Canadian evening. Manyonga stepped to the line, sprinted toward the pit, and lifted off. When he landed, he’d smashed Cáceres’s distance, jumping 7.99 meters.

“Mario just freaked out,” De Jager recalled. Smith dashed toward Manyonga and grabbed him in a hug. “Luvo is just one of those super energetic guys, bouncing all over the place,” De Jager explained, so his joy came as no surprise. Smith’s, though, was a departure. “It was nice to see Mario go across like that and get all emotional,” De Jager said.

With Manyonga’s gold in hand, there was no question: The long-legged boy from Mbekweni was causing a stir in the track world. His future, personally and professionally, was wide open.


McGrath knew what it was like to use sports as an escape from a troubled childhood. In the 1970s, he grew up in a working-class family of six—mother, father, and four boys—not far from the country towns of Tallow and Cappoquin in County Waterford, Ireland. Home life was tough; McGrath’s dad had an unpredictable temper. His mother, who worked as a confectioner, was softer. McGrath sometimes picked blackberries that she baked into pies and wedding cakes.

He and his brothers played rugby and hurling, an Irish game similar to field hockey. After school they earned money harvesting onions or doing other odd jobs. McGrath put the money aside for his first bike, a red and white Raleigh with a fancy white seat. When he came up short on a down payment, his father, who could be generous when he wasn’t angry at his sons, made up the difference. McGrath rode it in ever wider circles around the house each day, venturing as far as he could before he had to turn around and head home for dinner.

One summer afternoon in the late 1970s, while learning to swim in a municipal pool, McGrath was approached by several members of a local rowing club running a recruitment drive. Would he like to join? His face dripping wet, McGrath looked up from the pool and asked when and where he was wanted.

Rowing provided an even greater escape than McGrath’s one-speed Raleigh. Soon his younger brother Oisin joined the club, too, and they traveled to Limerick, Cork, and Dublin for regattas. McGrath wasn’t a fluid rower, but he was powerful, a dynamo with the oars. He discovered that he loved the calm of the Blackwater, a gloriously wide tidal river next to the club’s boathouses. He could lose himself in the steady rhythm of pulling the oars and the labor exerted by his legs and lower back.

Over a decade of competition, with calm deliberation, he and Oisin powered past some of the best rowers in Ireland. In 1992, they competed on a four-man team in a qualifier for the Barcelona Olympics, breaking the course record by five seconds—only to have a Cuban team break it by six, dashing the McGraths’ hopes of advancing to Spain. “That race was the greatest of my life,” McGrath said. “I’ll never forget the exhaustion of coming in second.”

Not long after the head-to-head battle with the Cubans, disaster struck: McGrath was exercising when he felt a sudden sharp pain in his back. It was a prolapsed disc. Rowing became impossible, and within a year, he’d drifted away from the sport entirely. He took up martial arts like kickboxing and hapkido, among other disciplines that didn’t make heavy demands on his back. He grew fascinated by strength and conditioning, how it could help athletes of all skill levels. In 2002, he became the strength and conditioning coach for Mount Sion, a hurling team in Waterford.

The same year, McGrath picked up a hardback copy of a book called The Mighty Atom, by Ed Spielman. It tells the story of Joseph L. Greenstein, born premature and asthmatic as Yosselle Greenstein in the Polish border town of Suwalki in 1893. Doctors predicted that he would die before adulthood, but he survived and, of all things, joined the circus. Despite his diminutive size, Greenstein apprenticed with a wrestler and strongman called Volkano. In 1911, he came to the United States, where he reinvented himself as the Mighty Atom. Greenstein performed at Coney Island, slamming nails into plywood with his palm and flexing his pectoral, trapezius, and other bulging upper-body muscles to break the links of metal chains crisscrossing his chest. “The Modern Hercules,” a promotional poster for the Mighty Atom declared.

McGrath identified with Greenstein’s restlessness and self-sufficiency. He also shared the Mighty Atom’s views on the benefits of vegetarianism and avoiding alcohol. “No doubt about it,” McGrath told me. “The Spielman book changed my life.” In his free time, McGrath read about the lost tradition of Irish strongmen—performers and itinerants like Michael “Butty” Sugrue—and started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.

By 2008, McGrath had met a woman named Elke who was originally from South Africa. They lived on a farm outside Waterford called Bawnfune House, complete with prefamine sheds amid rolling green fields. Then the Irish economy fell off a cliff: Property values declined by more than 60 percent, and interest rates skyrocketed. Suddenly, McGrath couldn’t pay his mortgage. The bank took the farm. “I was in a horrible corner,” McGrath recalled.

McGrath started training to bend horseshoes and tear telephone directories in half with his bare hands.

Amid the mayhem of the crash, Elke announced that she wanted to return home to Paarl. McGrath followed, partly out of a lazy sense of adventure, and partly because he had few other options. He flew to South Africa with some clothes, two rolled-up paintings by a favorite Waterford artist, and two hurling balls, called sliotars, from his days training the lads at Mount Sion.

McGrath found Paarl alien. He didn’t understand a word of Afrikaans. He stood out as a tall, bulky foreigner with a funny accent. He longed for the fish and chips shop near the Mount Sion grounds and the grassy islands that run down the middle of Irish country roads. But he did his best to make a go of it. He picked up odd jobs performing vaudevillian feats of strength in school gymnasiums or delivering motivational speeches about the power of dreams and positive thinking. “I love the performance aspect of it,” he said of being a strongman. “But finally, it’s only a tool to prove to others that anything is possible. Bending paradigms is more important than breaking chains.” He coached two local rugby teams and helped some fellow enthusiasts build a Marine-like outdoor obstacle course called Die Pyntuin (the Garden of Pain).

None of it paid well, though. He and Elke began to grate on each other’s nerves. They fought, blamed each other for fighting, then fought some more. They soon separated.

McGrath scraped the money together to rent an empty warehouse on the industrial side of town; he wanted to open a strength and conditioning gym. The building was dark, drafty, and worn around the edges, but it was his. Bit by bit, McGrath attracted clients. The national women’s tug-of-war team was his first big get, and their medal at the World Games boosted his credentials. He was still in an existential breach, but he was determined to claw his way out.


In some ways, it was success that led to Manyonga’s downfall. Although he received no prize money to go with his gold medal at the junior worlds, sponsors began reaching out. Adidas paid for his kit, training shoes, and spikes, and he received a small stipend from Sascoc. In local terms, he was rapidly becoming a meneer (big man).

Smith persuaded Manyonga to live in a communal athletes’ house in Stellenbosch to focus more on his training. Doing so would mean dropping out of school before receiving his qualification—the South African equivalent of a high school diploma—but Manyonga didn’t mind. “At that time, Luvo, he was just flying,” Vuyiseka told me.

Manyonga shared the house with four other track and field athletes. He had his own room and a little privacy, two things he’d rarely experienced in Mbekweni. The five housemates spent weekends hanging out, eating Smith’s decadent homemade pasta dishes. But during the week they trained hard. Manyonga made steady gains in strength and technical acumen. Before long, Smith felt that Manyonga was ready to jump against anyone in the world.

Athletics South Africa, the country’s governing body for track and field, entered Manyonga in the long jump at the World Athletics Championships in South Korea. Though he placed fifth, he earned a $5,000 check, almost as much as the average annual income for black South Africans. Upon his return home, Manyonga, who was 20, set out to impress. He bought new clothes and attracted a group of friends who were happy to let him pick up the tab whenever they went out for meals or drinks. He disappeared from the training house for days at a time and stayed out all night at clubs in Mbekweni and Kyamandi, a township outside Stellenbosch.

Many people in these clubs used crystal meth, which had started flooding into South Africa from Nigeria in the late 1990s and was soon produced locally. One morning, after a night of partying, Manyonga woke considerably worse for wear. He pulled on jeans, splashed water on his face, and headed to Kyamandi. He had heard from a friend that tik, the local name for meth, was a cheap cure for a hangover, and he thought he could find someone dealing in the township.

Smith called to ask why he was late for training. Manyonga hung up.

Manyonga bought a small baggie of meth that day. When he smoked it, he heard a tik-tik-tik as he inhaled the heated lolly, or pipe; the sound was the source of the drug’s name. He loved how meth made him feel. The sensation of being high was nearly as good as jumping, he would later tell me. He didn’t have to worry about Smith pushing him, shouting at him to do better during training. He didn’t have to worry about fitting in at the athletes’ house as a township boy who hadn’t completed his exams. He didn’t have to worry about pressure or expectations or anything else. For a few hours, he didn’t have to think at all.

Soon the other athletes at the house noticed that personal items were disappearing. Money went missing from a wallet; cell phones mysteriously vanished like socks in the dryer. His housemates suspected Manyonga was taking things of value that he could trade for drugs. As they were cooling down after a training session without Manyonga one day, they brought the subject up with Smith. The conversation was amiable enough, but the young men felt that their coach didn’t take what they’d said to heart. “It felt like Mario didn’t want to see what we were seeing,” De Jager said. Still, Smith recommended that Manyonga visit a Stellenbosch-based sports psychologist named Dawn Saunders. “It was my impression that Mario sensed something wasn’t right,” Saunders told me. “It was almost as if he wanted me to confirm his suspicions.”

Busy with his new social life, Manyonga cut back on training, but he continued to compete and even to excel, a matter of enduring frustration to his less talented housemates. Though he underwent random drug testing before some meets, Manyonga didn’t get caught. Tik is detectable in a person’s system for only about nine days after use, and Manyonga would abstain from smoking just long enough to avoid testing positive.

On March 20, 2012, less than five months before the London Olympics, there was a meet scheduled at Coetzenburg Stadium, Manyonga’s home turf. He hadn’t planned to compete, so he’d snuck out of the house the day before to smoke a tik pipe in Kyamandi. Irritable with Manyonga’s wanderings, Smith decided to force the long jumper to participate, no matter how tired or unprepared he was. “Mario was pissed off,” said De Jager. “He put pressure on Luvo to compete. He always knew that if Luvo just hit the plank, the chances were good that he’d put in a good jump.”

Following the meet, a mere 24 hours after smoking tik, he was selected for a drug test. When it came back positive, Manyonga was immediately prohibited from further competition pending a hearing before the South African Institute for Drug Free Sport (SAIDS), scheduled for a month later. Depending on what the panel decided, Manyonga faced a ban of up to two years.

Manyonga was devastated, and Smith was irate—at his star jumper but also, in De Jager’s telling, at himself. Smith insisted that Manyonga voluntarily enter an outpatient rehab center near Cape Town, in the suburb of Hout Bay. For several weeks, Manyonga spent his days at the rehab center, going through counseling and working on strategies to avoid a relapse. When he next visited Saunders, “he was upset and disappointed,” she recalled. He also “didn’t deny anything.” During their talk, Manyonga was deferential and apologetic, less a meneer than a frightened kid, scarcely out of adolescence. Jumping had been his source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?

When Manyonga was scheduled to appear in the suburban Cape Town offices of SAIDS, Smith went with him, and the coach asked Saunders to come, too. The London Olympics were less than three months away. Saunders, like Smith, felt strongly that Manyonga was a young man from difficult circumstances who’d made a mistake; she understood how rare his talent was, how limited his support system, and how easy it must have been to get caught up in the culture of tik. As they prepared to enter the SAIDS offices, Saunders asked Manyonga how he was feeling.

“Mum can’t be proud of me now,” she remembered him saying. “I’ve brought shame on my family.”

Jumping had been Manyonga’s source of power and his escape. If he couldn’t jump, what would he do?

At the hearing, Manyonga, Saunders, and Smith sat on one side of a large boardroom table; on the other was a panel of four administrators and lawyers (three of them white, one Malay) who would decide his fate. Manyonga accepted strict liability—he didn’t dispute that he’d tested positive—but otherwise spoke little. Saunders and Smith did most of the talking.

Saunders described the long jumper’s background, his dysfunctional home life, and the rigors of Mbekweni. Manyonga had shown contrition, Smith added, and voluntarily sought out treatment. His mother earned 120 Rand (roughly $9) per week as a domestic worker; his dad rarely had work. If Manyonga didn’t jump, he would have no income, and his family would lose his financial support, too. He needed only one more jump to qualify for the Olympics.

Some of the panelists teared up or blew their noses. “So you believe, Mr. Smith,” asked Andrew Breetzke, the chairman, “the athlete has the potential to become one of the world’s great long jumpers?”

“I do,” Smith replied. “He’s my most gifted athlete. He can hurdle parked cars.”

After approximately three hours, the meeting was adjourned. The panel would deliver a verdict within two weeks. The mood during the car ride home was somber. Smith drove and Saunders sat in the front; Manyonga was in the back seat. Saunders heard sniffling coming from behind her at one point but didn’t turn around.

As they rolled down the N2 highway toward Stellenbosch, Saunders noticed the shanties of Khayelitsha, the largest township in South Africa. She had seen it many times before, but the sight now shamed her. The lingering divisions of apartheid, between the haves and have-nots, was as much a part of the South African landscape as the breathtaking silhouette of Table Mountain and the fields of grazing rhinos in Kruger National Park. And just like the townships, Manyonga personified the raw injustices of his country.

Saunders started to cry. She looked across the car and saw that Smith was crying, too. “What a bugger up it was,” she told me. “I don’t know if another nation can understand this—that this is what it means to be a South African.”

Two weeks later, the verdict arrived: Manyonga was banned from jumping for 18 months. The mitigating factors of his background and home life meant that he didn’t receive the maximum two-year sanction. Breetzke told me that he felt bad about the whole situation—a “quintessential South African tragedy,” he said—but rules were rules.

Over the next year, Manyonga disappeared from Smith’s radar. He bounced around Mbekweni, from club to club, aimless, often high—until the day he met John McGrath.


At 10 a.m., the time they’d agreed to meet to begin training, McGrath pulled up in his Jeep at Manyonga’s Machule Street home, vacillating between hope and doubt that the young man would even be there. To McGrath’s relief he was, though he’d ditched his Panama hat for a black tracksuit. McGrath got out of the Jeep, and he and Manyonga bumped fists and snapped their fingers in greeting. Then they both got in the car and headed to the gym.

To start, McGrath wanted to establish a baseline for Manyonga’s natural gifts. He had the young man hold a broom across the front of his thighs, the handle horizontal to the ground. He asked Manyonga to jump over it from a standing position, then, with the handle pressed to his hamstrings, to jump over it backward. The exercise was nearly impossible; McGrath had seen it done successfully only a few times in his career as a coach. Manyonga did it ten times in a row.

Still, there was room for improvement. Manyonga was naturally supple, but he wasn’t nearly as strong as he could be. A long jumper needs the explosive power of a sprinter to fly down the runway and maximize his launch. Manyonga could run 100 meters in 10.5 seconds; McGrath told Manyonga he could get that number down to 10 if he wanted to. The young athlete also needed better stability in his ankles, so he could withstand the bone-jarring force of his takeoff without injury.

McGrath concentrated on exercises that would strengthen Manyonga’s core and thighs without sacrificing his natural speed and agility. Manyonga rode a stationary bike. He worked with weights and medicine balls. He did one-legged jumps onto raised blocks. Days turned into weeks, weeks wheeled into months, and Manyonga became stronger and fitter.

Sometimes they were joined in training by Ryk Neethling, a freestyle swimmer who had won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics as part of South Africa’s 4×100-meter relay team. The three men quickly established a rapport. They were relentlessly competitive, challenging each other to acts of strength and endurance. Manyonga was easily bored, so they devised games to keep things interesting. Sometimes they’d race around the facility’s perimeter, pushing wheelbarrows full of weights as fast as they could. “Somehow,” McGrath recalled fondly of the competitions, “Ryk would always start before I said go.”

As Manyonga put on muscle, McGrath did, too. Within a few months, he realized that he had never been in better shape and that he was having more fun than he’d had in years. After workouts during which they blasted songs by Lil Ray Jimenez, McGrath and Manyonga would go to Paarl for coffee or a shake and a burger. They were an unusual pair: McGrath was the pale white of the sun-shy Irish, while Manyonga was a lustrous black. McGrath was like a brick wall of solid muscle, while Manyonga was narrow and agile. He walked on his toes, not the soles of his feet, giving the impression that he was always about to take flight. They joked with each other and talked about women and music. Manyonga loved R&B and a South African genre called gqom, which mixes rap and house music. McGrath’s tastes inclined toward heavy metal, Irish folk, and the Ramones. “We were very equal,” McGrath recalled of their relationship. “I talked about Ireland and the Irish weather. He talked about going swimming in the dams behind Mbekweni.”

As they became closer, there was one subject that Manyonga didn’t seem comfortable discussing: his relationship with Mario Smith. From the little Manyonga said, and from what McGrath heard from other athletes, it was clear that the coach-athlete bond had become a strained one.

McGrath’s and Smith’s paths seldom crossed—they moved in different athletic worlds—but he empathized with Smith, because he had frustrations of his own with Manyonga. Sometimes the long jumper skipped training sessions and would be unreachable because he’d sold his most recent cell phone. Things went missing from the gym, like a mountain bike and thumb drives of music. While McGrath didn’t have proof that Manyonga was to blame, he’d also never lost things like that before. McGrath let it go. “Some battles you fight,” he told me. “We were in a delicate phase. I suspected that he was still smoking tik but looked the other way. I couldn’t be with him every hour of the day, and I didn’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole.”

McGrath knew that Manyonga needed Smith’s expertise on the technical aspects of jumping to compete again, so when Manyonga’s ban expired, in September 2013, the Irishman arranged a three-way meeting at Val-de-Vie, a luxury golf estate where Ryk Neethling worked when he wasn’t swimming. The gathering, McGrath announced after they’d all sat down, was about leaving the past behind and finding common ground. “I made it quite clear,” McGrath said, “that no one person would help improve Luvo—it was going to be a joint effort.” They agreed to put the ban behind them and set their sights on the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in July 2014. It was the ideal venue for Manyonga to return to international competition: high-profile but not exceptionally so.

To get there, the trio established a daily protocol. Manyonga would train with McGrath in Paarl in the morning, then with Smith in Stellenbosch in the afternoon, before returning to Mbekweni at night. Smith would either pick him up or see to it that a car came to fetch him. The routine would give Manyonga structure and support at every turn, along with a new goal to replace his dashed London dreams. Whatever bad habits the young man still had, Smith and McGrath hoped to keep them at manageable levels.

The coaches decided that Manyonga would compete at a meet in Coetzenburg Stadium in March 2014, just two days before the cutoff date to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. Manyonga wasn’t quite in peak shape, but Smith and McGrath hoped he would qualify with one of his early jumps, before he got too tired. He reached 7.65 meters on his second attempt, more than enough to make it to Glasgow.

But there was a hitch: Afterward, Athletics South Africa claimed that the jump was never reported and therefore couldn’t be ratified—meaning that Manyonga hadn’t officially qualified. When Sascoc announced South Africa’s Glasgow team on June 11, 2014, Manyonga wasn’t on it. All his hard work had been wasted effort. His official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.

According to McGrath, Manyonga took the news in stride. “I was more freaked out than Luvo was,” McGrath told me. Perhaps, he mused, Manyonga had already “had to take so much shit” in his life as a poor black man in South Africa that this felt like business as usual. Then again, Manyonga wasn’t one to be open and honest about his feelings. Playing tough was an act of youth and a product of circumstance.

Manyonga’s official ban had ended nine months prior, but now it seemed to have been informally extended.

One night, two weeks after Sascoc’s announcement about Glasgow, Smith was driving from Stellenbosch to Paarl in his battered Opel Kadett when an oncoming car came over a rise and hit him head-on. Both vehicles immediately burst into flames, killing Smith and the other car’s four occupants.

The news spread quickly, and the athletes Smith had worked with most committedly took it hard, like the loss of the family member who’d been the glue holding everyone together. “We had a really good training group,” De Jager said. “The fact that Mario died broke us apart.”

Manyonga had known Smith for five years. The coach had given him a shot—twice—and been a father figure. Even during the painful months of the ban and the distance it had created between them, he’d loved the man.

After the accident, Manyonga drifted back to Mbekweni. When he and McGrath saw each other or spoke, Smith’s death wasn’t mentioned. “Luvo didn’t reveal too much of his pain to me,” McGrath said.

On the day of Smith’s memorial, Manyonga put on slim-fitting red pants, a crisp shirt, and pointed black loafers. He left his family’s home intending to catch the train to Stellenbosch, where the service would be held. But he got waylaid: He ran into some friends, smoked a tik pipe, and never caught the train.


The day of Smith’s funeral was when I met McGrath and Manyonga for the first time, though it wasn’t an easy undertaking. On a work trip to the Western Cape, I’d heard about an Irishman who’d befriended a long jumper with talent to burn, now ostracized from the South African track community because he used drugs. My interest piqued, I’d contacted McGrath, who explained Manyonga’s tendency to disappear. On the day of the memorial, we chased him for five hours: An acquaintance on the street said they’d seen him an hour or so prior and pointed us to one of Manyonga’s haunts, where the scenario repeated itself, before we finally found him at the train station.

Exhausted—and irritated—by the search, we went looking for something to eat and somewhere to talk. I learned much about Luvo that day: the purity of his potential, the depth of his relationship with McGrath, and the intensity of his love of tik, which he described to me with rapt attention to detail. He also talked about his drive to succeed. “I want to be someone in life,” Manyonga told me, “not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”

The product of my reporting was an article, “The Impossibility of Loving Luvo,” published in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian in August 2014. The wheels that the story set in motion were slow but powerful. The African National Congress, the country’s governing party, reached out to its Mbekweni branch, and Manyonga and McGrath were invited to a parliamentary meeting in Cape Town. The two men explained the long jumper’s predicament. The lawmakers said that while they couldn’t make any decisions about Manyonga’s fate, they would call people who could.

Within a few weeks, McGrath’s phone was ringing. Sascoc was interested in Manyonga again. The committee offered to enroll him at the High Performance Centre (HPC) at the University of Pretoria, better known as Tukkies. The HPC was the best athletic center in the country.

“I want to be someone in life, not a hero or a millionaire. I want to be a normal person with a family, a person people look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be just like him.’”

On the heels of Smith’s death, McGrath felt it was the right move for Manyonga. “Never,” he told me, “have I seen someone as straightforwardly gifted as Luvo.” McGrath didn’t want the young man to pass up a chance to get his talent back on track.

In June 2015, a year after Smith’s accident, Manyonga moved to Pretoria to train. He wasn’t thrilled about the HPC’s insistence that he submit to random drug testing, but he was glad when, one sunny winter morning not long after he’d arrived, he met someone eager to be his new coach: Neil Cornelius, a trainer at the HPC. “I knew of his troubles and his past,” Cornelius told me, but “there was never any doubt” that with work, Manyonga could “break barriers.”

Not that Cornelius liked everything he saw. Manyonga still walked and ran on his toes and needed to get out of the habit during his jumps, Cornelius told him, because placing a full foot on the ground would give him a firmer takeoff. Manyonga also admitted to his coach that, because he was scared of heights, he closed his eyes after launching into the air. Cornelius urged Manyonga to keep them open. “I told him that if you close your eyes, you are losing control and direction,” Cornelius explained. “If you don’t have visual feedback, you don’t know where you are going.”

Under Cornelius’s tutelage, Manyonga gained in confidence and strength. His technique became more precise and his jumps progressively longer. With dedication, on the right stage, he could possibly break American Mike Powell’s world record of 8.95 meters, set at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo.

McGrath was nearly 800 miles away in Paarl, but he tried to visit Manyonga regularly. When he flew up from Cape Town for work, he would arrange his schedule to spend at least half a day with his friend. They would meet and shoot the breeze over a cappuccino or a meal. “Luvo had a fierce appetite, that I can tell you—he’d have mighty breakfasts,” McGrath recalled, “and a good conversation with the waitress as well.” They went to rugby matches and, once, to watch a motocross race. “That was probably the last uncomplicated visit we ever had,” McGrath said.

The complications didn’t stem from an argument or disagreement, which McGrath and Manyonga rarely had in earnest. The problems were subtler and more frustrating. Manyonga moving to Pretoria, far from the trauma he’d endured and the mistakes he’d made, created a rift between the life he’d lived and the one he wanted to build. McGrath sat on the far side of that divide, a reminder of a past self that Manyonga wanted to shed like old skin. He was young, gifted, and impetuous. His friendship with McGrath seemed better set aside with a gentle hand than dragged along with him into the future.

When I spoke to McGrath on the phone, I asked if he felt hurt by the growing distance between him and Manyonga, but he insisted that nothing was wrong. “This was how it was meant to be,” he’d once said of Manyonga’s move to Pretoria. In another conversation, he noted, “My motive was always to get him on his feet and get him going again.” On another occasion, McGrath added, “I was always gunning for him to get away. I was never going to carry his suitcase around the world.”

In March 2016, Manyonga’s rehabilitation reached a critical moment. At a low-key meet at Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria, he jumped 8.2 meters. The distance guaranteed that, after years of hardship and uncertainty, Manyonga was finally able to go to the Olympic Games for his country. McGrath wasn’t at the meet, but when he heard about Manyonga’s victory, he texted his friend, “Show the swagger.”

A month later, Manyonga was set to appear at the South African Athletics Championships. It was the country’s biggest stage, and Manyonga hoped to wow audiences with further evidence of his comeback. McGrath and Manyonga’s family were in the stands at Coetzenburg Stadium. Manyonga had jumped there hundreds of times before; it felt like a spiritual home. Cornelius whispered in Manyonga’s ear that he was on the cusp of becoming a legend in front of the entire country.

Manyonga’s first two jumps in the qualifying round were massive, but officials deemed them foul, meaning Manyonga’s toe had passed the edge of the takeoff plate. His third attempt was an utter failure: a negligible 6.7 meters. Manyonga didn’t advance to the final round and ultimately finished 13th. A victory might have established Manyonga as a favorite at Rio. Instead, he would be entering sports’ biggest stage as an inconsistent underdog.

When it was all over, Cornelius took the athlete aside.

“This is the last time this happens,” he growled. “The last time.”

“Yes, coach,” Manyonga replied, looking at his feet.

“Time is running out, Luvo,” Cornelius said. “Carry on like this, and medaling at Rio is just a dream. You with me?”

“I am, yes. It won’t happen again.”


McGrath was nursing a secret. He was injured, badly, and had been for months. At first, in 2015, he thought the pain running like a hot wire down his left leg was a pulled muscle, but he soon realized that it was the recurrence of his 25-year-old rowing injury, which affected his fourth and fifth vertebrae. “It robs you of joy, an injury like that,” McGrath told me. “It was hell to sit and difficult to walk. The only thing that really helped was to lie down.” He felt alone; he’d been separated from Elke for years, and while he had clients at the gym, none gave him purpose like Manyonga had. Friends told him that he should consider moving back to Ireland.

Instead, McGrath focused on the thing that had pulled him through other dark times: training. He had a bag full of grip exercisers called Captains of Crush. He could use them to maintain the strength in his wrists and forearms without compromising his damaged back. He started with a relatively easy gripper, equipped with 140 pounds of resistance, and worked his way up to 300. He squeezed the devices for an hour each day, swapping hands and pausing occasionally to rest his aching arms. It was a solitary activity, physical meditation of sorts. As he clamped the handles of the grippers together again and again, his mind meandered into daydreams. “That’s where I conjure up the feats that I’m going to do,” McGrath told me.

Sometimes he imagined performing in front of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen, an international group dedicated to preserving the tradition that had made the Mighty Atom famous. McGrath had appeared before the association once before, in 2011 in Coney Island, where he’d done two tricks. The first was a complicated maneuver in which he bent a steel bar into a curlicue; the second involved bending a bar by clamping the middle between his teeth and pulling the ends downward. But he wanted to do more, including bend nails. The feat held a certain cachet in strongman circles. The Mighty Atom had done it. The Atom’s most ardent disciple, Slim “the Hammerman” Furman, had too. Because of their short length and the bender’s diminished leverage, nails are more difficult than steel bars. Among the most challenging to manipulate are what are known as red nails: seven inches of steel, five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, that have been cold rolled, or processed at lower temperatures to make them stronger than standard nails.

In early 2016, after months of minimal exercise beyond just gripping the Captains of Crush, McGrath grew impatient and decided to push himself. He picked up a steel bar one day and tried to bend it. Immediately, pain coursed through his back. He was nearly incapacitated. He took anti-inflammatories and other painkillers, but nothing helped. Around the same time Manyonga headed to Rio, McGrath finally admitted that he needed surgery. It was the only way to relieve pressure on a nerve near his spine.

The operation went smoothly, but as he recovered, McGrath’s doctors gave him some news he didn’t want to hear: He should never again bend a steel bar, let alone a nail. McGrath let their advice sink in as, lying on his back, he watched the Rio Olympics unfold on television. He was pumped so full of narcotics that he could barely muster the strength to shout when Manyonga appeared on screen, clad in his green, yellow, and white uniform, ready to jump.

Despite Manyonga’s lackluster performance at Coetzenburg, McGrath believed Manyonga could medal in Rio; so did Cornelius. But the rest of the sports world had lost sight of the promising South African during what amounted to a nearly five-year hiatus from high-profile competition. Manyonga quietly took fourth in the qualifying round and advanced. “Excited for tomorrow,” Cornelius texted him that night. “Sleep well.”

The long-jump final began at midnight in South Africa, where Manyonga’s family watched via a satellite feed their neighbors had pooled their money to purchase for the family. McGrath watched from a friend’s house where he was staying while recovering from surgery. As the competitors took the field, commentators described the fight for gold as a two-way race between Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford and America’s Jeff Henderson. When TV cameras focused on Manyonga, he did a buzzy little jig, his natural showmanship coming to the fore.

Rutherford went first and jumped 8.18 meters. Manyonga then hit 8.16. Henderson followed with 8.2. Manyonga’s next two jumps were ruled foul. Rutherford, meanwhile, moved ahead of Henderson with a jump of 8.22.

When it was time for his fourth attempt, Manyonga stood on the track, his eyes focused on the pit ahead. He leaned back, then sprinted and leaped into the air. When he landed, the number that flashed on the scoreboard was the best of the night: 8.28 meters. In his fifth jump he would surpass it, reaching 8.37 meters, a personal record in competition.


Manyonga strutted toward the stands, his face breaking into a grin. On Machule Street, people screamed at the television and clapped their hands. McGrath, feeling a surge of pride even as he was unable to react with a physically taxing whoop or fist pump, was sure that the event was over. No one would beat Manyonga.

Henderson had one jump left, and Manyonga watched from the side of the track, where he sat on the ground, leaning back on his arms as casually as if he was at a picnic. Henderson rocketed toward the pit and soared into the air.

He hit 8.38 meters. Just like that, Manyonga was bumped from first place.

“I was so close,” he sighed to reporters afterward. “I had my hands on that gold medal.” Still, he’d won an Olympic silver medal, a feat that, just a year prior, had seemed all but impossible.

McGrath had once predicted that either Luvo would be dead from an overdose or he’d be standing on an Olympic podium by the time he was 30. At 25, Manyonga had fulfilled that prophecy. The Irishman shared the news on Twitter, posted a Facebook message, and sent Manyonga his congratulations. As the hours passed, his emotions mounted. “I stayed awake all night, and at around 5 a.m., it dawned on me what an achievement this was,” McGrath told me. He broke down crying.


Many people in South Africa had been sure that Manyonga would never live up to his potential. The long jumper had proved them wrong. McGrath wanted to do the same to the doctors who’d told him he’d never be a strongman again.

After leaving the hospital, he’d worn a back brace and used crutches. Once he ditched those, he embraced Pilates and yoga. He went to physical therapy and changed his diet, incorporating intermittent fasting like the Mighty Atom once had. Slowly, he began to exercise more rigorously. “I went by feel and trained around my injury,” he told me. “I did push-ups, pull-ups. I always took a safe position. I never picked up anything off the floor.”

Six weeks after surgery, he had the chance to do a paid strength performance for Adidas employees gathered at a Stellenbosch hotel. He couldn’t bend a bar by traditional means, so he bent one while holding it clamped between his teeth. He leaned his head back, raising his jaw toward the sky, while yanking down on either end of the three-foot length of steel. “Something must give in a situation like that—generally it’s the bar,” McGrath told me with a chuckle. “Your teeth crushing down into your gums feels wrong. It’s counterintuitive. The taste of steel isn’t particularly pleasant.” The performance went off without a hitch and with minimal pain.

In addition to a much needed paycheck, the event gave McGrath confidence. The Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen was having its annual dinner in Newark, New Jersey, in October 2017. If McGrath trained hard in the year leading up to the event, he might be able to set a world record for the most red nails bent in under a minute. “Those nails are strengthened by a process that gives them approximately 500 pounds of resistance,” McGrath told me. “You’re not going to do more than seven or eight in a minute.” That became his goal.

Reaching it required a change of technique. He couldn’t bow his back to the same degree he once had, which meant he couldn’t manipulate a nail while holding it down in front of his torso. Instead, he’d have to bring it up close to his chin and bend it in half with a relatively straight back, providing the necessary explosive power with his shoulders, biceps, and forearms. All of his training was geared toward strengthening his upper body.

One day while McGrath was training, Pastor Eugene Maqwelana, the man who’d first introduced the Irishman to Manyonga, phoned. He was planning a men’s retreat in Paarl and inviting community leaders. The coaches of a rugby team would be there, and Maqwelana wanted Manyonga to come, too. Could McGrath persuade him to fly down from Pretoria?

McGrath called Manyonga, who agreed to come, though their conversation took a strange turn.

“I’m next-level now, John,” Manyonga said. “I need a bodyguard.”

“You what?” McGrath replied incredulously.

“A bodyguard, you know.”

McGrath thought Manyonga might be joking, playing up an above-it-all celebrity persona for laughs. But Manyonga’s tone suggested he was serious.

“You’re a fucking athlete,” McGrath replied, annoyed, “not Jay-Z.”

The strongman picked the long jumper up after his flight down south for the retreat. Following the event, they went to Bean-in-Love, a favorite coffee shop from their time training together at the gym. Back then they were just two friends stopping in for a snack; now everyone in the neighborhood knew Manyonga. “Walking back in there was kind of cool,” McGrath said. “There was a sense of achievement.”

But tension was palpable in what wasn’t said. The two men ignored the bodyguard conversation and its implications—namely, that the gulf between them was wider than ever.

Away from the streets of Mbekweni, Manyonga still struggled to cope with temptation. As he trained for the 2017 World Athletics Championships, scheduled for London in August, he was lured into the drug scene in Sunnyside, a Pretoria suburb. He went on a bender in July and voluntarily committed himself to rehab. “He was so weak he couldn’t jump,” said Danie Cornelius, who runs the track and field program at the University of Pretoria (and is also the father of Manyonga’s coach, Neil). While there, Cornelius said, Manyonga tested positive for cocaine. The staff kicked him out, but he was readmitted after authorities at the University of Pretoria pleaded for the center to take him back.

With three weeks to go before the worlds, Manyonga’s entourage was wild with worry. From afar, McGrath was aware of the troubles, but he was reluctant to interfere. When Manyonga arrived in London, his closest supporters held their breath, hoping his raw talent would overcome his recklessness. The young man exceeded even the most optimistic expectations: Sporting a pair of pale blue spikes, Manyonga jumped a whopping 8.48 meters early in the final round, literally drawing a line in the sand. No one else could match the effort. He was champion of the world.

After his victory, he called his family. “We cried a lot,” Vuyiseka said. “Mum was very happy.”

By that time, Manyonga had begun working with a new sports agent, a man named Lee-Roy Newton, who made it clear to reporters that he was going to rewrite Manyonga’s public narrative. He told The Guardian that sponsors didn’t want to go near stories with lingering negativity—stories like a sports figure who had struggled with a drug problem. (Newton did not respond to a request for comment about Manyonga’s 2017 experience in rehab.)

For McGrath’s part, he felt that Newton drove an even deeper wedge between him and Manyonga, a sense borne out when, while working on this story, I called Newton to set up an interview with Manyonga about his relationship with John. I wondered, however naively, if I might be able to help bridge the gap between the long jumper and the strongman. Newton told me that Manyonga didn’t want to talk; Manyonga thought McGrath was trying to take credit for his success and didn’t want to have anything to do with a story linking their journeys together.

It was a response that, to a certain degree, I understood. In South Africa, people who come from little are rightly protective of their success; others taking credit can feel like robbery of the worst kind. And people who offer a helping hand too often forget or gloss over the conditions that made assistance necessary in the first place. If Manyonga, blessed with innate physical brilliance, wanted to move through the world like a kid with diamonds on the soles of his shoes, that was his right.

Then again, McGrath seemed less interested in credit than he did in connection. Even as Manyonga continued to win meet after meet and title after title around the globe, McGrath kept visiting the young man’s family. He helped Vuyiseka pay for outstanding school fees and sometimes pitched in for groceries or the odd bottle of wine. “We lost Mario,” Vuyiseka told me, “and then came John.”

At root the story of McGrath and Manyonga isn’t one of debts owed. It’s about two people from diverging worlds pushing the limits of what’s personally and humanly possible, who for a brief but glorious time labored side by side in that effort. They were changed by it. Then, as quickly as they’d met, they burst apart, burning bright in different directions, but with a single contrail in their wake.

On October 21, 2017, after months of preparation and planning, McGrath took to a small, wobbly stage in a conference room at the Marriott Hotel in Newark, New Jersey. It was a Saturday afternoon, and golden leaves were falling from the trees outside. The audience was small, no more than 50 or 60 people, devotees of the sport that strongmen like to call the Iron Game.

The room was better suited to a dentists’ convention or a gathering of financial brokers. The carpet muffled sound, the wallpaper was tasteful, and the light fittings were demure. Even the doors seemed to close with a plush murmur. It was not a place for the savage grunts of bar-bending men, yet there they were, grunting away.

Throughout the afternoon, men in leather waistcoats and boots stepped forward to bend steel. Others forced rods into improbable shapes, full of curlicues and rococo flourishes, called iron butterflies. One man, Eric Moss, lay on his back between two chairs, a concrete paving slab balanced on his stomach. His partner climbed the rungs of a nearby ladder, a kettlebell in hand. Once he was sure of his balance, the partner dropped the weight onto the paving stone, which cracked with a thud. A plume of dust rose from the slab. Moss jumped up and blinked, to thunderous applause.

Next it was McGrath’s turn to bend red nails. He and a friend had been wrapping the tips of nails in blue Cordura for hours. Combined with chalk, the cladding helped his grip. Once McGrath was on stage, a 60-second stopwatch started and he was handed the first nail. He pulled it close to his chin and dealt with it easily. He was given a second nail, then a third. His technique was uniform: Stepping forward slightly, he’d seize the nail, and once it was solidly in his grip, he’d push and grimace with all his upper body’s might until the nail’s two ends nearly touched. Then he’d toss the narrow U-shaped piece of steel to the floor.

As he moved through nails four, five, and six, his pace slowed imperceptibly. By nail seven he was struggling, and there were only 20 seconds left on the clock. The audience took a collective breath as he made no initial impression on nail eight. Finally, with much effort, he managed to bend it. By the time the ninth nail was in his hands he was spent, his arms like jelly. McGrath had bent the last nail only partially. “Your power system is gone,” he told me later. “I thought I might have had time for another one, but I didn’t.”

After review, the result was seven nails fully bent; two didn’t make the cut because they weren’t the right shape. Still, it was one more nail than the previous world record. In the small universe of strongmen, McGrath was a victor.

It wasn’t quite the Olympics; there were no television cameras in the room, and I was the only reporter present. As McGrath gulped air and accepted compliments and backslaps from the audience, I couldn’t help but think of Manyonga. I wondered if McGrath was thinking about him, too. Did he want to tell his friend about what he’d achieved—how he, too, was a world champion after overcoming so much? Did it hurt to know that Manyonga might never learn about the scene at the Marriott?

I asked McGrath what went through his mind when he knew he’d set the world record. He didn’t answer immediately. In the radiating satisfaction of his achievement, he paused in thought. Finally, he said that he wouldn’t change anything about his journey at all.

Satchel Paige and the Championship for the Reelection of the General


How the best baseball pitcher in the American Negro leagues came to play for the cruelest dictator in the Caribbean.

By Jonathan Blitzer

The Atavist Magazine, No. 57

Jonathan Blitzer has written for the Oxford AmericanThe New Yorker, and The New York Times, among others.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Thomas Thiel
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checkers: Juanita Ceballos and Jika Gonzalez
Illustrator: Kelsey Dake
Photographer: Tatiana Fernández Geara

Published in February 2016. Design updated in 2021.


On a warm April day in 1937, Satchel Paige sat in his room at a boarding house in New Orleans, listening to voices drift up from the lobby. Word around the establishment was that some guys with foreign accents and Panama hats were looking to talk to him. Paige had asked around, but no one knew who they were. He was used to being pursued. He was the most famous black baseball player in the country and the ace pitcher for one of the best teams in the Negro leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The season opener was scheduled for April 25, and Paige had arrived alone, in his Green Packard convertible, without his teammates or his coaches knowing whether he was going to show up at all. He liked making people wait. He did it to batters, who suffered through his famed hesitation delivery; to his wife, Janet, who finally issued an ultimatum after three years of dilatory courtship; and to his fellow Crawfords, who struggled to stay loose midgame while he sauntered out to the stands to smoke and spar with the fans. They all put up with his antics because he was the best there was, and he knew it.

Satchel Paige

By the spring of 1937, he had earned hundreds of wins and multiple no-hitters. He dominated the black circuit during the spring and summer, lending out his services to white semipro teams for pocket money along the way. In the off-season, he barnstormed across the country and played winter ball in California, where he pitched against big leaguers like Jimmie Foxx and Dizzy Dean, who came away saying he was the toughest pitcher they’d ever seen. He was every bit the showman that he was the ballplayer. As a youngster in his home state of Alabama, he’d once called in his outfielders to sit in a half-circle around the mound, with runners on base and two away. He wanted to get the final out of the inning on the strength of his arm alone. When he struck out the batter on three straight pitches, his gambit instantly took on the cast of legend. “If you can do it, it ain’t bragging,” Paige used to say—he even bragged about bragging.

Paige rented a room at a battered boarding house with a pointy, shingled roof on Dryades Street, in downtown New Orleans. It was one of only a handful of places in the city that accepted black lodgers. Paige had been ducking in and out since he got there, rushing to the team’s practices and exhibition games in preparation for opening day against the Crawfords’ crosstown rivals back in Pittsburgh, the Homestead Grays. It would be the start of a season-long “diamond war,” as one newspaper wrote, and New Orleans was chosen as neutral turf for the showdown.

Unlike the white Major Leagues, with top-dollar salaries and the media’s undivided attention, the Negro leagues consisted of one improvisation after another; operations were underfunded and undersubscribed. Getting fans to turn out depended more on spectacle than on the quality of the play itself. Gus Greenlee, the owner of the Crawfords, profited from a healthy rivalry between the two teams. In addition to Paige, he was peddling a novelty act: a right-handed catcher who reclined in a multicolored rocking chair behind home plate. Greenlee was sure that his team’s new catcher would “start throwing and rocking his way to fame,” he said, adding, “He’s liable to be as big an attraction as Satchel before the season’s gone.”

Soon after Paige got to town, his teammates told him about the men who had been lurking by the fields and asking about him. Paige began to notice them in the bleachers, flitting forms in the distance that would mass when he took the field and then scatter when he walked off. Wherever he drove, he felt that he was being followed. Paige figured he knew what it was all about: another offer, possibly to play somewhere south of the border like Puerto Rico or Cuba. “The pay was always good down there,” he would later recall in his memoir. “Down there, nobody was locking their doors to Ol’ Satch.” Whoever these guys were, though, he would have to avoid them. He didn’t want to be tempted away by their offers. Janet was pressuring him to stay put after he had traveled to Puerto Rico without her, canceling their vacation so he could pick up an extra paycheck, and she was still upset with him.

Now, from up in his room, Paige could make out the sounds of Rs rolling and vowels flattening out, like he remembered from the Caribbean. He thought he heard his name and bolted upright. Dressed in his usual attire, a flashy suit and fedora, Paige grabbed his car keys and scrambled down the stairs to the alley where his car was parked. The rooming house shared a driveway with a shoe-shine parlor called Globe Trotters. Sun glinted off its sign and into Paige’s eyes as he wheeled out. He’d almost made it to the street when, suddenly, there was a screeching of tires and a black limousine slammed into view, blocking his way. A door opened and out stepped a short man, with brown eyes and black hair oiled back to accentuate a mild widow’s peak; he was fair skinned and wore a cream-colored linen suit.

“I’m Dr. José Enrique Aybar,” he said as Paige cautiously got out of his car. “I direct the baseball team in Ciudad Trujillo.” The men in Panama hats, it turned out, were from the Dominican Republic.

“I’d heard of sick clubs and ballplayers that looked pretty sick,” Paige later remembered, “but I never knew there was one so sick it needed a doctor to manage it.” He fixed his gaze on Aybar. “What can I do for you, Doc?”

“President Trujillo has instructed me to obtain the best pitcher possible for his team, and our scouts recommend you,” Aybar said.

“I’m glad your scouts like me, but I figure I’ll just stay with Gus Greenlee.”

“We are very interested in winning,” Aybar said. “We will give you thirty thousand American dollars for you and eight teammates, and you may take what you feel is your share and divide the rest.”

Paige was stunned. “Do I get to see the money?”

In the pantheon of American baseball, Satchel Paige has always occupied a special place. He was one of the game’s all-time greats and also one of its most shameless and storied self-promoters. A whole mythology surrounds him and his exploits; he talked almost as fast as he pitched. In photos his mischievous smile made him seem invincible. A few years ago I learned, by chance, that he had played for one of the most infamous Latin American dictators who ever lived. It struck me as the kind of story only Paige himself could concoct, a tale so gaudy as to seem camouflaged in the annals of sports. I decided to investigate what happened when these two outsize individuals collided.

I began with Paige’s famously self-aggrandizing memoir, Maybe Ill Pitch Forever, in which he breezily recounts his first meeting with Aybar. There’s an insouciance to the anecdote that is vintage Paige. But while he portrayed his Dominican suitor as straight-laced and blandly solicitous, Aybar was the emissary of one of the most violent and dangerous men of his day. Paige didn’t know that at first. (In his defense, neither did the U.S. government.) Some accounts of their meeting have Aybar wielding a pistol to drive home his offer, although Paige was apparently unimpressed. Perhaps so far from the Dominican capital, where he held tremendous power, Aybar did not seem threatening.

In his later years, Paige talked openly about his anxious impressions of General Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961, but by then the story had already been buffed to a high sheen. I always wondered if it wasn’t meant to be blinding. Paige liked to tell tales—zany and quippy and heaped high with bravado. But a plaintiveness shone through. I was lured to the legend of Paige’s greatness by his own storytelling, only to find a fissure in the monument he’d built to himself.

Paige was all but synonymous with black baseball, and yet it often seemed that his towering celebrity in the Negro leagues hardly registered in the vehemently segregated world beyond. The feeling dogged him from his early days but seemed to gain force in the 1930s, when he was maturing as a player. One day, while playing winter ball in California, he was contacted by scouts from the Yankees, who wanted to test a young prospect named Joe DiMaggio by trying him out against Paige’s pitching. DiMaggio joined a team of pro players culled from some of the best Major League rosters, while Paige’s teammates consisted entirely of high schoolers and amateurs. Paige struck out 14 batters on the day and knocked in his team’s only run, single-handedly carrying the squad into the tenth inning, but the game was remembered for a fluky infield hit he surrendered to DiMaggio with two outs and a runner on third. The scouts cabled back to New York to relay DiMaggio’s definitive new credential—“Hit Satch One for Four”—launching his pro career. “I got more notice for losing that game than I did winning most of my other games,” Paige said afterward.

While the Yankees were signing DiMaggio, Paige slunk off to continue barnstorming, which brought its own problems. Being black meant something different every place he went. In Bismarck, North Dakota, he played alongside white teammates—something that would have been unfathomable in the South. He was the toast of the town for his dominance on the mound in the Midwest, and yet he and his wife had to live in a semi-furnished railway car on the outskirts of town. “Having to live like that ate at me,” he said after he got back to Pittsburgh. “The blood gets angry.” By the mid-1930s, white baseball stars were starting to publicly question the league’s policy on segregation, but nothing came of it: Pro owners either wouldn’t take the risk of being the first to sign a black player or simply couldn’t fathom eliminating the racial barrier.

When Paige accepted Aybar’s offer, a young journalist named Ollie Stewart, writing for the Baltimore Afro-American, saw Paige’s defection as more than a mere dollar proposition. “While some newspapers and sports writers were hammering away (verbally) to open the gates of white baseball leagues to colored players, Satchel Paige and a few other guys got tired of waiting for the miracle to happen and quietly shipped off to Santo Domingo to cash in on their talent,” he wrote at the time. South of the border, Stewart said, “the color of your bills seems all that counts.”

If you’d asked Paige why he did it, he probably would have winked and told you about the money-filled briefcase Aybar brought back, as promised, after their chat in the alleyway. But there was something else he was questing after, something harder to pin down. He was willing to trade a city he knew for one he didn’t, to give up his bankable celebrity in the States for a chance at a different life, and to cash in on his reputation by cozying up to the strangest allies he could find. In the process, he very nearly brought an end to the Negro leagues for good. What’s stunning even now is Paige’s willingness to risk so much. At 30, married and in his sporting prime, he decided to leave behind the world that made him.


The precariousness of black baseball gave rise to a paradox: The league was made and run by strongmen and swashbucklers who projected power in spite of their unequal status. Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. Like Paige, he was over six feet tall and commanding, but where Paige was wiry, with a winsome nonchalance, Greenlee was thickset and imposing, 200 pounds and fleshy faced. He had come up hard, from the South, and clawed his way north toward prominence. Greenlee dropped out of college, abandoning his family to come to Pittsburgh, where he began driving a cab and selling bootlegged whiskey, earning the nickname Gasoline Gus.

By the time Paige met him, Greenlee was a power broker of black Pittsburgh. The Caliph of Little Harlem, they called him. He was a veteran of the First World War, an impresario, and a business owner, all self-made. He owned the Workingmen’s Pool Hall, the Sunset Café, and Crawford’s Grill, which took up nearly a whole city block and played host to the city’s black elite. But running numbers was his lifeblood. He pulled in $25,000 on a good day, which allowed him to finance the one thing that gave him his special sense of purpose: his ball club. He bought the team in 1930, then recruited top-flight talent to build the premier outfit in the game: Satchel Paige; a clean-up-hitting catcher by the name of Josh Gibson; and a center fielder, James “Cool Papa” Bell, who was said to be so fast that he could switch off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. The league’s scattershot quality made Greenlee an instant titan. He wasn’t just a club owner; he was the president of the league, having revived it after a string of bankruptcies.

Perhaps the lone figure in the game who could rival Satchel Paige for brashness and bravado was Gus Greenlee. 

But by the spring of 1937, Gus Greenlee was in a bind. One of his employees was snitching. The cops kept busting up his numbers rackets, and it was bleeding him dry. Much to their annoyance, he’d already told Paige and his teammates that they’d have to go to New Orleans on their own dime. He’d pay them for their opening games, but they were in charge of their own accommodations and travel until then. Greenlee’s troubled finances exacerbated a long-standing worry that Paige would spring from his grasp and even take some of his teammates with him.

In March, Greenlee traveled to New York for a weekend meeting with other club owners and league officials. They packed into a small office at the Tammany Democratic Club on Seventh Avenue to hash out details of the coming season. One thing they could agree on was a need for stronger contracts, since all of them were concerned about losing their top players. Team owners were always cutting deals to lure players away with better salaries or bonuses; it was known as contract jumping. Greenlee was the worst offender, but even he was growing battle weary. All the teams were hurting as the Depression dragged on. Ticket sales had slumped by the end of the previous season, and practically every club was in the red.

The meeting was civil. No more breaking contracts, the owners decided. What was true for the players had to be true for the owners, too. “No infringement of territory rights,” Greenlee declared. The league commissioner, Ferdinand Q. Morton, nodded vigorously. “That’s right, no nosing in,” added Cum Posey, the debonair owner of the Homestead Grays. He glared at Greenlee as he said it. Greenlee had been pilfering some of Posey’s best guys, then trading them back at a profit. The latest was Josh Gibson, whom Greenlee sold back to Posey for $2,500 while they were all still seated around the table.

As opening day approached, Greenlee was cautiously optimistic that the new contract agreements meant he could stop worrying about Paige. By 1937, Greenlee had already banned Paige from the Negro leagues once before for breaking his contract and accepting more money from other teams, but, desperate for Paige’s star power, he’d taken him back.


Dr. José Enrique Aybar

Aybar was an unctuous negotiator. He trotted out a parade of luxuries to ensure that Paige appreciated the significance of being summoned by a head of state. “I never seen a man with such power,” Paige remembered. He was describing Aybar but thinking of Trujillo. “He flies us down to Ciudad Trujillo on a big plane, and we ain’t put out no place to let other passengers on. No, sir. We got right of way. And what’s more, we don’t even have passports.” Janet Paige would follow several days later—Aybar was paying for her trip, too. Paige’s personal catcher, a bruiser named Bill Perkins, was also along for the ride. All they knew was that they were playing for Trujillo.

Each year, the Dominican Republic celebrated a baseball tournament that divided the country into four regional rivals. Clustered around Santiago, in the north, were supporters of the Eagles of the Cibão region; in the east, fanning out around the port city of San Pedro de Macoris, were those faithful to the Estrellas de Oriente, whose mascot was a giant elephant; Santo Domingo, the capital city, which had been recently renamed Ciudad Trujillo, was cleaved in two by those loyal to the Escogido Lions and the Licey Tigers. Stars from across Latin America flocked to the Dominican Republic to play, and the nation happily succumbed to baseball fever.

In February 1937, a council of businessmen convened in the capital to plan the year’s tournament, and the proceedings took on an air of solemnity and anticipation. Trujillo had recently announced presidential elections for the following year; he enjoyed the formality of the vote, all the better for his personal pageantry. The tournament, as one of the signal events on the national calendar, would need to reflect his supremacy. The council decided on a fitting title: “The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo.”

Soon after, the owners of the Tigers and the Lions—long-standing cross-town rivals just like Greenlee’s Crawfords and Posey’s Grays—combined forces to represent the city. If Santiago and San Pedro de Macoris could summon fearsome and gigantic beasts to represent their clubs, Ciudad Trujillo’s image was bigger still: The club was called the Dragons, and Aybar himself signed on as its vice president. Winning the tournament was an obsession for Aybar—a gift he wanted, and felt he needed, to deliver Trujillo himself.

Aybar was a rabidly loyal supporter of Trujillo precisely because he’d once been a traitor to the cause. He was a dentist by training but also something of a kingmaker—a member of the reigning political party and a frequent speaker at its meetings. When Trujillo first came to power, after a coup he’d orchestrated in February 1930, Aybar had been one of his most vocal naysayers. The son of a poor postal clerk who had a reputation for cattle rustling, Trujillo was an uneducated tough; as a teenager he enrolled in the country’s national guard, which had been set up and run by U.S. marines in the early 1920s, when the Americans occupied the country. Quietly but tenaciously, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming head of police. Trujillo wasted no time in consolidating his power, and he gave the national police a new name: the Dominican Army. But even as Trujillo grew in stature, Aybar doubted his staying power. Trujillo called for an election in May 1930 to shore up his legitimacy. A month before the vote, Aybar gave a speech in which he said that Trujillo was like “the product of an abortion; he had no viability at all.”

If uttering those words had felt, for a moment, like an act of grandiloquent heroism, it had promptly become a liability. Rumors that Trujillo was systematically eliminating his rivals spread in the run-up to the vote. The military stormed meetings of political opponents, jailing and killing critics. Politicians outside Trujillo’s orbit fled the country, while judges tasked with overseeing the vote abandoned their posts and sought asylum at the American embassy. Gangs loyal to Trujillo rode the streets of the city in dark, unmarked cars, wreaking havoc.

By August, with the city shaken and smoldering, Trujillo had won the election with more votes than there were eligible voters. From that moment on, Aybar labored hard to make his loyalties clear. Before long, the local press started calling him the Dominican Doctor Goebbels. He hounded Trujillo’s critics and devised elaborate schemes to eliminate anyone who could damage the dictator’s popularity. By 1937, he was a member of Trujillo’s inner circle, even creating a special security detail for the leader, drawn from students at the university where he was dean of the dental school.

The streets were full of soldiers, armed and draped in military fatigues, when Paige arrived, on April 18. He touched down 50 miles east of the capital in a Pan-American hydroplane with a twin tail and four propellers mounted on each wing. As it skipped across the Higuamo River, people ran to the bank to wave it in. A group of men from Aybar’s club greeted Paige as he climbed out, enthusiastically shaking his hand before piling together into a car.

I can only imagine what Paige must have been thinking on that drive. The trip was more than an hour long, so there would have been plenty of time for him to reflect on his situation. But Aybar mostly kept him in the dark. Paige must have known a little Spanish from stints playing in Latin America, but not enough to ask his hosts hard questions. “If that man don’t like you, you wake up and you’re movin’,” he later wrote of Trujillo. “And from what I seen it don’t take much for him not to like you.” Trujillo’s sway was unmistakable, even in the jumble and fog of his arrival. It was waiting for Paige like an announcement on the facade of the hotel where he was staying: Hotel Presidente, a three-story structure with a rooftop garden overlooking a park in the center of town.

Last summer I visited the National Archives, in Santo Domingo, to root through old newspapers and steal a glance into Paige’s life in the capital. There were two main dailies back then, El Listín Diario, which came out in the morning, and La Opinión, which was sold around lunchtime. There may not have been an explicit policy of censorship at the time, but the papers were visibly constrained just the same, the style cramped and canny. Both trafficked in the mainstream news of the day: headlines about the Spanish Civil War raging in Europe, obligatory panegyrics to Trujillo, and society pages with wedding announcements and photos of tiara-wearing doyennes. Tucked in the middle of each broadsheet was the sports section. The columns teeter and veer, the tiny type packed densely around scant photos. The sports pages of La Opinión were looser and more playful, and they brimmed with commentary and humor pieces. Journalists were savoring the drama well before Paige arrived in the capital.

When the council overseeing the tournament first met, its members made a fateful decision: No limits would be placed on the number of players each team could import from abroad. This immediately set off an arms race. In each city, influential businessmen and political figures rushed to recruit the best talent. Dominican players alone weren’t enough to assure victory; the teams looked mainly to Cuba, Latin America’s baseball capital, to secure the most competitive rosters. “We would have imported white American league players,” Aybar told the press, but “the salaries paid them by the big league magnates made it impossible for us to do better.” Not so for black American players.

From the start of the tournament in March, the competition was stiff. The Estrellas de Oriente, the champions from the 1936 tournament, already boasted the country’s greatest star, the fleet-footed center fielder Tetelo Vargas, who was joined by an array of decorated Cuban moundsmen. Santiago was reportedly paying the highest sum in the history of Latin baseball—about $1,000 a month—for the Cuban legend Martín Dihigo, a player so complete and dominant he was known as El Hombre Team, because he played every position on the diamond, and often hit third in the batting order, the spot reserved for the deadliest hitter in the lineup. The Dragons, meanwhile, had assembled a squad that consisted of a smattering of Dominicans and Cubans, a costly lot whose combined star wattage was dim. 

There was a certain irony to these recruiting sprees, given Trujillo’s fanatical patriotism. His rhetorical platform had trumpeted the dignity of the nation above all else. Yet, in the baseball tournament meant to serve as the principal advertisement of his reelection, there were a surfeit of Cubans. One sports reporter groused, “It’s simply a drag-out fight among the regions in which each one tries to spend more money buying ballplayers from abroad.” The stakes were too high to spare any expense but too expensive not to imperil nationalist dogma.

An artifact of the 1937 championship. (Courtesy of Orlando Inoa)

The schedule, which consisted of about forty games, was straightforward: three matchups each weekend in two separate ballparks. There’d be a double-header in one—a game in the morning at 9:30, a break for lunch, and an afternoon game at three; then, later that evening, the players would pack into a caravan of automobiles, complete with team-supplied chauffeurs, and travel to one of the other two cities represented in the tournament for the Sunday game.

The Dragons were having trouble just staying out of last place by the time Paige arrived. Fans were disgruntled, and the sports pages of the Ciudad Trujillo newspapers were riddled with invective against the hometown losers. There was a sinking feeling in the capital that the Trujillo club had thrown its money after a bunch of lackluster prima donnas.

Paige’s debut with the Dragons came on April 25, the same day that he was supposed to be facing the Homestead Grays in New Orleans. It was the first game of a double-header against the Estrellas de Oriente. The papers described Paige as being “at least 6 feet 7 inches tall,” a good four inches of exaggeration; with him, they claimed, the Dragons were easily “the best baseball club ever assembled in all time in the capital.” A few days before Paige flew in, another American star, Herman Andrews, had arrived on a steamer and had been clobbering the ball in the Dragons’ weekday warm-ups. Two thousand fans showed up to watch him take batting practice, and he rewarded them by hitting seven home runs out of the park and straight into the sea behind the stadium. The team’s president announced that he would employ divers and install inflatable docks to catch all the balls.

The promise of a big offense, in the form of Andrews, coupled with legendary hurling from Paige, worked the capital into a frenzy. The Café Hollywood, a downtown bar with a carefully curated aristocratic feel, was selling tickets for the weekend’s games and had already raised prices for Paige’s big day. The local newspaper sold five-cent baseball cards of the players in anticipation.

Paige and Perkins wore their Trujillo pinstripes on the street. There wasn’t a clubhouse at the stadium, so they changed at the hotel, slinging their spikes over their shoulders and walking south, in flip-flops, down Calle Pina toward the sea. Swarms of fans buzzed around them, calling out to Paige and asking for autographs.

Trujillo had rebuilt the stadium four years earlier, after a hurricane razed the capital, killing thousands and reducing the city to rubble. When Trujillo was through, every cornice of the city seemed to bear his fingerprints. The baseball stadium rose like a shrine, with three tiers of seats spread along the first- and third-base lines which came together in a V that touched behind home plate; the outfield was spectacularly framed by the sea. In right field, just beyond the fence, was the partially submerged hull of an American battleship with four gigantic stacks, called the USS Memphis, which had crashed on the rocks in a storm in 1916 and had never been hauled away. It was a fixture of the landscape, and a target in deep right field for batters, as was a sign nearby, erected behind the center-field wall, that read: National Championship for the Reelection of President Trujillo, 1938-1942. Long Live the Benefactor of the Fatherland. Anyone who hit it received a $25 reward. In Paige’s view, there was something menacing about the layout. “The diamond was in a place that looked something like a bull ring, only there’s no bull fights down there,” he told an American journalist years later.

The battleship USS Memphis loomed beyond right field. (Courtesy of Cuqui Córdova)

Seven thousand fans packed the seats for Paige’s first game, filling the stands with the steady rumble of cheers and stomping feet. The grass on the field looked thick, and there were mounds of dirt around each of the infield bags.

Paige strolled out to the mound to take his warm-ups, kicking his foot high in the air and rearing back with a twist of his torso before uncoiling toward the plate. He was lanky, and his uniform sagged around his slender frame. But there was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions. It was Paige against the Cuban ace Ramón Bragaña—a battle between the King and Prince of the plate, the papers said.

Paige took the mound first. He circled the hill, flipping the rosin bag in his hand before tossing it aside and dragging his cleats down across the rubber. His eyes burned as he zeroed in on Perkins’s mitt. Paige rocked back with his left foot and raised his arms straight above his head, then let them slump down to his chest as he readied himself for a kick of his leg. Time stood still through these preliminaries, and Paige liked to make the batter flinch, blowing the ball in just as he was getting antsy. Paige and Perkins were the perfect match of bravado. Paige had written FASTBALL on the sole of his left cleat, so that it was the last thing the hitter would see as Paige’s enormous foot came tumbling toward him off the mound. Perkins, for his part, had written THOU SHALL NOT STEAL across his chest protector.

There was a majesty to his figure as glimpsed from the stands, where his easy, fluid movements made him look like a pulsating force field, gliding and snapping in his motions.

Tetelo Vargas led off, and Paige walked him, then forced the next three batters to ground out to the infield. He eased into his rhythm, striking out the Estrellas’ captain in the second inning, then its shortstop in the third. As he walked off the field, Dragons fans threw money onto the diamond in rowdy appreciation.

The game was scoreless through three innings, but the Estrellas put a run on the board in the fourth. The Dragons answered with three of their own in the bottom of the inning; by the sixth they were up six to one, and Bragaña had been taken out.

Then Paige began to falter. It started when Tetelo walloped a double to center, followed by a home run by the Estrellas’ shortstop in the top of the seventh inning. “He hit it to the Memphis,” fans shouted while the runners rounded the bases and Paige kicked at the dirt. A message had been sent: Paige, and the Dragons, were not invincible. In the eighth, Paige gave up another run after allowing two more hits and put runners on first and second. It was clear that the time had come to pull him from the game.

By now the Dragons’ lead had narrowed to two. Paige’s replacement, a surgical Cuban right-hander named Rodolfo Fernández, walked the bases loaded and let up a double, which scored three. The Dragons were now down one, and the score held going into the bottom of the ninth, when Silvio García, the Dragons’ third baseman, ignited a two-out rally to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

The teams battled into the bottom of the 11th, the score even, as the Dragons loaded the bases. The Estrellas brought out a hard-throwing left-hander named Manuel “Cocaina” García to face Herman Andrews, who’d already struck out three times. The Dragons manager, in turn, replaced Andrews with a right-hander for a better hitting matchup.

Cocaina worked from the windup, blazing the ball in with a windmill delivery. His first pitch was a ball—then his second and third. With a 3-0 count and the winning run on third, he delivered his next pitch, which drifted out of the strike zone. He walked the batter, forcing in the winning run.

The Dragons streamed onto the field in celebration, and the fans climbed down from the bleachers. A chorus of “Hero” reverberated around Silvio García, feted for his game-tying double. From the dugout, Rodolfo Fernández noticed that the runner who had just been walked had not made it to first base in the crush of festivities, and the umpire had still not officially called the game. Fernández shouted and pointed, and for a second the celebrating stopped as people looked quizzically at the wildly gesticulating pitcher; the runner, hearing him, spun around, ran to first, and touched the bag, and with that the Dragons won 8–7.

Paige’s debut had ended in a no-decision—technically he neither won nor lost, because the score changed so many times after he exited the game—but his reception afterward was cold. The pro-Dragons press in Ciudad Trujillo lambasted his “poor” outing in barbed headlines, and there was half-serious speculation that the team would have to lower ticket prices back to pre-Paige levels. The next game was a week away, and Paige would have to prove himself anew.


For months I’d been on a quest to find the scorecards from the 1937 tournament. I first heard about them from a Dominican memorabilia seller living in Miami, whom I’d met on the recommendation of a chiropractor out of Dallas with a Negro league obsession that he nursed in his spare time. These were the kinds of people I was meeting, the sort you could cold-call one afternoon with a wildly random question about 1937 only to find an unflappable voice on the other end of the line who’d cut you off—politely—to recite the batting orders of the teams in question. I eventually learned that the scorecards did exist but had been sold to an auction house in Pennsylvania, then, in 2014, acquired by an unnamed buyer for $6,658.33. After that the trail went cold, and I flew to Santo Domingo to see what I could turn up.

It was there that I met Cuqui Córdova, an 87-year-old amateur historian who has amassed, in his cozy family apartment, the largest collection of Dominican baseball memorabilia in the world. In three manila file folders, tucked away in a desk-side drawer, were his records of the tournament. And there, wedged between photographs of Paige, Aybar, and the USS Memphis, were ratty photocopies of the scorecards. In neat, sometimes florid longhand, designated spectators noted with letters and symbols the schematic developments of the games. “R-SS” meant that the batter hit a ground ball to the shortstop (in Dominican parlance, the R stood for “rolling”), “2B” that he hit a double. English words were written into the cramped little boxes reserved for each batter, often with phonetic miscues like “aut” instead of “out” (spelled like it sounds to a Spanish speaker).  Each scorer had his own style, telltale penmanship, or preference for how to space out the markings on the page. With the scorecards, it was like a light suddenly went on. The plays of every game were illuminated, but there was also an unexpected effect—doubt over Paige’s reconstruction of some of the action. Now I could see past his serial embellishments and, with the additional aid of the newspapers, right onto the field itself.

A scorecard from the 1937 championship, part of Cuqui Córdova’s collection.

A week later, in Ciudad Trujillo, the Dragons had hosted the Estrellas and lost badly. “We played like we never seen a baseball before,” Paige said. The next day, he was back on the mound in Santiago against Martín Dihigo and the Eagles. The matchup, which featured three new black Americans making their debuts for the Santiago squad, brought thousands to Enriquillo Park. “It ain’t no cakewalk,” Paige later described it. “We got a flock of colored Americans on our team, but they got as many on theirs. How them babies could hit that ball!”

The game was scoreless when Dihigo came to the plate in the bottom of the third, tapping his cleats with a reddish bat and wiggling into the box. The fans rose to their feet. Paige may have been the famed ace, but Dihigo was the pride of Latin baseball. Theirs was shaping up to be the matchup of the tournament—Paige all brash and flashy, an American through and through, and Dihigo a paragon of quiet grace and command.

Paige was sweating on the mound. He looked at the ball in his mitt, focusing in on the stitching, with the word Wilson written between its seams. He had to paint the corners against Dihigo; a single mistake could be costly.

Paige reared back and delivered, his long limbs popping and whirling toward the plate, ropy and cyclonic. He fired one strike, then another. He clocked in a curveball off the plate to see if he could tempt Dihigo to fish (no luck); he tried to sneak in another and missed. The count was two balls and two strikes. He paced around the mound and glared at the runner on first, then remounted the rubber in the stretch, his shoulders facing third and his arms dangling down at his sides as he looked in for a target. Perkins didn’t give Paige any signs. When they first met, back in Birmingham, Paige had told him, “I’m the easiest guy in the world to catch. All you have to do is show me a glove and hold it still.”

Perkins got set, his mitt upturned and steady behind the plate. Paige whistled it in, and just as the ball crossed the plate Dihigo strode effortlessly forward with his left foot, extending his arms out to meet the pitch. With a smooth, compact swing Dihigo connected, and the ball soared into the outfield. Antonio Castaños, the Dragons’ right fielder, camped under it, bounding back farther and farther toward the wall, but the ball kept going, clear of the right-field fence for a two-run homer.

By the seventh inning, Paige had been yanked. The Santiago fans were dancing in the bleachers, clapping and moving their hips to a merengue called “Leña,” the Spanish word for kindling, in a tribute to the team’s hot bats. Aybar had warned Paige about the stakes, and Paige had only half believed him. Now he could see that the teams were evenly matched.

Back in the capital later that night, Paige sent a cable to Cool Papa Bell in Pittsburgh requesting reinforcements. Paige had conferred with Aybar, who gave him special dispensation to offer money—$800 a head—to Bell and three others to join the team: an outfielder named Harry Williams, the pitcher Leroy Matlock, and shortstop Sam Bankhead. A few days later, Bell cabled back. “Satchel, they treatin’ us so bad here we’ll come down. But make it a thousand, and we’ll stay eight weeks.”

Gus Greenlee

In Pittsburgh, Gus Greenlee’s team was dwindling before his eyes. By late May, eight of his top players had left for the Dominican Republic. He knew more would follow. Scouts were sneaking into games to scope out recruits and approaching them on the sly to lure them to Ciudad Trujillo with more money than Greenlee could ever offer them. “Haiti pirates,” he called them. At Crawfords games he prowled the stands, searching the crowds for interlopers. He also deputized his public relations man to make his own rounds badmouthing Paige as one of the ringleaders of the exodus.

The departures fueled a debate in the black press. Paige sympathizers saw him as a businessman angling for a good deal. All through the 1920s, baseball fans had gotten used to reading about marathon contract negotiations for white players, like Babe Ruth, whose astronomical salaries were national news and beyond reproach. There was no reason why Paige, who was black baseball’s equivalent hero, shouldn’t enjoy the same privileges, argued Ollie Stewart, the sportswriter for the Afro-American.

The opposing side was made up of supporters of Greenlee and the club owners, who claimed that Paige and the others were ingrates for abandoning the leagues that had made them. Most of the local papers had long been loyal to the club owners anyway, and the tone of their screeds was personal and cutting. The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in. “Satchel Paige has gotten more out of Negro baseball than anyone ever connected to Negro baseball,” Cum Posey wrote in his regular column in the Courier. It was a rare moment of agreement between him and Gus Greenlee, two rivals united against a common scourge. “Negro baseball does not owe him anything. He owes negro baseball plenty.” Like the other club owners, Posey was losing players to the Dominican Republic, but it was the broader pattern that concerned him. It wasn’t just the 1937 season but the risk that black baseball could go out of business.

The pitcher whose name was once synonymous with black baseball had come to symbolize the disloyalty threatening to do the whole sport in.

Meanwhile, the Dominican race for American talent was gaining speed. On May 4, two days after Dihigo hit his deep home run off of Paige in Santiago, the Estrellas’ owner, a businessman named Federico Nina, arrived in New York. “Pleasure” is all he proffered to the agents who processed his papers, before proceeding to the Hotel Hargrave on 72nd Street to meet up with Luis Mendez, the Dominican consul. Both men were short, with dark hair and brown eyes, and had a preference for light-colored suits and wide-brimmed hats. Together they left for Pittsburgh, where the Crawfords and Grays were playing a series at Greenlee Field. Nina had his eyes on a trim right-hander named Ernest Carter, one of Greenlee’s guys, but he was also in the market for infielders, and Pittsburgh was a fount of talent.

The following Saturday, they took their seats in the stadium’s bleachers. Greenlee had men scanning the stands; he’d gotten a tip that two foreigners had been driving around Pittsburgh asking for directions. But in a stadium full of black spectators, the Dominicans blended right in. When Nina arrived in New York, the agents at customs had recorded his race as “negro.” Greenlee’s henchmen would have to keep their ears open for any stray Spanish overheard in the stands.

It didn’t take long for the two to be found. Greenlee called a local alderman, telling him that a “raid” was in progress and that foreign agents were lurking around the city with the aim of breaking legally binding contracts—a crime, he claimed, that was tantamount to conspiracy. The alderman called the cops, while Nina and Mendez, none the wiser, followed Carter to the Crawfords Grill for the post-game celebration. Before long the three were repairing to Carter’s hotel off Wylie Avenue to talk about an offer. Carter’s manager, the barrel-chested Oscar Charleston, a wily outfielder and veteran of the leagues, watched as they left the restaurant and followed them to the hotel.

Nina and Carter had just shaken on the deal—$775 for eight weeks of play—when Charleston burst into the room, shouting insults. He towered over Nina, wagging his finger in the diminutive Dominican’s face. “I came here to whip you,” he shouted. “But since you’re so little, I won’t do it. Why don’t you go into the white leagues and get your players?”

The police arrived and cuffed Nina and Mendez, who were stunned by the turn of events. The charges against them were bloated and dramatic, bearing evidence of Greenlee’s handiwork: The two had “unlawfully, falsely, knowingly and maliciously conspired, combined, and confederated and agreed to induce, entice, and take from the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Inc., and Homestead Grays Inc., certain baseball players and employees of the said corporations under written and binding contract.” Their acts were “dishonest” and “dishonorable,” and redounded to the “prejudice of … the National Association of Negro Baseball Clubs.” Included among the charges was the list of players Nina had been courting: four from the Crawfords and two from the Grays. The players, in the language of the allegations, were “the property” of these two teams; luring them away was on par with theft.

Nina and Mendez spent two nights in jail before posting $1,000 bond; by the time they were released, the jailing had become a major diplomatic incident. Mendez had contacted the Dominican consul general, who spoke with the U.S. State Department. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, personally wrote him back to say he was looking into the situation. Calls were made, cables sent. The Allegheny County district attorney spoke with the alderman, and finally a judge dismissed the charges. The two Dominicans were free to go home, which they did—taking Carter and several other ballplayers with them.

As Greenlee and the other club owners saw it, there was only one viable option for stemming the tide of departures: They had to convince the U.S. government to intervene. The next week, team owners held an emergency meeting in Philadelphia, where they voted unanimously to circulate a resolution among sympathetic national congressmen. Their message was clear, if desperate: “Be it resolved that these actions on the part of the Dominican baseball promoters and permitted by the officials of the Dominican Republic BE AND ARE HEREBY CONDEMNED. Be it further resolved that steps be taken to have these practices STOPPED.” In their view, the ideal outcome was for the State Department to order Trujillo to fly Paige and the other players back. They bombarded their representatives, arguing that the congressmen risked insulting their black constituents unless they took action to save black baseball. The Dominican affair, Greenlee’s lawyers told two Pennsylvania Democrats, “involves a matter of great importance not only to us as club owners, but also to the American Negroes generally.” Meanwhile the league’s commissioner, Ferdinand Morton, beseeched New York senator Robert F. Wagner, an outspoken fan of black baseball, to intervene on the owners’ behalf. “All the work which we have done to secure for the colored ball player a decent wage will go for naught,” he wrote.

For all their fervor, they hit a wall. According to the American attaché in Santo Domingo, Nina and Aybar were acting out of private interest, so there wasn’t much room for diplomatic intervention abroad. But there was enough political will to find some sort of solution. In late June, Hull’s deputies met with the owners in Washington.

The meeting’s minutes and internal memos, catalogued at the National Archives, reveal that the government officials were eager to help Greenlee and his counterparts in good faith. But their cooperation highlights a major contradiction at the heart of the American government’s attitudes toward black baseball and its black citizens. If the government’s openness to the interests of the Negro leagues indicated a conciliatory approach to the black community, it also emphasized just how limited that benevolence truly was. The government had never taken serious interest in integrating professional baseball, and it would be 17 years before the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to legal segregation. Yet there was the secretary of state, hosting black club owners in the country’s capital.


Rafael Trujillo

For the players in Ciudad Trujillo, the week between games was long and full of temptations. They went to nightclubs and cabarets, to brothels and swanky bars with names like the Rialto and the Encanto. They danced to five-piece bands that played merengues, which Trujillo had recently declared the national music, and in honor of the Americans, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington tunes were sometimes interspersed in the lineup for a dose of straight-ahead Yankee swing.

Race translated differently in the Dominican Republic. The black Americans were absorbed right into the teeming, multiracial scene. Sometimes, as a kind of Caribbean grace note, they were even called gringos. Still, there were ugly moments. The pitcher Bert Hunter, who was playing for Santiago, struggled with his control early in the tournament and became an immediate target for testy fans. He was heckled and called King Kong. When he finally settled into his groove after a few games and won the fans over with a commanding victory, he lumbered past the first-base line, swinging his arms up and down in mock imitation of a gorilla, and yelled back at them, in broken Spanish: “¿Ah, sí? ¿Ya no King Kong? ¡Ahora gran pitcher Hunter! ¡Mucho bueno!(“Oh, yeah? No longer King Kong? Now the great pitcher Hunter! Very good!”)

His rage confused the Santiago faithful, who understood racial innuendo by a different standard: To them, as to Trujillo, being “black” meant being Haitian. There was a long strain of racial antipathy toward the country’s neighbors to the west, and Trujillo, whose family was partly Haitian, took pains to emphasize his own affinity with Europe. He enacted harsh anti-immigration laws to keep out Haitian fieldworkers and even took in leftist refugees from the Spanish Civil War, an anathema to a right-wing strongman, simply to “whiten” the complexion of the population. His obsession with merengue was a more benign example. He much preferred it to Afro-Cuban dance music like the rhumba because it reminded him of an old-world, European-style waltz. Satchel and Janet Paige danced it, delightedly, without knowing the fetishism it stood for.

The high-society allure of the capital exercised a particular tug on the players. The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality. The journalist Ollie Stewart, who’d traveled to Santo Domingo to cover the tournament for the Afro-American, saw life there as practically utopian. “If there is a future for colored Americans (and I am convinced more than ever now there is a bright one) it is in this part of the world—in these islands now being developed, now coming into their own.” In his view, there was one person to thank for that: Rafael Trujillo. “President Trujillo rebuilt the city, made it sanitary, built streets, roads, put in electric lights, good water, drained off mosquito-infested swamps and brought peace to the republic,” Stewart wrote, echoing, ironically if only unconsciously, the kind of contemporary tropes being used overseas to prop up dictators like Mussolini. Behind closed doors, Trujillo was summoning his aides for advice on how to dispose of the Haitians crowding his borders. But on the streets, all Ollie Stewart could see were storefronts decorated with photos of the American ballplayers.

The aspiration of achieving celebrity commensurate with their talent, so baldly squelched in the States, was finally a reality.

The players themselves were lulled as well. Not only did they have their hefty monthly salaries; they also walked around with their pockets flush with cash from a raft of tournament-wide incentives—$10 bonuses for won games, $10 more for home-runs, $40 for the winning pitcher. Bill Perkins traveled with an entourage to keep the fans off. “He was such a heavy lover, this precaution was taken to keep the women away from him,” Stewart observed. When Paige walked the streets with Janet he was mobbed, with boys perpetually trailing him and women shouting insults at his wife. “You’re not beautiful, we’re beautiful!” they yelled, as if trying to peel Paige away.

The festive mood had grown somber by May. The Dragons were losing, stuck in last place in spite of the tens of thousands of dollars spent on their success. While Federico Nina was trawling for talent in Pittsburgh, his Estrellas blew out the Dragons in back-to-back matchups in San Pedro de Macoris, outscoring them fourteen to three. After another string of losses, this time to Santiago, the Dragons’ management adopted special “disciplinary measures” to “submit the players to solid training and to wean them from all the whiskey and beers.” The newspapers called out Paige, Andrews, and Perkins by name as repeat offenders. Excessive drinking now led to fines, which the papers catalogued as though the whole of the capital was acting as the team’s chaperone. The week after the Dragons eked out a lone victory against Santiago, Andrews and Perkins each had to pay $6.25 for a night of debauchery that had led to a missed practice.

The Dragons’ manager resigned, “in light of the fact that the club needs someone who can dedicate more time to the discipline and organization of the operation,” as he put it. Two other businessmen, who vowed to redouble their supervision of the team, took over in his stead. Their first move was to institute a curfew. “It was almost like we was in jail,” Paige complained in his memoir. “We was kept at a hotel and had to be in bed early. No matter what we done—like if we went in swimming—there was soldiers around and nobody could speak to us.”

I was stunned when I came across this account in Paige’s memoir. Paige’s complaint about the soldiers chimes with what is easily his most infamous, if also most beguiling, anecdote from the time. In the midst of one tight game, while he was on the mound, Paige says, Trujillo ordered troops to surround the field. The dramatic subtext is clear: If Paige hadn’t come through with a win, he wouldn’t have survived to tell the tale.

The other players remembered swimming and fishing, even horsing around on the beach, but none of them mentioned these stifling armed watchmen, nor, for that matter, the same sense of imminent disaster. What likely fueled these discrepancies was Paige’s sourness about anyone telling him how to live at all. There’s no question that the Dragons’ owners were bothered by Paige’s lifestyle; he had been an exceptionally expensive acquisition, and the team’s management, understandably, felt he was overindulging. Paige was used to getting what he wanted from Greenlee, and that wasn’t how the Dominicans operated.

But it’s also true that Paige was feeling the pressure more than most, since Aybar had been portentous with him from the outset. He was earning big money—$1,200 a month for three months, plus several hundred more as a bonus—to bring the capital its championship. “We was President Trujillo’s ball club and we got to win that championship, because if we won’t win maybe the people won’t reelect him again,” Paige said. “It’s that important.” Mostly, this was Aybar talking. Like any proper courtier of his era, he could be more Trujillista than Trujillo—more of a booster for the regime, and more of a menace.

Paige looked and acted unflappable, but to judge from his memoir he truly was getting nervous. The troops he saw on the street may very well have merged in his mind with the curfew and the new battery of restrictions from the team’s management. Aybar had convinced him that Trujillo was lurking behind every out of every inning and that the consequences would be grim if Paige couldn’t turn things around for the Dragons.

An advertisement for a game between the Dragons and the Eagles.

Paige wasn’t the only one to feel the pressure. The tournament had been charged from the start, with fans sometimes storming the field in protest when a call was made against their club. But by May, players, coaches, and managers were all getting tense as play tightened.

The Dragons responded by cleaning house. On May 19, management announced a “new Unified Front,” headed by Aybar, to strengthen team discipline. The phrase was meant to have a political ring to it, and Aybar decided to run the club like it was an extension of the government. When a fresh batch of American recruits arrived in San Pedro de Macoris to play for the Estrellas, soldiers escorted them to the capital, where they suited up for the Dragons. Nina made more than one trip back to the States to plug the gaps in his roster, and when he returned he was arrested and thrown in jail for a week before he could go home.

Two days after the Dragons’ new initiative was announced, Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Sam Bankhead, and Harry Williams arrived on two private planes chartered by Aybar. It was the biggest single importation of new recruits to date. An entourage waited for them at the landing strip, complete with the team’s captain, the new director of discipline for the club, a member of the executive committee, and a lucky Ciudad Trujillo fan brought along to pose for the press. The team officials immediately presented the four players with tournament registration papers to sign, and they set out for the Hotel Presidente. “Forty-five days ago, none of this seemed possible,” one news article declared; the capital had become a kind of magnet for the premier black American talent of the day. The arrival of four more players was touted as an immediate achievement of the new Unified Front.

The Dragons’ next home game, against the Estrellas, was a triumph. Paige gave up just two hits that made it to the outfield, and Cool Papa Bell smacked a single and stole a base, the fans gawking at his speed. His trademark was a chop-like swing of the bat that grounded the ball straight into the dirt so it would careen up high into the infield. In the time it took for the ball to drop into a fielder’s mitt, he’d already be standing on first. Everyone cheered as he scampered to the bag. When Bell reached base, it was like his team had a run in the bank; he was so fast, he could score from first on a bloop single to even the shallowest part of the outfield.

The Dragons notched one victory, then another. The Eagles were holding firm, but the once champion Estrellas were beginning to buckle. In June, Ramón Bragaña, the team’s star pitcher and best hitter, was suspended for ten games for getting into a fistfight with an umpire. A week later, the Estrellas lost 20–5 to the Eagles in a game held in honor of the birthday of Trujillo’s son, Ramfis. Nina was savaged in the press for seeming to have thrown the game to save his best players for their next matchup, later that day, against the Dragons. It was an unfair charge that stemmed from an indisputable reality: Against the expanded ranks of the Dragons and the Eagles, the Estrellas were outgunned and overmatched.

The Santiago Eagles. 

In a few short weeks, the momentum had shifted: the black American players were dominating the competition, and by the middle of the summer the newspapers had taken to calling the tournament the World Series of Black Baseball, championship billing that Gus Greenlee and the other club owners had for years tried in vain to drum up in the States. By the end of May, even more players had arrived to shore up the ranks of the Eagles—the pitcher Chet Brewer, the second baseman Pat Patterson, and outfielder Roy Parnell.

The Dragons, meanwhile, were on an upswing of their own. After the arrival of Bell, Williams, Bankhead, and Matlock, the reliever Robert Griffin joined the team on June 1, and there were rumors that Josh Gibson would be coming later that same week. The Estrellas managed to scrounge up a few black players—the hard-hitting second baseman George Scales and, later, Ernest Carter—but they didn’t have the firepower to match their rivals. Between May 22 and June 12, the Estrellas lost five of seven games and sank into last place. The Dragons passed them on their way up into second place and were now within striking distance of the Eagles.

By now, Paige’s and Aybar’s fortunes were entwined. Each victory the Dragons notched brought Paige one step closer to making it out of the Dominican Republic safe and triumphant. At the same time, it meant ever better publicity for Trujillo. Paige labored on the field, while Aybar conspired off it. And all the while the team in Trujillo’s name became like another medal on the general’s decorated lapels. His hold on the country tightened as he consolidated monopolies in the salt, tobacco, and lumber industries; the list of his assets grew larger by the day. His wife, meanwhile, was put in charge of a business that forced state employees to pay her a 2 percent service charge to cash their paychecks. Together, Trujillo and his family gained control of 40 percent of the country’s wealth, and his reign was only just beginning.   

As Paige’s luck on the diamond took a favorable turn, he began to question whether he even wanted to return to the States. “I would be willing to go to South America and live in the jungles rather than go back to the league and play ball like I did for ten years,” he wrote in an op-ed that ran in the Afro-American later that summer. “The opportunities of a colored baseball player on these islands are the same or almost the same as those enjoyed by the white major league players in the States. That’s something to think about it.”

Practically all his old teammates were in Ciudad Trujillo with him anyway. Josh Gibson arrived on June 11, and fans turned out by the thousands to watch his debut the next day. The Dragons were facing the Estrellas at home, and Cocaina García kept Gibson hitless, but barely. In the sixth inning, Gibson crushed a line drive straight back up the middle and right at the pitcher. The ball sought García out like it was personal, and he flailed his glove to knock it away from his face. Gibson had arrived ready, his swing unkinked and fluid. The next day, he hit a double against the Eagles, and the game after that he pounded a double and a triple.

The Dragons and Eagles were pulling away. By June 21, the Dragons were 13-11 and the Eagles 11-10. The Estrellas had sunk three games under .500. The baseball council decided to narrow the tournament’s final three weeks to a competition between the two leading teams; it declared the Estrellas’ chances mathematically impossible, given their current record, and took the team out of contention, thanking Nina and his guys for their service. Tetelo Vargas and Cocaina García left for Venezuela, Ramón Bragaña for New York. For the Dragons, this cordial exit didn’t mean that there was a graceful way that they, too, could lose the tournament—in fact, just the opposite. Now the Dragons and Eagles would have to square off on center stage.

The Dragons with Dr. José Enrique Aybar (second row center; Satchel Paige is seated to his left).

Aybar sent away for new uniforms from Havana, one last frill for his team in the final stretch. The Dragons didn’t need any fresh motivation, though. The team was finally gaining momentum. The players were on a tear, besting the Eagles in a string of matchups. And with three games left, in the final week of June, they needed only two more to clinch victory.

The Eagles fought back. In the first game of a double-header on July 4, in Santiago, they kicked off the bottom of the first inning with a six-run rally against the usually untouchable Robert Griffin. Martín Dihigo pitched for the Eagles. The Dragons didn’t get on the board until the sixth inning; then they exploded for three more runs in the seventh and came back to within one run in the top of the ninth before the American Clarence Palm, in to relieve Dihigo, closed them down. The final score was 8–7, and the Eagles had managed to withstand the Dragons at their offensive best. Josh Gibson had hit for the cycle—a single, double, triple, and home run—but it wasn’t enough.

In the afternoon game, Paige was back on the mound, strong as ever, but his counterpart, the ex-Crawfords pitcher Chet Brewer, was better. He threw a one-hitter, in which the Dragons eked out two paltry runs on three Eagles fielding errors. The Eagles survived elimination yet again.

In the customary week off before the next game, Brewer, who’d been stationed in Santiago throughout the tournament, came to the capital to relax for a few days. He and Paige were likely to face off again in the coming weekend, the latest in a career-long rivalry between the two players. They were reluctant friends, close after all their years together. “None of us got any publicity when Satchel was there,” he once said. Brewer was soft-spoken and even-keeled, but he felt some resentment toward Paige. “I pitched against Satchel a lot of times. We just about broke even on wins,” he said. Yet “they always starred Satchel. He had all the billing.”

One evening, Brewer walked over to the Hotel Presidente to see if Paige and some of the other guys wanted to have a drink, but they weren’t there. In broken Spanish, he asked a boy in the street about the ballplayers; by this point, everyone knew them in the capital. “They’re in jail,” the boy replied.

Paige had complained before about feeling, at certain moments, like the Dominican Republic was one big prison cell, but that had been an exaggeration. This time it was literal. It wasn’t even the first time he’d been locked up for baseball—he’d once found himself in jail in Pittsburgh while Greenlee and another owner fought over who had claim to the pitcher. (Keen on some extra money, Paige had signed contracts with both of them.) This time, though, it had to have been terrifying. For all Paige knew, he’d been put on lockdown by order of the dictator himself. On top of that was an even scarier association: a black man, in 1937, stuck in a jail cell.

It’s impossible to reconstruct exactly how Paige wound up there, but it seems safe to assume that Aybar ordered it. Brewer figured that someone in the upper echelons of the team’s management had decided to lock up Paige before his big start to make sure a night of carousing wouldn’t dull his performance. The pressure put an added strain on Paige as he suited up the next morning. “You’d have thought war was declared. We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox,” he said. Paige was no stranger to the spotlight, but he was starting to wonder about his safety. Say the Dragons didn’t win, he recalled thinking—we’re here without passports!

From left: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Bill Perkins.

There was another game the following week, and the Dragons, behind Leroy Matlock, would have a chance to secure the championship. Before the Dragons walked onto the field, Aybar took the team aside and got everyone quiet. Then, in a soft but firm voice, he gave them a laconic piece of advice: “You better win.” Paige, his voice a little shaky, piped up. “What’a you mean, we better win?” he asked. Aybar’s response was sterner still. “I mean just that. Take my advice and win.”

The Dragons took their warm-ups, and Paige glanced around at the stands. “Some of them guys the president had watching us sent shivers up and down your spine. They was that tough looking. They packed guns and long knives, and I know they could use ’em. We didn’t want to give them a chance,” he said. He had plenty of time to take stock. Leroy Matlock got the start and Paige watched from the bench. Matlock was in fine form in the early innings; from the looks of it, Paige’s services might not be needed at all.

Brewer was back on the diamond for the Eagles, even though he’d gone the distance the previous game. This was another advantage for the Dragons—their bullpen allowed each of their starters a comfortable amount of rest. If it wasn’t Paige on the hill, it would be Matlock; if not Matlock, Griffin; and if not Griffin, then Rodolfo Fernández. The Eagles had a slightly tighter rotation, especially since the Cuban southpaw Lefty Tiant had gone back home a few weeks before. Their signal ace was Brewer, who, for his part, showed no signs of fatigue. He gave up first-inning hits to Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, but that was to be expected; each of the next two innings Brewer retired the Dragons in order.

The din in the stadium grew steady, with shouts and cheers blanketing the ballpark; in its evenness, the noise almost seemed to fall away, and a kind of silence reigned over the diamond itself. The teams went back and forth through the second, third, and fourth innings. One squad stole a few hits, then stranded its runners on base when the opposing pitcher hunkered down.

In the bottom of the fifth, Brewer had fallen into a rut—he’d walked the lead batter and then surrendered the game’s first run. With one out, he gave up three consecutive hits to load the bases. Martín Dihigo had seen enough. The player-manager trotted in from center field, where he’d started the game, and relieved Brewer himself. By now Dragons fans were in hysterics. Dihigo took his warm-ups with an easy, rolling motion and barely even a kick of his leg. Sam Bankhead, who was due up, stood a few feet off the plate and took practice swings in sync with the pitches as they came in. Dihigo signaled he was ready, and the umpire waved Bankhead over to the plate.

Dihigo wound up and delivered, and Bankhead unleashed a mammoth swing. The ball shot off his bat, rising steadily over the infield, then the outfield; it easily cleared the fence for a grand slam. Money, hats, and flowers rained onto the field. The Dragons scored three more runs by the end of the inning and were up eight to zero going into the sixth.

Paige came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Dragons leading by five. There was one out, and runners stood on first and second. A cushy lead like this could be dangerous for Paige, who was best when pitching with a sense of urgency.

Feeling that victory was within reach, the local fans called out to Paige to put the Eagles away. “The more the fans yelled, the harder I threw,” Paige said. “I bet I never did have a better fastball only I never see any better hitters than them guys.” The first three batters he faced all got hits—and just like that the Eagles had three more runs on the board and had pulled to within two, the score at 8–6. “Boy, my mouth was dry that day,” he later wrote. “‘Satchel, old boy,’ I say to myself, ‘If you ever pitched, it’s now.’”

The fearsome Roy Parnell grounded to second for out number two, and up came Dihigo. He scorched a single to right field, and again the bases were full. The leading run was on first base. Paige disliked pitching at the stadium in Ciudad Trujillo because it was so small—short fences in left and right field and a cropped outfield. He felt his back was against the wall.

Clarence Palm, the Eagles’ imposing catcher, strode to the plate. He took a hefty cut at the ball, and it skipped into the gap between short and third. Bankhead ranged to his right and dug the ball out with a sure-handed grab, then planted his right foot and gunned the ball across the diamond. One of the runners crossed home and another, the tying run, was rounding third. Everyone watched as the ball sailed across the infield toward first base. Paige stiffened. The throw was on line; the first baseman stretched out from the bag to snag it. The umpire pumped his fist—Palm was out at first. Dragons win.

The team celebrated by the mound, circling around a grinning Satchel Paige. He’d gotten himself out of another jam. A photographer steadied the revelers and had them pose for a picture, then took one of Paige alone, his hat off and a dazed smile on his face. He was missing a button on his jersey, so that the word Trujillo, which was emblazoned across his chest, didn’t quite line up; it was a final act of unwitting irreverence.

From Cuqui Córdova’s collection, a photograph taken at the end of the 1937 championship, after the Dragons had clinched the victory.


If Paige thought victory would ingratiate him with Trujillo, he was sorely mistaken. Aybar organized a celebratory picnic at one of the dictator’s residences, but Trujillo never showed. There was one crucial fact about Trujillo that Paige did not know: The dictator didn’t even like baseball. Not only that, he hadn’t gone to any of the tournament games. The championship held in his honor hardly seemed to register with Trujillo at all. His daily memos, typed up and brought to him each morning as a primer on what was going on in the country, mentioned agrarian reform, bureaucratic appointments, diplomatic engagements—all manner of small-bore politics and administration, but not a word about how the tournament was developing.

For months, Trujillo had been receiving updates about the growing presence of Haitians at the border, which he increasingly viewed as a threat to Dominican sovereignty. On August 4, 1937, a few weeks after the tournament ended, he took a trip to the border himself. The situation, as he saw it, was becoming ungovernable. Dominican farmers complained that Haitian immigrants were pillaging and robbing their plots, and Haitian currency was circulating on the Dominican side, which Trujillo took as an added affront. He fired his agriculture secretary and ordered the construction of a Catholic church in the border town of Dajabón, vowing to return and police the area personally.

On October 2, after coming back for another survey, Trujillo gave orders to his officers: Any Haitian on Dominican soil illegally was to be killed on the spot. The military fanned out along the border, spreading terror. For a full week, soldiers hacked men, women, and children to death with machetes. Around 15,000 people were killed before the campaign let up.

The rampage made international news. Though Trujillo remained in power, his rule growing ever more brazen and bloody, outcry over the massacre forced him to withdraw from the 1938 elections. The Championship for the Reelection of Rafael Trujillo, and all the other blandishments gracing the social calendar during the previous year, had brought too much attention to a dictator who, finally, needed to lay low. He named a puppet in his place to quiet some of the international uproar. The years wore on. Critics at home and abroad mysteriously disappeared. Rival presidents in neighboring countries uncovered plots to assassinate them that seemed to emanate from the Dominican capital. Thirty years into his reign, Trujillo, his family, and their cronies controlled 80 percent of the nation’s economy and employed 45 percent of the country’s workforce.

One night in May 1961, on a dark stretch of coastal highway, Trujillo was assassinated en route to visit his mistress. With the collapse of the old order, Aybar, who had enjoyed a long career under the dictator, lost the protections that came with that privilege. In 1965, American troops invaded the Dominican Republic to support a coup and police the streets through the ensuing chaos. One night a mob rampaging through the upscale neighborhood of Santo Domingo where Aybar lived tried to rob his house; he ran outside to frighten them off, waving a revolver. American soldiers, who arrived on the scene but didn’t know exactly what was happening, took aim and shot him dead.

Shortly after the tournament ended, Satchel Paige and his fellow Americans returned to the States, where they played on the semipro circuit for a few months while waiting for a rapprochement with team owners from the Negro leagues. They banded together under the name the Trujillo All-Stars and, dressed in their old Dominican pinstripes, entered a prestigious semipro competition in Colorado called the Denver Post Tournament, which they won. When the papers didn’t name-check Trujillo, they referred to the team as “Satchel Paige’s Outlaws,” an appellation he welcomed. “If you ask me what was the biggest event for colored baseball in 1937, I’d say the winning of the pennant of the Dominican Republic by the best players in the league,” Paige said, proud and unrepentant. That fall the international press began reporting on Trujillo’s atrocities, and while it seems unlikely that Paige kept up with the developments, it also seems inevitable that he took note of the criticism directed at Trujillo.

In between Trujillo’s and Aybar’s deaths, Paige published his memoir. By then he was trying to define his legacy. Professional baseball was integrated in 1947, and its protagonist wasn’t Paige—or, for that matter, any of black baseball’s legendary stars—but a 28-year-old second baseman who’d played all of five months in the Negro leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson, and as Paige immediately grasped, he was instantly immortal. “I’d been the guy who’d started all that big talk about letting us in the big time,” Paige said in his memoir, with more than a touch of resentment. “I’d been the one who everybody’d said should be in the majors.”

The main reason he was left off the integrated rosters was his age: He was 41 at the time. By then, Cool Papa Bell was on the path to retirement and Josh Gibson was already dead, of a brain tumor. If together they’d been trailblazers—the game’s first true black stars—they were also the first to be sacrificed in the push to integration. Pioneers but throwbacks, they were too weathered to lead the way to the sport’s next frontier. Paige watched as Robinson broke the color barrier in the National League and then as a center fielder named Larry Doby followed suit, 11 weeks later, in the American League.

Paige wasn’t ready to resign himself to the bleachers. The day after Doby signed with the Cleveland Indians, Paige sent a telegram to the team’s owner: “Is it time for me to come?” The response was chilly: “All things in due time.” Paige, dejected, kept barnstorming. Now that professional baseball was integrating, the Negro leagues teetered on the brink of irrelevance—and, in short order, bankruptcy, too. Greenlee, for one, was a husk of his former self. His stadium had been demolished in 1938, and soon after he was forced to resign as league president. Once he was shut out, he never managed to work his way back into black baseball; he’d created too many enemies. In 1946, at the age of 50, he suffered a heart attack, and he died six years later.

One day in early July 1948, while Paige was traveling with a semipro club in Iowa, he got a call from the Indians. The team was ready to give him a tryout. They were in a tight pennant race that summer and short on pitchers. “I wasn’t as fast as I used to be, but I was a better pitcher. If I couldn’t overpower them, I’d outcute them,” he said of the prospect of facing big-league batters. The world’s first glimpse of Paige in the bigs wouldn’t be of the dazzling fireballer he’d been all his life but of a grizzled veteran. It was both a tragedy and a triumph. On July 7, he was signed. Two days later, at the age of 42, he took the mound for Cleveland in his Major League debut. He had prevailed against all odds—even, it seemed, the passage of time. As always he had a saying handy to motivate himself: “Don’t look back, someone might be gaining on you.” He remains the oldest rookie in the history of the game.

The Legends of Last Place


The Legends of Last Place

A season with America’s worst professional baseball team.

By Abe Streep

The Atavist Magazine, No. 24

Abe Streep’s writing has appeared in OutsideThe New York Times MagazineMen’s JournalPopular Science, Mother JonesThe Southern ReviewBloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere.

Editor: Charles Homans
Producers: Olivia Koski, Gray Beltran
Photographs: Ryan Heffernan, Nick Sedillos
Research and Production: Nicole Pasulka, Rachel Richardson
Fact Checker: Thomas Stackpole
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Music: Abe Streep

Published in April 2013. Design updated in 2021.


Another monsoon. The rain beats against the grandstand, drowning out John Fogerty’s growl on the aging Fort Marcy Park sound system. There aren’t many people here yet, a couple dozen fans but few of the regulars—no sign of the lefty pitcher’s brother or the guy who carves the big wooden Virgin Mary statues. The home team sprints off the field toward us, 25 young men slipping over concrete in metal cleats and trying to beat the storm. Their jerseys, made of thin red mesh, read SANTA FE. The grandstand is the only shelter at Fort Marcy, so all of us, players and spectators, huddle together listening to the rain. It’s the last home game of the 2012 season. The summer’s final batting practice is a washout.

The fans do not whisper when the players flop down next to us. No autographs are sought. The Santa Fe Fuego are the newest addition to the Pecos League, a group of six independent minor league baseball teams in Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico. The players earn $54 per week and live in homestays with Santa Fe families. They use the same bathroom as the fans, a small concrete cave. (At least there are doors on the stalls, a recent development; for most of the summer, curtains provided the only privacy.) Later tonight, after the crowd has left, the players will scour the grandstand for trash, collecting stray napkins and mashed foil containers holding the remnants of our $3 burgers. There are no grounds crews in the Pecos League.

The Fuego sip from outsize gas-station soda cups and work their way through thick wads of chewing tobacco, waiting for the game to begin. Though players cycle through the Pecos League with revolving-door regularity, I’ve been following the Fuego long enough now—since the beginning of their debut season—to know the ones who’ve stuck around. There’s Brandon Thompson, a mountainous, hard-throwing reliever from Montana, who looks as though he should be hauling some large vehicle in a strongman competition. There’s Andrew “Archie” Archbold, the quick center fielder, with his bad goatee that doesn’t entirely link up at his bony chin. His jersey dangles off him as if from a hanger. Bill Moore, the Fuego’s manager, says that Archie “weighs 120 pounds when he’s got rocks in his pocket and it’s raining.” It’s raining.

Late July is monsoon season in northern New Mexico. Storms gather over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the afternoon, then dissipate or roll in and briefly batter the town, cooling the high desert. Tonight’s opposition, the Roswell Invaders, a far superior team by every statistical measure, don’t join us under the grandstand. They huddle beneath the small roof of the visiting dugout, getting wet. Call it a home-field advantage.

The pounding eventually lets up and sun filters through the clouds, filling the sky with the kind of wild light that helps fuel Santa Fe’s economy, drawing second-homers and tourists who come to paint watercolors of the evenings. More fans arrive. The Invaders emerge from the visiting dugout in jerseys the color of antifreeze. Archie sprints to center, leading the home team onto the field for the last time this summer.

With the exception of the center fielder, the Fuego are big, powerful men who do not embody the Platonic ideal of athleticism. They fill out their uniforms in the belly and ass. They are strong hitters, with the second-best batting average in the league. Defense is the chink in their armor. The Fuego’s pitchers have, on average, given up nearly one run for every inning of the season; their cumulative earned-run average is more than 8.00. (A good major league pitcher’s is around 3.00.) The fielding has been a bounty of errors. July was particularly merciless. The Fuego have lost 16 of their last 23 games.

The players like to point out that many of these losses came by one run. They like to say that with a break here or there, things might have turned out differently. But blind pride is a job requirement for athletes, and no amount of it can sway the hard fact that the Fuego have an anaconda grip on last place in the Pecos League.

Independent leagues sit at the bottom of professional baseball’s sprawling caste system. They are essentially the minor leagues’ minor leagues, consisting of players trying to reach the Single A, Double A, and Triple A farm teams affiliated with major league clubs. The publication Baseball America, which is the authority on these matters, has ranked North America’s independent leagues by payroll. The Pecos didn’t even pay its players enough to make those rankings. According to a Baseball America official, the Pecos is “the lowest level of professional baseball” currently in existence.

To occupy last place in the Pecos League, then, is to lay claim to a singular title. Absolute superlatives are tossed off too often and easily in the sports world, but this one is not negotiable: As of July 25, 2012, the Santa Fe Fuego are, empirically speaking, the worst professional baseball team in America.

And yet here I am. I’ve spent too many hours this summer at Fort Marcy.  Maybe it’s everything the Pecos League lacks: scouts, agents, corporate funding, and the kind of dancing-bear kitsch that fills most minor league productions. Or maybe it’s just nostalgia, the baseball junkie’s favorite opiate. Out here on the concrete bleachers, I sometimes feel as though I’ve been dropped into a pre-steroidal epoch when the second basemen were short, the relievers were fat, and you could almost see yourself out there on the field. You’d never go to an NFL game, watch the centaurs lobotomizing one another, and think, Man, that could have been me. But the fantasy of self-projection, an old and fading tradition in baseball, is still alive down here in the Pecos League. These are not the automatons who have taken over the New York Yankees I grew up rooting for. On blue nights like this, I envision myself out in center getting a jump on a ball to the gap. The marvelous opening line of one of the great baseball books, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, once again arrives in my head: “I’m 30 years old, and I have these dreams.”

If this all sounds a little ridiculous, well, I am 30 years old, I still own my cleats from college, and I’ve spent the better part of the summer eating $3 burgers. Besides, underdogs are easy to love. Over the past three months, inside what has at times seemed like a throwaway season in a throwaway league, I have found an extremely tough group of athletes who are willing to take real risks and make deep sacrifices in pursuit of a quixotic goal. Their dedication has reminded me of something essential about sports: Outside the confines of a major league stadium (or your TV screen), they are an occasionally comedic, often brutal endeavor with truly high stakes. There are unexpected bursts of inspiration—a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, a tape-measure home run—to remind you that these guys do, in fact, have a chance to scrap their way out of the cellar and into the higher reaches of pro ball. The Fuego play hard, and they play hurt, and they play to win. It just usually doesn’t pan out that way.


On November 9, 2011, Rodney Tafoya stood in a long line at Santa Fe city hall. He was clean-shaven and wearing a sharp beige sports jacket, his black hair immaculately sculpted with gel. His trim, five-foot-nine build was betrayed only by the first swellings of a middle-aged belly. He had two minutes to speak, and he had no notes, but his intentions were unambiguous. He planned to convince the city government to give him one more shot at greatness. He felt a passion rising inside him. Time was running short. He was 47 years old.

In the fall of 2010, Andrew Dunn, a former college ballplayer turned part-time real estate agent and Internet programmer, had managed to scrape together enough money to start his own small league. He’d previously owned a team in the foundering Continental League, and when that organization folded, Dunn saw opportunity. (Lacking the major league economic backing that the more prestigious, affiliated leagues enjoy, independent leagues are constantly refinancing, going out of business, or joining forces and rebooting under new names.) The Pecos League’s inaugural 2011 season was relatively successful, but following the summer two of the six teams folded. Dunn decided to replace them with two expansion teams. He wanted to put one in Santa Fe.

The team didn’t yet have a name. (At one point, Dunn had proposed calling it the Sangres—the Bloods. This did not go over well.) More urgently, Dunn didn’t have permission to sell beer at Fort Marcy, a public park and the only ball field in Santa Fe with adequate seating. (A city ordinance bans the sale of alcohol in public parks.) In a league where teams made nearly all their money from beer and ticket sales, this effectively prohibited games from being played at all. But Dunn had an ally on the city council, an avid baseball fan named Ron Trujillo. With Trujillo’s aid, Dunn proposed an amendment that would allow Santa Fe’s fledgling club to sell beer at Fort Marcy. A spirited debate ensued, fought on the op-ed pages of the local papers and at a series of public meetings, culminating in the November gathering at city hall. At the end of the meeting, the fate of the Fuego would be decided. Any Santa Fe resident was welcome to comment. The line of speakers stretched around the walls of the room, past the long desk where the council members sat.

The debate divided largely along class lines. The team’s supporters seemed to consist mostly of young families. The opposition was older and lived in the vicinity of the park. Fort Marcy sits at the intersection of two roads: One of them leads to the lush village of Tesuque, where Cormac McCarthy owns a house, the other to a series of gated communities and the local ski area. The opposition’s argument was simple: Beer and baseball would aggravate the town’s not insignificant drunk-driving problem. The team’s supporters accused the wealthy residents of elitist NIMBYism.  

The president of the local chamber of commerce spoke in support of the team, as did a man in a faded Albuquerque Dukes shirt who brought photos of his father playing at Fort Marcy in 1951. The owner of Santa Fe’s most popular bar worried that the pros would mess up the playing surface for his softball league. An elderly man who lived near the park barked, “There will be car crashes, there will be drunken driving!” A woman in a rainbow scarf alleged a conspiracy between the city and the league, calling it a “D-u-n-n deal.”

Then it was Tafoya’s turn. Tafoya, a vice president at an Albuquerque branch of Bank of the West, was something of a local celebrity. He grew up in Santa Fe, where his brother, Jack, showing foresight, taught him to throw left-handed by tying his right arm behind his back. The boys’ father fought in Normandy; their mother worked in a nursing home. Tafoya starred in little league and high school and acquitted himself well playing for two small colleges, but he was not drafted. He pieced together a career pitching in minor leagues throughout the United States and Mexico before an injury drove him into banking.

Now Tafoya stepped up to the mic, placed his hands on either side of the podium, and spoke firmly. He told the crowd two things. One was that baseball and beer were synonymous. “I played in Canada, I played in Mexico,” he said. “I played in the minor leagues here in the United States. There was never a venue that didn’t sell beer. How can you have baseball without beer? I mean, come on.”

The other was that Tafoya was planning a comeback. He hadn’t pitched professionally since 2006, with a Mexican team, but he had the itch again. He told the city council that he wanted the opportunity to take the mound one last time in his hometown. “I will be the oldest pitcher in the United States in independent baseball,” he said, but “I can still throw an 86-mile-per-hour fastball. So in my heart, if they give me a spring-training tryout, you can bet your life that I’m going to make this team.” He raised his fist to enthusiastic cheers.

Four hours after the meeting began, the council voted. The panel split evenly, four for the amendment and four against. The mayor cast the deciding vote: There would be beer, and there would be baseball.

Rod Tafoya speaks before the Santa Fe City Council.

The task of assembling the Fuego fell to a 67-year-old veteran college coach named Bill Moore. When Andrew Dunn came calling in the fall of 2011, Moore was living in Mesa, Arizona, where his wife, Billie, ran a beauty center in an assisted-living home. Moore had spent the previous three years managing the Bisbee Copper Kings, in the Pacific Southwest League—a wood-bat summer league for college players—where he had achieved a 93-28 record, winning the conference three years running. That fall, however, the league had folded under the weight of unforeseen financial turmoil.

When Moore visited Santa Fe, he was unimpressed by Fort Marcy Park’s diminutive dimensions. The field measured 340 feet from home plate to left field, 355 to dead center, and 285 to right. Most pro parks are at least 320 feet down the lines and 400 in center. Fort Marcy’s small size combined with the thin mountain air—Santa Fe’s elevation is 7,300 feet—would guarantee plenty of home runs, but Moore preferred fundamentals and small ball: singles, bunts, stolen bases. Still, the chance to start a team from whole cloth was enticing. And though he’d spent three decades in baseball as a coach and scout, at one point even consulting with the Montreal Expos, he’d never managed a pro team. More pressingly, he was out of work. Dunn had found his manager.

Most of the hundred-odd players who showed up for tryouts that winter were in their early or mid-twenties: independent league veterans, recent college graduates, a few older guys hoping to reignite careers that had gone cold. Independent league players are scrappers, dreamers, and drifters hanging on to one common goal: getting out. One hundred and thirty eight players from the Pecos League have moved up to higher leagues in the past two years, but none have made it to the majors. Playing in the Pecos is thus somewhat akin to betting everything on a single hand of blackjack.

Bill Moore had no major league dreams. He just wanted to win. He had a budget of $2,000 a week and a simple plan: recruit power hitters who could consistently knock balls out of Fort Marcy. He was going to fill up the scoreboard. He started calling former colleagues and players—“somebody who might know somebody,” as he put it to me—and lining up prospects from college ball, professional leagues in Australia and Sweden, and other Pecos League teams that had succumbed to financial realities.

Forty-seven players were invited to a weeklong spring training at the beginning of May. Tafoya was among them. So were two players from a Kansas summer league: Scot Palmer, a 245-pound catcher who had played at Kansas’s Newman University, and Andrew Archbold, the skinny center fielder.

Palmer was surprised to get the call. At the end of the 2011 summer season, following a lackluster senior year at Newman, he’d dislocated a hip in a collision at home plate. He hadn’t expected to hear from any pro teams. When Moore asked about his health in October 2011, Palmer said he was 100 percent. At the time, he was using a cane and working as a valet at a Wichita casino. But he rehabbed furiously, and in April he and Archie caravanned to Santa Fe. Both men drove old Saturn sedans. Fifteen miles outside Trinidad, Colorado, Palmer’s engine blew up. He took what he could carry, threw it in Archbold’s car, and sold the remains of his vehicle for $125 to a guy he found in a gas station.

Palmer had not fully understood what he was getting into. It turned out the Fuego didn’t pay for players’ lodgings during spring training, and he had $37,000 dollars in student loans to pay off. To save money he ate only granola, and he quickly began to lose weight. He worried about his chances of making the team; there was another catcher in camp, too, a terrific defender from Australia named Kieran Bradford who’d played in the Pecos League the previous year. One night, at the Motel 6, he and Archbold noticed that Archie’s trunk was popped. Someone had broken in and stolen the center fielder’s baseball bag with all his gear. He and Palmer trolled the parking lot and found the bag dumped behind a car. The thieves had only wanted Archie’s iPod.

Palmer had had enough. He told a teammate he was planning to return home to Kansas, that he couldn’t afford to try out for the Fuego. But when he got back to the hotel following practice, he saw everyone packing. They had a new home: Tafoya’s house. Fifteen of them bunked there, on couches, on chairs, on the floor. Evan Kohli, a bruising first baseman from Minnesota, packed his six-foot-three, 205-pound frame into a recliner. Palmer slept on the hardwood floor. One night, Tafoya cooked everyone hot dogs.

In the second week of May, Moore announced the opening-day roster. Twenty-two of the 33 players were active, which meant they would make $54 per week plus travel expenses. The rest were the “taxi squad.” They would be invited to all home games, but they wouldn’t be paid and had to cover their own travel and hotels if they wanted to accompany the team on the road. Palmer, Kohli, Bradford, and Archbold made the active team. So did Tafoya. The comeback was on.

Tafoya called his teammates with the semipro Albuquerque Athletics and told them he would not be widely available for the summer. He didn’t need permission from anyone else. He had never married and had no children. “I would love to get married, I would love to have a family,” he told me. “But the one thing I’m not willing to give up is baseball.”

Santa Fe New Mexican, May 10, 2012


My own encounter with the Fuego began with a fastball to the head. It was a bright, cold night in May, and more than 1,000 fans turned out, many of them clad in Fuego red, to see the first pro baseball game in Santa Fe’s history, against the Triggers of Trinidad, Colorado. Several friends and I decided we would check out the action, too. Beer sales weren’t yet up and running, the public-address system went in and out, and the scoreboard barely worked. No matter. The crowd greeted the Fuego with glee.

Tafoya got the start. There may have been more deserving pitchers, but Tafoya had a sort of emeritus status on the team for reasons both honorary and practical: He was the Fuego’s oldest and most experienced player, and half the guys still slept on his floor. Even Moore, the manager, bunked in the guest room. He was wise to keep Tafoya happy. A group of fans, led by a 59-year-old part-time artist named David Nava, who’d grown up on Tafoya’s street, stood at the back of the grandstand with cardboard signs spelling out the pitcher’s name.

Tafoya wound, kicked, and delivered a fastball: strike one. This was followed by two sliders, which were called balls, and another fastball, which the leadoff batter for the Triggers obliterated. It sailed over the right-field fence. One–zero, Triggers.

The game slowed dramatically after that. The Fuego scored their first five runs without getting a hit, on account of the Triggers’ generous pitchers, who walked ten, and fielders, who committed eight errors. Three hours after the opening pitch, it was still the fourth inning. In the stands, glee was fast turning to boredom.

The crowd was filtering out when an imposing, six-foot-six Triggers pitcher threw a fastball into Fuego utility man Nick Muller’s head. It sounded like an ax hitting dry wood. The activity of the crowd—the bustle at the burger stand, the occasional tepid chants—came to a halt. Muller staggered, listing forward and aft. The Fuego poured off the bench.

The crowd—I’ll confess to being complicit here—chanted “Wild Thing!” Once peace was restored, the man on the PA announced that those in attendance had a “terrific opportunity to get involved with Fuego baseball” by hosting one of the players for the duration of the season. A friend of mine scoured the field, looking for cute potential tenants, but found none to her liking.

Four more Fuego batters were hit over the course of the game. Brawls were averted, though a Trinidad coach was ejected. The Fuego emerged victorious, but disagreement persists over the score, which the Santa Fe New Mexican reported as 14–8 and the team’s website reported as 16–8. Archbold showed promise, with three hits and five runs batted in. Tafoya, who gave up eight hits, five walks, and eight runs over three-plus innings, saw room for improvement. “If I can keep the ball down and make a few adjustments,” he told a newspaper reporter, “I know I’ll be fine.”

Before I get much further, I should own up to a certain lack of critical distance.

I have something of a baseball problem. I inherited it, unoriginally, from my father, who at one point proposed naming me Homer. I grew up worshipping at the altar of the Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph. During my freshman year at Yale, I walked onto the baseball team, the only Bulldog who hadn’t been recruited specifically to play ball. The dugout was full of outsize guys from Florida and North Carolina who threw 90 miles per hour. With my five-foot-nine frame and dearth of recruiting letters, I earned the nickname Scholar. My teammates were surprised that I’d made the squad at all.

All the incoming freshmen players except for me pledged the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (George W. Bush’s). After hitting the weight room in the morning, they would walk around campus in a small pack, hats flipped backward, first to the dining hall for piles of eggs, then to their classes—which, it seemed, they all took together. But they were not on the team for the camaraderie. They were there to dominate. I was not. I dreaded the weight room, the locker room, even the field. The sport felt survivalist.

At the end of the semester, I transferred to Middlebury College, which had recruited me for baseball. Vermont breathed something back into my relationship with the game. When I say that I was not a very good player, I am not engaging in false modesty. One year, on the first day of practice, I broke my foot playing pickup basketball. In my best season, I started in right field, batted ninth, hit .340, and stole a few bases. In my senior year, I dove into a fence, wrecked my back, and batted an anemic .239. But baseball was once again a source of joy. It was the absurd rituals, the inside jokes, and the prevailing feeling that, if nine guys worked in unison, a group could produce something worthwhile. This notion proved to be unfounded for our team, which never made the league playoffs, but why not pull up your socks and engage in a little delusion? That’s the point.

My attachment to the more marginal forms of baseball lingered after graduation. During a summer spent fishing in Montana, I earned extra cash by working as an usher for the local minor league team. I don’t recall the Missoula Osprey winning a single game I worked, but there were a charming group of homeless fans who convened regularly on a hill above center field to vocally brutalize the opposition. You don’t get that at the new Yankee Stadium. You get sushi and Delta banners.

If the Osprey seemed old-school, the Fuego were downright prehistoric. At the beginning of the year, I had gone as far as considering trying out for the team. When I told Moore, he smiled kindly. “Everyone thinks they can play,” he said. “If you’re feeling froggy, show up to batting practice in some baseball pants.” I didn’t put on the baseball pants. I wasn’t good enough, even for the Fuego. But I did keep showing up.


Beer sales proved more problematic than Dunn had anticipated, due to miscommunication regarding the permits. The drinking area, it turned out, had to be isolated from the rest of the crowd by fencing. On May 24, though, two weeks after the home opener, the requisite paperwork was filed, the bureaucrats were satisfied, and the Santa Fe Brewery set up a properly fenced-in beer garden up the left-field line.

This had the effect of isolating the drinkers from the rest of the crowd and prohibiting parents from enjoying a beer. Still, you take what you can get. It was about time for some good news. The team was now three and seven, and attendance had dipped considerably since the first, glorious thousand-fan game. But the Fuego had the chance to win back the home crowd. It was a cool summer night, and the White Sands Pupfish were coming to town.

The Fuego had played, and lost to, White Sands on their first road series a week and a half earlier. The Pupfish’s home field is in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not far from the White Sands Missile Range, a 3,200-square-mile swath of desert where the U.S. Army tests weapons. The area’s signature inhabitant is the oryx, a large African antelope introduced in the early 1970s by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish chairman Frank C. Hibben, a mercurial archaeology professor and big-game aficionado, so he could hunt them for sport. The oryx would have been a natural local mascot for the White Sands team—its long, spearlike horns demand attention—but Andrew Dunn, for unknown reasons, had instead chosen the pupfish. A threatened species native to the desert’s streams, the pupfish is about two inches long and has been described as a biological relic. The jersey designers didn’t bother trying to incorporate its image into the White Sands uniform.

The Pupfish could hit, though, and as the fifth-place team they were the closest thing the Fuego had to a bitter rival. When Santa Fe arrived in town on May 15, White Sands had recently cut two players: Jason Hyland, a burly outfielder from Massachusetts, and Trent Evins, a pitcher from eastern Oregon. Before the first game, Pupfish coach Chris Paterson had offered the two to Moore. Moore snapped them up, cutting a couple of lesser Fuego players to make room.

Evins had been scouted by the Red Sox but was never drafted. He was tough, though, a fighter with a husky build and unkempt facial hair. He wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and worked in a plywood mill in the off-season. Moore told him that he had one shot to make it with the Fuego. Evins packed his bags and moved across the field.

The Fuego lost the first game Evins started, against the Cowboys of Alpine, Texas, but Moore liked what he saw. Evins threw hard, and he threw strikes. The coach invited him back to Santa Fe. It was an eight-hour drive; Palmer rode back with him in Evins’s old Audi. They talked about baseball, girls, and fathers. Evins’s, a former pro ballplayer who’d played with one of the San Diego Padres’ farm teams, had died of a heart attack when Evins was in high school. Soon after Evins and Palmer got back to town, they discovered that a homestay for two players had opened up with a mother of two named Andrea Probst. They moved in together. Their first night in the house was awkward until Probst offered them beers. Then they sang karaoke to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” with their new teenage home brother and sister.

Now back on the Fuego’s turf, Moore was starting Evins against his former teammates from White Sands. Evins was out for revenge. He opened strong, striking out five batters through the first four innings. His slider bit. His changeup made his heavy fastball look harder than it was. Then the Pupfish managed to get two balls in the air, both of which carried over the short Fort Marcy fences.

Out in left field, Dunn was speaking to local reporters near the beer garden. The commissioner, who is about five foot ten, with a trim, athletic build, wore a blue Pecos League polo shirt, creased black slacks, and a Bluetooth headset. He spoke quickly, in a flat tone, and did his best to avoid his interviewers’ eyes. One reporter asked how long the city would possibly support the team, given the Fuego’s poor performance. I couldn’t make out Dunn’s answer. From the beer garden a fan called out, “Somebody buy a beer for Coach Moore!” On the mound, Evins kept mowing down Pupfish: the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings passed without another run crossing the plate. The Fuego, it seemed, had found their ace.

In the bottom of the seventh, Archbold hit a single and stole second easily. Another batter walked, and then Hyland came to the plate. He was angry. He hadn’t been given an opportunity on the Pupfish before they cut him, and he’d been struggling since the Fuego picked him up. Hyland was a proud jock in early winter. Nine years earlier, he had led the University of Tampa to the Division II College World Series, where he won the most valuable player award. Following his senior year, however, he suffered a herniated disk and had two spinal-cord surgeries. Now he was attempting a comeback. But at 29, he was an old man in the Pecos League. He did not hide his emotions. Before the game he’d been jawing at the Pupfish.

The White Sands starter, Kyle Smart, served up the pitch, and Hyland unloaded on it. The ball soared over the right-field wall and disappeared from view beyond a row of tall trees. Hyland dropped his bat, watched the ball, jogged slowly toward first base, then whooped and twirled his finger in the air, the universal sign for a home run. The Fuego had the lead. Someone handed Dunn a plastic bucket. The voice crackled over the PA system: You will see commish Andrew Dunn passing the hat for Jason Hyland for hitting a three-run home run to put us in the lead!

The crowd chanted: “Fill the hat! Fill the hat!”

You can host a player and find out what it’s like to be involved in major league—in semi—in pro baseball here in Santa Fe!

“Fill the hat! Fill the hat!”

As Hyland passed third, the Pupfish started barking at him. Moore was displeased.

All donations are tax deductible and go directly to the player!

Evan Kohli was up next. The Pupfish pitcher threw a fastball into the square of his back, clearly an act of retaliation for Hyland’s theatrics. Man on first, one out. The bucket kept circulating through the crowd. I threw a dollar in.

These guys toil all day just like the big guys but don’t get the same paycheck!

The pitcher served up a meatball, and Josh Valle, the third baseman, hit it over the short right-field wall. Kissed his fingers, tapped his chest, pointed to the sky. Six–two, Fuego.

In the top of the eighth inning, Moore removed Evins. He had struck out 13 Pupfish. Moore sent in a reliever named Joey Garcia, who allowed, in short order, one fly out, two singles, a hit batter, a walk, and three home runs. Moore removed Garcia, but the damage was done: The Pupfish were back in the lead, the crowd deflated.

Palmer hit a home run in the bottom of the eighth—Let’s pass the hat for Scottie “Big Stick” Palmer!—but it was too little, too late, especially because, one inning later, the Pupfish managed a grand slam. The scoreboard, unable to process the number of runs the visitors had just scored, broke.

Remember, fans, tomorrow is dollar hot dog night!

Santa Fe New Mexican, May 26, 2012


Two days later I drove to Rod Tafoya’s house, now the Fuego’s unofficial headquarters and bunkhouse. A row of wood bats were lined up on the porch next to a stack of copies of Tafoya’s autobiography, Ageless Arm: My Passion Lives in the Core!, which a small New Mexico publisher had put out the previous year. A 1980s Chevrolet Corsica sporting faded stickers from the Erie Sailors and the Boise Hawks was parked on a driveway made of worn Astroturf. Ballplayers wandered around the street dressed in a manner familiar to anyone who has been to Florida in March: tight tank tops, gelled hair, baggy shorts, flip-flops, metallic necklaces. Tafoya was away, working at the bank.

Moore, who is about five foot five, greeted me at the door wearing denim shorts, old Top-Siders, no shirt, and his permanent smile. He was fit and muscled, all torso. His skin was sun beaten and wrinkled in a grid around his neck. The number 25, which he has worn his whole career, was tattooed on both of his shoulder blades. A straight white line divided his chest evenly, the result of emergency quadruple-bypass heart surgery two years earlier.

One morning in March 2010, Moore woke up with heart palpitations. Soon he was in the operating room watching the doctors shave his chest. While he was on morphine in intensive care following the surgery, Moore foresaw his death. He immediately and frantically started counting baseball games. “I tried to figure out how many games I’d played and coached in,” he told me. “Keep in mind I was drugged up, but I came to some conclusion it was around 5,000.” He was back on the field two months later for opening day with his Bisbee team, though he did give up Copenhagen, of which he’d previously chewed a can a day—two during doubleheaders.

Baseball was one of two great constants in Moore’s life; the other was his wife, Billie. He had committed himself to both shortly after returning from Vietnam, where he’d served in the Navy for four years, five months, and eleven days—“not that I was counting,” he said. At 22, he tried out for the team at Phoenix Community College. The manager had offered him a role as a player-coach, and he’d sat on benches ever since.  In between coaching gigs, he supported his wife and two daughters by running a used-car dealership, Aloha Bill’s Garden of Gears, which he sold in 2000. Since then, Billie had pulled in the lion’s share of the family income. For the past 40 years, whenever he was on the road, Moore had written Billie a weekly love letter. He occasionally sent them when they were under the same roof, too. The mailman would pick up the letter on Monday and deliver it back to the house on Wednesday.

Moore led me into Tafoya’s house, which smelled of cologne. A television nearly the size of a pool table occupied one corner, and jars of nutritional supplements and creatine were everywhere. Moore poured coffee; it was the one habit he hadn’t given up since the operation. He seemed undaunted by the Fuego’s losing streak, which was now up to seven games. He was encouraged by Evins’s performance, and he had added other promising players, including a 25-year-old outfielder from Georgia named Parris Austin, who had been drafted relatively high by the New York Mets a few years back and cut after one year in Single A ball. “I’m psyched about him,” Moore said. To make room for the additions, he had cut Hyland. This came as no surprise to the other players on the team. Coach Moore did not go in for showboating.

Moore was looking forward to ending the White Sands series, which had been unforgiving, and to facing the first-place Las Cruces Vaqueros and the second-place Alpine Cowboys. “Alpine kicked our ass badly last time,” he said. He attributed the losses to his pitching staff, which had thrown nothing but “titty-high fastballs.”

That trend, however, showed no sign of abating. On June 1, Tafoya started against the Vaqueros and gave up ten hits in five innings for a 9–4 loss. He was not making adjustments, he was not keeping the ball down, and he was not fine. He was working on a new pitch, a cut fastball, which was working with only minimal effect. He was 0-2.

By this point in the season, I was regularly sneaking away early from my job to attend Fuego games. I had become accustomed to the quirks of the Pecos League. The players hung out behind the home dugout eating snacks before the game and occasionally mingling with fans. The scoreboard usually broke around the fourth inning or whenever one team scored more than 10 runs. Half the time, nobody really seemed to be in charge. You could pay for your ticket if you wanted to wait in a line, or you could just walk in and sit down. The announcer, a guy named Rick, got players’ names wrong. More often than not we lost.

On June 5, the afternoon before the Fuego once again faced the Alpine Cowboys, I was standing on the field with Moore when one of the Alpine coaches approached. He wanted ice and water.

“It’s not here yet,” Moore said. “It’ll get here. I just don’t know when.”

“I need ice for my pitchers’ arms.”

“Well, I need ice, too,” Moore said. “And I want a fucking tractor and a mat. And pitching mounds for the bullpen. But I don’t have them. This is the City Different, Santa Fe. What do they call it?”

“Mañana Land,” I offered.

“Mañana Land. It’ll get here, I just don’t know when.”

Moore was exasperated. He had been under the impression that the city was going to provide a certain amount of maintenance at Fort Marcy. But the deal that Dunn had struck with the council was bare-bones: The league paid a $1,750 fee to rent the field for the season’s 34 home games, as well as 10 percent of food and beer sales. The city would maintain the field surface as it did any other public park. But additional improvements, such as mounds in the bullpen or doors for the stalls in the bathrooms, had to come from the team. A volunteer trainer from the local hospital brought the ice.

“I need ice for injuries,” the coach repeated.

“Well, it’ll get here, but I got water for now,” Moore said. “I’ll be honest, though. My priority at the moment is seeing whether they finally put any shit paper in the bathroom”—there had been no toilet paper at Fort Marcy for a week—“and I’m about to find out.”

A couple of Fuego pitchers approached, seeking permission to go for a run. “Did you take care of your responsibilities?” Moore asked. In the Pecos League, all the minutiae that goes into producing the theater of baseball—raking the infield dirt, laying down the chalk lines, watering the field, cleaning the stands—falls to the players. The pitchers had completed their duties. “Go for it,” Moore said.

“OK,” one of the players said. “We’re going to do a five-mile—”

Moore waved them off. “Don’t tell me. You’re making me tired.”

That evening brought mercy. In the seventh inning, Austin laid down a good bunt between home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and Archbold slid home far ahead of the throw from the pitcher. Following the play, the two outfielders pointed at each other in ritual celebration.

But Archbold was aware that Austin represented a threat. He and Austin shared the gift of speed and little else. Austin was 25, Archbold 23. Austin was six foot three and built like a wide receiver, strong and lean; Archbold was five foot ten with a body type that called to mind uncooked spaghetti. Austin was aloof, with the breezy confidence of someone accustomed to walking onto fields and being picked first. Archbold was painfully quiet. In the off-season, Austin moonlighted as a model. Archbold worked the cash register at a Lowe’s in Wichita, Kansas.

Austin was the only member of the Fuego who had briefly placed a foot in the promised land. A high school star in Douglasville, Georgia, he was selected by the Mets in the 2004 amateur draft and made the Mets’ Class A affiliate Hagerstown Suns in 2006, at age 20. There he struggled, batting .281 with eight strikeouts, two stolen bases, and just one RBI in 32 at-bats. He was cut at the end of the season, cast from the anointed inner circle of affiliated ball out to the distant periphery of the independent leagues.

Two years later he signed on with the Alexandria Aces, in the Pecos’s precursor, the now defunct Continental League, to attempt a comeback at age 23. According to the Aces’ coach that year, a Salt Lake City–based high school teacher named Dan Shwam, “Parris was really a phenomenal athlete. One of the best athletes I’ve ever managed. His flaw was mental toughness, being focused every day. At times Parris acted like he really wanted to play. At times it seemed like he didn’t care to be there.… He had the makeup of a Triple A guy, but he never figured it out.” Shwam cut Austin at the end of the year.

Archbold possessed neither Austin’s natural gifts nor his disdain for work. He’d gone unnoticed in high school and had managed to walk onto the baseball team at Pennsylvania’s Waynesburg University after getting recruited to run cross-country. Two years later, he was playing in a summer league in Kansas when the coach from Sterling College recruited him. Archie starred at Sterling, batting .408 and stealing 29 bases in his senior year to lead the conference in both categories. He was conference player of the year and an all-American but never got a look from any affiliated minor league teams.

“As far as athletic ability, raw talent, he’s middle of the pack,” said Adrian Dinkel, Sterling’s manager, who was an assistant coach during Archbold’s senior year. “If you’re six-six and left-handed, you’re going to get drafted.” Archie wasn’t and didn’t.

Archie did have one singular talent: an uncanny ability to read the ball off the bat. I’ve never seen a center fielder—my former position—get reads like him. He was waiting under just about every fly ball that came his way that summer. It was a marvel to watch but seemed unlikely to get him far. Teammates valued what Archie delivered, but scouts preferred power, multiple tools, the opaque notion of potential.

The Fuego won 9–5 in their second game against Alpine, closing out the series with a 7-13 record. That put them just two and a half games behind fifth-place White Sands, who they were playing in their next road series. I wondered if Archie would be back when the team returned. I recognized Austin’s quiet cockiness; guys like him usually meant trouble for scrappers like me and Archie. I had learned in college ball that the spoils in sports often went to the players who grasped most fully that the team’s success and their own had little to do with each other. The Bulldogs I played with at Yale had three pitchers who went on to be drafted in high rounds, and the team came in last place in the Ivy League the spring after I transferred. A friend who played minor league ball once told me that at that level, you have to value the physical act of hitting or throwing a baseball far more than the notion of a team.

The Pecos League, for all its charms, was no different. I knew that the Fuego were killers. They had to be. You don’t live in homestays on $54 a week as a lifestyle choice. You do it in order to move up and move out. And getting cut from the Pecos League can be fatal. There are no lower landing pads.

Archie was not a mercenary. I say this not because he played my former position, or because I admired the gorgeous routes he took to the ball, or because, like me, he couldn’t hit much, or because he refused to talk poorly about other teammates. I say it because he was the rare ballplayer who genuinely didn’t care about statistics. I asked him how many bases he’d stolen—he was close to leading the league for a while—and he didn’t know. He took a karmic view of the game. “When you’re looking out for your teammates,” he told me, “looking to play for the team rather than yourself, you seem to be rewarded.”

This sounded awfully noble, but I wasn’t sure how far it would get Archie. The Fuego weren’t winning games, and losing breeds personnel change. Turnover was the only constant in the Pecos League. Even though I’d attended most of the games, by this point in the season I recognized only a handful of players. Moore received calls every day from former colleagues, players looking for work or coaches who’d had to cut guys they liked.

The volume of these calls began increasing in June, which was not unusual. Pro baseball’s amateur draft happens in early June, and it sends ripples throughout the various minor leagues. There are only so many roster spots; to make room for fresh prospects, affiliated teams cut players. The ones who don’t catch on with other affiliated teams filter down into the higher independent leagues, which then have to make cuts of their own. The dominoes fell through the fiefdoms, and eventually, Moore had his pick of new players.

When the Fuego came home from White Sands, I went to the ballpark. I saw Archie but not Austin. Where was Parris? I asked Moore.

“Our left fielder leads the league in home runs, and we have arguably the best defensive center fielder in the league,” Moore said. “Parris was the fifth outfielder.” He’d been sent home to Georgia.

Austin declined to be interviewed when I reached him to ask about his Fuego experience. I expected as much. He was a ballplayer. You have to be proud. It’s a professional requirement.

Santa Fe Fuego pitcher Rod Tafoya. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)


A sense of unease had settled over the Fuego by late June. In 2011, 43 players from the Pecos moved to higher independent leagues or affiliated teams. By the middle of the 2012 season, only a handful had. It became harder to ignore the fact that most Fuego players were destined to stick around and become that dreaded thing: a Pecos League veteran. Fifty-odd bucks a week, hotels with three beds in a room, grounds-crew duties, dinner at Applebee’s on a good night.

Even Tafoya, an inveterate dreamer, recognized how bleak the odds were. “Why go for a guy that can hit home runs in the lowest of leagues when you can get a guy who’s 18 out of high school with the same power?” he told me. “It’s just the way it works. They want youth.” Still, he was reluctant to say as much to his younger teammates. “You never want to destroy anyone’s hopes and dreams. Because in baseball you really never know what could happen. The odds are astronomical, but you never know. You just never know.”

Tafoya’s own career was a testament to this conviction. After finishing a promising college-ball career with no interest from minor league teams in the United States, he headed south to Mexico. He quickly rose through that country’s minor league ranks, earning an invitation in 1987 to spring training with Mexico City’s Diablos Rojos, powerhouse of the Triple-A Mexican League, which hosted many former and future major leaguers.

This was the big time. Tafoya was 23. He put on a suit and took a taxi to spring training, but when he hopped out of the car, the driver sped away with his clothes, cleats, glove, and passport. Then the Diablos cut him. A slightly inferior club, the Rieleros of Aguascalientes, picked him up. Tafoya was still close enough to touch the hem of major league ball: His starting shortstop was the former Texas Ranger Mario Mendoza, a defensive whiz whose prolonged offensive impotence infamously gave birth to the phrase “the Mendoza line,” which refers to a batting average of .200. He had been released by the Rangers five years earlier, in 1982, after it fell to .118.

Tafoya pitched in eight games alongside Mendoza before the Rieleros’ manager cut him. At three in the morning, Tafoya says, the team’s bus deposited him on the side of an empty highway, far from civilization. A coyote howled in the night. Miraculously, a taxi appeared from the blackness. Tafoya eventually made his way back across the border and farther north to Idaho, where he signed on with the Boise Hawks in the Northwest League. The Hawks were an independent team, but this was a Class A league; though Tafoya still wasn’t playing on an affiliated team, at least he was playing against them. He pitched to Mike Piazza and once struck out current Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. He was the Little Caesars Pizza Player of the Week.

Not long after, though, Tafoya tore a ligament in his elbow while practicing his slider. He didn’t tell anyone and signed up to pitch for another independent team in Erie, Pennsylvania, without fully recovering. It didn’t go well. In 1993, while pitching for a team in Oregon, he took up banking as a side job, then gave up on pro ball in 1998 and moved home to the modest adobe in Santa Fe where he grew up. In his spare time, he began offering his pitching services to local semipro teams, with some success. (Semipro ball falls far below independent league ball in the sport’s hierarchy; games are held at night or on weekends, and players aren’t paid.) As the dream of professional stardom receded, his sports career attained a new focus: His goal in life from now on, he resolved, was to win 300 semipro baseball games.

Tafoya surrounded himself with reminders of his mission. It was on his website—“Countdown to 300!”—and on his car, a black BMW with a vanity plate that read WIN 300. It was the driving narrative arc of his autobiography, Ageless Arm. A year later, he was just 29 wins from his goal. He could taste it. But Tafoya was scrupulous in his accounting, and he did not mix pro wins and semipro wins in his countdown. The two “just aren’t the same thing,” he told me.

This meant that by chasing one last chance at professional baseball glory with the Fuego, he had voluntarily put the brakes on what was now his singular ambition. But a baseball player offered a shot—however remote—at the big time is congenitally incapable of not taking it. It might be hard to imagine that any of the Fuego or their counterparts truly believed that they were going to fight their way up through the ranks to play for the Red Sox or even for a Double A team. But they did. They had to. To be good at whacking a baseball takes an immense amount of concentration focused on a brief moment. It also takes a confidence that’s almost irrational. Perspective is not particularly useful, nor is a close examination of one’s life choices. You have to hope.

On June 20, the Trinidad Triggers were back in town. Tensions were high. The Fuego had recently been feuding with two of the umpires, whom they accused of being antagonistic and vindictive, eager to throw out coaches and players alike. A rumor was circulating that one of the men in question, a Puerto Rican ump named Edwin Ortiz who spoke only limited English, was trying to lead the league in ejections. “They are fucking atrocious,” Moore told me at one point. He pointed at my notebook: “You can put that in there.”

A certain amount of frustration on the umps’ part was understandable. In many ways, their careers paralleled the players’. They were at the bottom of professional baseball’s pecking order, looking to move up, making just $1,500 for the summer while paying their own travel expenses. They felt disrespected by the players; “Indy ball,” one veteran independent league ump told me, “is major league attitude with minor league talent.”

Things had come to a head the previous night in a game against the Vaqueros. Ortiz’s partner and de facto translator, a Santa Fe local named Harold Moya, had called the Fuego’s John Murphy out on two very dubious strikes. In response, Moore calmly walked over to the visiting dugout, picked up a bucket of baseballs, carried them to home plate, and dumped them over Moya’s head.

It was difficult to get suspended for abusing an ump in the Pecos League, so tonight Moore was once again in his customary spot up the third-base line. In the bottom of the first inning, with runners on second and third, Palmer hit a ball farther than he ever had in his life. It traveled out of the confines of Fort Marcy and over the firehouse that sits beyond the left-field wall. Palmer smiled as he jogged around the bases. Both his father, a former powerlifter and high school ballplayer, and his host mom, Andrea Probst, were in the crowd. The Fuego were winning four to nothing. His father went in search of the ball.

In the top of the third inning, Palmer noticed that one of the Triggers, a leadoff batter named John Fabry, was tipping pitches—using hand signals while on the base paths to cue hitters into what was coming next. This is a time-honored practice in baseball, but “don’t make it so fucking obvious,” Palmer told Fabry. He hinted that a fastball to Fabry’s ribs might be in order.

Retaliation came quickly. Later in the same inning, Palmer was standing in the third-base line, calling for someone to cut off an outfielder’s throw, when the Triggers’ shortstop hunched down and sprinted into Palmer at full speed, putting his shoulder into the meat of the catcher’s chest protector. Palmer somersaulted backward.

Even the most lugubrious, cellar-dwelling team achieves a temporary and riotous unity when their catcher is taken out. The Fuego poured from the dugout. Palmer got up out of the dirt and told them to back off. He was fine.

Then there was a single to center. Archbold deftly fielded the ball and threw a dart to Palmer. The catcher turned up the line, where a phone-booth-size designated hitter was rumbling toward him. The runner steamrolled him, and the Fuego cleared the bench again. This time Palmer didn’t stop them. He hobbled off to the dugout, holding his side.

Two days later, Palmer was still out of the lineup and recovering. He was sitting behind the dugout when a man and a young boy approached him. Palmer recognized the man, who looked to be in his mid-thirties. He often sat behind home plate, and Fuego diehards were few enough that an attentive player could identify them by sight. The man introduced himself as Mario Montoya. He worked at an auto-repair shop in town. The boy was his 8-year-old son, Isaiah, who wanted to learn to catch. Palmer showed him the basics: how to hold a ball across the seams, how to squat and set up.

After another game, Montoya’s uncle, David Nava, the artist and former neighbor of Tafoya’s who appeared regularly in the pitcher’s cheering section, approached Palmer.

“I want to talk to you,” he said.

“Yes?” Palmer said.

“That was nice, for you to play with the kid.”

Palmer said they could come by anytime, after any game. Before long, Isaiah and his siblings, 5-year-old Gabriel and 4-year-old Melodie, were bringing gloves to the park, throwing the ball behind the backstop with their cousins. After the games, Palmer would play with them on the field before he helped his teammates clean up the bleachers. Isaiah, Melodie, Gabriel, Montoya, and Nava attended just about every home game. Occasionally, they sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” over the PA system in the seventh inning.

At night, at Montoya’s house, the kids would play Fuego. Isaiah was Palmer, Gabriel was Tafoya, and Melodie was Scott Davis, the shortstop. Palmer started looking forward to seeing them at the games. It made for long evenings. But “baseball sort of became a job,” he told me. “It gave me peace of mind to see them throwing the ball, to throw with them.”

Santa Fe Fuego manager Bill Moore watches his team play the Roswell Invaders after being ejected from the game by umpire Edwin Ortiz. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)


It was impossible to immerse oneself in the happenings of the Pecos League and not come away with some burning questions about the basic conditions of its existence. How was the league solvent? How did it negotiate minimum-wage laws? Could it seriously not afford to buy some doors for the bathroom stalls?

Andrew Dunn was generally not one to humor such questions. In his limited dealings with the local sporting press, the Pecos League commissioner had acquired a skill for circular and evasive talk. It was sort of like speaking to a politician, but one who avoided eye contact and was prone to snap during the brief interviews he would agree to from time to time. He wouldn’t divulge the league’s finances beyond estimating that the Pecos ran on “about $1.5 million,” or about what Alex Rodriguez makes in a week. (Santa Fe’s 10 percent take of the beer concessions, ostensibly the Fuego’s main source of income, amounted to $831.43 for the entire 2012 season.) Dunn once obliquely mentioned that a former investor in the league had proved to have a criminal record. Who was it, I asked?

“I don’t want to talk about it.” 

On another occasion, I asked him about the Fuego’s future or lack thereof. “We’re not going anywhere,” he barked. “I’ll just do it as a hobby if I have to. I don’t care. I just want to play. We’re playing indefinitely.”

What about the park? Would there be improvements for 2013?

“The surface will be better. I’ve heard that their scoreboard might get fixed. They’re going to do speakers.”

Who’s “they”?

“I don’t know. I do not know the answer to that.”

What about the players’ salaries? How were they legal?

“We’re giving them housing, and they’re progressing toward a skill set. They are seasonal workers.”

It was true that the Pecos League players, by virtue of their freelance status, were not subject to minimum-wage laws. Their hold on employment, such as it was, was tenuous in any case. Before the Fuego went south for its late June road trip to Las Cruces and Roswell, Moore received word from Dunn that he soon would have to trim the playoff roster to 25. Moore wanted to take 22 players on the road to save money. He hadn’t used Tafoya in nearly a month, since the June 1 loss. The manager was in a singularly awkward position. How do you cut the man whose guest room you sleep in?

Following the last Trinidad game, a 23–6 victory, Moore announced that he would be reading the names of the active players for the next road trip from a list. Tafoya’s name did not come out of the coach’s mouth.

That night, Tafoya went in his room and locked the door. His thoughts turned dark. He had sacrificed a great deal for the Fuego. He’d opened his home to them and temporarily set aside his goal of 300 semipro wins. He was working 100-plus-hour weeks and was approaching 50. He’d spent the summer driving all over the state in the hope that he would be summoned to throw baseballs, and now this had been taken from him with what seemed to be finality. He deeply loved baseball, and to lose it would be to lose hold of the anchor in his life. He had thrown 97,000 pitches. He didn’t know how many more there might be.

“There’s a very uncomfortable feeling in baseball,” he told me later. “It’s a feeling inside—things just aren’t like they were before. And it happens every day. Guys get released in pro ball every day. It’s just the way it is. You’re older.” Then somebody like Moore came along. “He gives you another shot, and you can’t get anybody out. So what do you do then? You’re at a fork in the road. ‘Do I have what it takes? Am I able to get hitters out?’ That’s it. Can you or can you not?”

Tafoya was lying in bed, thinking, when he heard a knock on the door. It was Moore.

“You got a minute?” the coach asked. Tafoya came out.

“You’re still on the team,” Moore said.

He explained that Tafoya was simply not coming in the van on the next road trip. He was welcome to drive down to Roswell the next weekend if he wished.

Six days later, Tafoya threw his glove and spikes in the WIN 300 BMW and drove the three-plus hours south to Roswell. It was Saturday, June 30, and Moore needed a spot start. The team had won two of five in Las Cruces, bringing its record to 15-27, but was short on pitching. Tafoya had another chance.

It did not go well. The first batter got on base on a shortstop’s error. The next batter singled. Tafoya threw a wild pitch. Fly out. Error. Single. Double. Single. Walk. Walk. Bases loaded. Single. Single, single, single, fly out. Single. The runners came and came and came, and before the third out arrived, Tafoya had given up 10 runs in one inning. Moore removed him.

Tafoya drove home to Santa Fe, where I met him not long after. “They were some big boys,” he said. “And there were some errors.”

I asked when he was starting again.

“When Coach says I’ll pitch, I’ll pitch,” he said, smiling.

Tafoya had brought me to a room in the back of his house, a vast expanse of black and white linoleum tile. It was his baseball room. The walls were lined with shelves full of game balls, all of them filed in chronological order, inscribed with the dates and statistical details of his triumphs: innings pitched, strikeouts, hits. There were 500 balls in the room, 200 of them representing victories. He showed me one from 2009, when he won two semipro games in a day in Puerto Rico, throwing 222 pitches. “That’s when they started calling me Ageless Arm,” he said.

Tafoya sat on the floor and instructed me to sit on the one chair in the room, which was covered with a number 32 jersey from the semipro Albuquerque Brewers. The number 32 was everywhere, on jerseys and in photographs of Tafoya at different stages in his career: young and thin in Idaho, older and with a full face in Puerto Rico. Always smiling.

The effect of the room was dizzying. I felt as though I was inhabiting the sort of monument to athletic achievement I had fiercely desired at age 14. About 15 wooden bats balanced upon one another in a spiral in the center of the room, creating a sort of precarious statue. One of the bats belonged to Kohli, the first baseman. He’d signed it for Tafoya.

“Thanks for being a role model and father figure to me,” it read.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Tafoya said.

The Fuego’s poor performance, and his own, upset Tafoya. But he preferred the long view. The playoffs were not mathematically unattainable. He just needed to keep the ball down. He would be fine.

He wanted to show me something. He’d come home to find a note on his door, he said. Philip Rowland, an outfielder Moore had picked up from White Sands, was still staying at the house on Cedar Street, though Moore had cut him after two games; he and Tafoya had become good friends. Looking for a new opportunity, Rowland had done some Internet research while the Fuego were in Roswell, and he’d found that an independent team in California had three batters hitting under .100. The note was scrawled on a bank envelope hanging from Tafoya’s front door:


The Fuego traveled to Trinidad at the beginning of July. Palmer, trying to check his swing in the second game, felt a pop in his wrist. It hurt, but he didn’t think much of it, and he didn’t tell Moore. There was only one other true catcher on the team. Besides, Palmer’s grandmother and uncle had driven down from Wichita to watch him play. There was no way he was leaving the game. He hit a home run later that night and tried to forget about the wrist.

The Fuego finished the series with a 14-28 record. They were in fifth place, but the playoffs were not completely out of reach: The top four teams made the tournament, and the Fuego were only three and a half games behind fourth-place Trinidad. An awful lot of their losses had come by one run. There was reason for hope. They had the leading hitter in the league, Kohli, who was batting around .450, and the home-run leader, a left fielder named Chris Brown who bore more than a passing resemblance to Albert Pujols. Evins was pitching well. Palmer was punishing the ball, despite the wrist. Archie caught everything in the outfield.

But the Fuego needed to make a run. There were only 28 games left in the season. They began promisingly: First-place Alpine came to town, and the Fuego managed a coup, winning 27–10 with a league record for runs in a game. Santa Fe’s pitchers only walked two, and the defense committed no errors. Tafoya pitched an inning with minimal damage. Things were looking up.

Then the wheels came off. Kohli fell into a slump, his average dropping beneath .400. The pitching melted down. Errors mounted. The monsoons came, too. Occasionally, David Nava, Mario Montoya, and their crew would arrive early to help the players spread cat litter on the infield to dry it off. The Fuego won only one of their next 10 games. This was in the middle of a stretch of 16 consecutive games with no days off, and the players were hurting.

In a league with no disabled list, an injury means losing your job. The Fuego rarely took days off, and 80 games in three months beats a body. (This, incidentally, is why many ballplayers start taking performance-enhancing drugs—not to transform into freak shows of Bondsian proportions, but to stay on the field and rise through the ranks. All the players I spoke to denied seeing PEDs in the Pecos—“You try doping on $50 a week,” went the refrain—but I’d be shocked if no one was using.)

Archie tweaked his back badly taking a warm-up swing in early July. He told Moore, who said, “We need you.” Archie couldn’t swing with a complete follow-through. “Can you run?” Moore asked. He could. “Can you bunt?” He could. “Do what you need to do,” said Moore.

Palmer, meanwhile, was not improving. Toward the end of the Alpine series, he was having trouble holding onto the ball and fatigued easily. The wrist was constantly sore, but he didn’t want to come out of the game. His mother had come down from Wichita to watch the series. “The last thing I wanted to do,” he told me, “was not play.”

So he played, and said nothing.


One of Rod Tafoya’s favorite major league pitchers was a crafty, soft-throwing left-hander named Jamie Moyer, who debuted with the Chicago Cubs in 1986 and won 269 major league games before undergoing elbow surgery in 2010. He made headlines in 2012 when he embarked on a comeback with the Colorado Rockies at age 49. This made him the only professional baseball player in the country older than Tafoya. (The famed juicer Jose Canseco, at 47, was nipping at their heels; he made an independent league cameo—a common practice for aging stars—last August.)

Tafoya started tracking Moyer’s progress at the beginning of the season. In May, the Rockies cut him and he signed on with the Orioles, but Baltimore cut him in June, at which point Moyer signed on with one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league affiliates. They dropped him on July 5, and this time no one else picked him up.

This was a week after Tafoya’s disastrous start at Roswell. But now Tafoya was once again on the Fuego roster, for the home series against Alpine. After pitching a scoreless inning in the Fuego’s 27–10 upset, Tafoya promptly posted an article on his website, “Rod Tafoya Now Oldest Active Pro,” read the headline. “In Moyer’s illustrious 25-year MLB career, he is 269-209. In Tafoya’s case, he has had a few flashes of brilliance, however, he has yet to win a Pecos League victory.”

Following that game the Cowboys struck back, winning the next two by one run each. Then, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Kohli was lounging in the dugout before the game when an unknown man approached him. He was a scout for the Washington Nationals. He was there primarily to see the Alpine starting pitcher, but he handed Kohli a questionnaire to fill out and send back to him. This sent a surge of energy through the dugout. Attention was being paid.

Unfortunately, Moore was once again short on pitching. He started a six-foot-five, rail-thin right-hander named Ryan Westover he’d just picked up, but the Cowboys treated Westover’s fastballs like an open bar. By the end of the second inning, Westover had surrendered seven runs on eight hits, three of them homers. It was Westover’s first and last appearance of the season. By the bottom of the sixth, the Fuego had gone through five pitchers and were still trailing 16–3. Moore told Tafoya to get ready.

The lefty straightened his cap and jogged out to the bullpen to warm up. He went through his usual routine: fastballs, curves, cutters. He warmed up for two innings straight, working up a good sweat. Tafoya felt amazing in the bullpen. He was throwing as hard as he had all year, but for some reason he also had his control. He was at the fork in the road, and he was determined.

He jogged out of the bullpen and threw nine pitches. Seven were strikes. He struck out the first two batters and got the third, a righty, to fly out weakly to right field. And that was it. He was finished. He walked off the mound to faint cheers, slapped the hands of his teammates, and wrote his stats down on a game ball. It was the last time Tafoya would ascend the mound this season, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that, in that moment, he had once again tasted what he’d felt back in Idaho during the George H. W. Bush administration. The clouds that had been lingering since the day he was temporarily cut had parted at last. Tafoya had regained his anchor.

When I visited Tafoya at home some time later, I asked if he would be playing with the Fuego next year. Tafoya looked past me; there was still a lingering glow from his last stand against Alpine. “I just proved to myself and to everybody out there that knows my story that at 48 I can still compete professionally,” he told me. “Albeit at the lowest level out there. But I still proved that it could be done.

“I will probably die pitching,” he went on. “I don’t think I’m going to ever quit. I thought about it on my drive home tonight, and I just don’t see life without baseball in my future. There’s no reason for it to stop. In the amateur games I pitched this summer”—Tafoya had started more than a dozen games for the Albuquerque A’s — “I had an ERA under one!”

His voice rose. “Sixteen strikeouts per nine innings!” Now he seemed to be pleading. “How can you stop when you have those incredible numbers?”

I asked what he planned to do after he hit his goal. “Once I hit 300, I’m going to take a little break and take it all in, smell the roses a bit.” He smiled. “Then, who knows? I might go for another 100 and shoot for four.”

I showed up at the ballpark late. It was one of those impossible Santa Fe summer evenings. The monsoon had come and gone. A rainbow emerged from the remnants of the storm clouds and arced over the center-field fence. Blue shadows lit red mountains. We were hosting Las Cruces, and we were already down seven or eight runs.

Some guy I didn’t recognize was behind the plate. Palmer,  I later learned, had finally asked out. He started the game and struck out in his first at bat on a pitch in the dirt, then finally approached Moore. “Skip,” he said, “I can’t do this.” He confessed that his wrist was killing him.

The Fuego went down 14–0 that night, and Palmer went to see a doctor on the trainer’s orders. His wrist was a mess. The doctor said that he had torn a ligament. Playing on it for weeks had been a poor decision, and now surgery was the only option. Palmer was devastated—he’d dislocated his hip and broken his arm before, but he’d never had major surgery. He decided to have the procedure back home in Kansas, but not until the fall. He liked being near the mountains, and he wanted to see the season through to the end.

He spent more time with David Nava, Mario Montoya, and the kids. Montoya invited him over to cook marshmallows; the kids were awestruck. They all started helping the team out with chores: one day they brought brooms to the game to sweep the bleachers so the players could rest. Without his $54 paycheck, Palmer was deeply worried about money. One day, Nava brought him a gift certificate to the Olive Garden. Another day, Nava brought five paintings he had made, which he said Palmer could sell. Then Nava literally emptied one of his piggy banks, giving Palmer a few bucks in change.

During one batting practice, I asked Palmer about his plans. He said he wanted to get the surgery done so he could get back on the field. He had hit over .400 that season, with 13 or 14 home runs, depending on whether you believed Palmer’s count or the Pecos League’s own frequently suspect statistics. There were opportunities. “I always told my mom, as long as I can provide for my family, my girlfriend, or myself, I’m going to play until I can’t play no more,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

In August, he went back to Kansas to see another doctor, who examined his MRI results and was astounded. Palmer had torn several ligaments and pieces of connective tissue just above his wrist. By playing through the injury, the doctor said, he’d pushed and rotated the intricate bones in his wrist out and to the right. Not only did he need surgery, he would never play baseball again.

Sunset over Fort Marcy Park in Santa Fe. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)


The Fuego played their final home game of the season on July 25. Despite the fact that the playoffs were now out of reach, Santa Fe still had a whiff of influence as a spoiler: Their opponents, the Roswell Invaders, were in second place, not far behind the Alpine Cowboys. A win would hurt Roswell’s chances of overtaking Alpine for home-field advantage in the playoffs. I waited for the game to start, listening to Lynyrd Skynryd crackling over the PA. The small details of a night at Fort Marcy seemed especially vivid: the smell of meat fried in corn oil, the crisp folds of the American flag out beyond the center-field wall, the evening sun in the spent monsoon clouds. A solitary chant went up from the beer garden: “ET Go Home!”

Welcome, fans, to the final game of the season at Fort Marcy Park! the announcer thundered over the PA. This evening’s old-school classic-rock program is dedicated to Coach Bill Moore!

In the bottom of the second inning, with one man on and two outs, Archie made his way to the plate. Archie had toyed with his stance and swing repeatedly over the years. It was now a choppy thing that started with his hands way over his head. He usually strode into the ball and slashed his bat downward, attempting to whack ground balls that his long legs could turn into infield singles. Now he wagged the bat awkwardly, high above his body, and Roswell’s pitcher, a thin right-hander with an ungainly overhand motion, delivered a high, weak fastball.

Archie swung, and the ball took off down the left-field line, the only part of Fort Marcy that is major league size. It was a line drive, and it traveled too quickly for anyone in the park to process what had happened until it was over: Andrew Archbold had hit a home run.

At first, Archie didn’t seem to comprehend it, either. He sprinted around the bases, running right past Moore, whose mouth was open in a great laugh. Palmer came by the beer garden with the plastic bucket. I paid my money and thought of the message on Moore’s voice mail: “In the great game of life, there is baseball, and there is everything else.”

The crowd chanted: “Fue-go! Fue-go!”

Josh Valle hit a long home run over the trees, made the sign of the cross, banged helmets with Brown.


Brown ripped a double down the left-field line, then scored on a sacrifice fly. Four–one, Fuego. The hits started to blend together, and the bucket kept coming around. This pitcher was a gift. Soon it was 7–3, Fuego, though you wouldn’t have known it from the scoreboard, which displayed only zeroes. Archie knocked in another run with a bunt single.


“My wife would give up one of her bedrooms for Archbold,” said a fan in the grandstand.

“You’re not getting him,” replied a polite, small woman named Roberta Catnach, Archbold’s Santa Fe host. “He calls me Mom.”

In the middle of the seventh we were ahead nine to three, and Moore led the crowd in a gravelly rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Everything was falling together in a peaceful, easy way. The players looked happy. Moore looked happy. They were experiencing something fresh and calming after the sorrows of the second half of the season: the joy of a winning team.

Then the peace shattered. With two outs and the Fuego up 11–3, Roswell brought in a strike-zone-challenged pitcher who threw a series of wild pitches. One of them hit Edwin Ortiz, the home-plate umpire, in the face. Ortiz shook his head like a wounded bear. Maybe he was addled by the pitch. Maybe he was remembering the game down in Roswell when someone on the Fuego had written Ortiz’s name on a baseball next to a carefully drawn pair of testicles. Maybe the frustrations of the year became, in this one moment, too much for one man. Maybe he needed one more ejection to take the lead in the league. Whatever the reason, Ortiz and his partner, Harold Moya, began to collaborate on a series of calls that defied basic logic. Even Moya, after the fact, seemed to concede as much. “What I can say is between the two of us, we can’t say what really happened,” he told me. “We just don’t know.”

Kohli launched a ball deep into center field, and Roswell’s center fielder leaped for it at the wall. Man, fence, and ball met in an unfortunate kinetic gathering that left the metal gate swinging and the center fielder prone and motionless on the warning track. The ball was nearby, on the field, and Moya signaled that it was a home run. Kohli was trotting around the bases, and someone was throwing the ball in toward the infield, when Ortiz ran out and signaled that the ball was in play—that the hit was not, in fact, a home run. The shortstop tagged Kohli between second and third base. Ortiz called him out.

Moore ran onto the field, yelling. The center fielder regained consciousness and limped off. Moore began to yell and assault the dirt with his cleats. The fans booed. “Ump, you’re horrible!” someone behind me in the beer garden yelled. The Roswell manager turned to the fan. “No shit!” he shouted. “I’ve been saying that for three days.”

Ortiz ejected Moore with a grand gesture, yelling, “It’s my game!” Moore stared, mouth agape, for minutes, milking the boos. The Fuego players congregated at first base, raining a season’s worth of pent-up expletives down upon the umpires.

Bill Moore stomped into the grandstand, gesticulating wildly, dropping his hands and raising them upward over and over again. David Nava and Mario Montoya led the crowd in a rousing chant: “Bill Moore! Bill Moore! Bill Moore! Bill Moore!”

“You see me get ran?”

It was the next day, and Moore was drinking coffee at Tafoya’s. His dark mood had lifted. The Fuego had beaten the Invaders 11-3. “That’s the way it’s supposed to end,” he said.

He had two days left in Santa Fe before heading to Trinidad for the final series of the season. He was debating whether to return for 2013. In the event that he did, he said, he planned to blow up the team and “get me some rabbits”—small, fast athletes who could hit the ball to the middle of the field. He was tired of the losing and the fundamental errors and the big, slow hitters. He told me he’d like to fill a team with rookies, guys right out of college who hadn’t been on the Pecos League circuit. “If they’re a veteran in the Pecos League,” he said, “well, there’s a reason they’re a veteran in the Pecos League.”

Still, the impending end of the season, his departure from the young men he’d hired and would soon be firing, saddened him. “It’s never easy,” he said. “These guys, they’re embedded in you.” He acknowledged that his loyalty to them might have contributed to the failure of the team. “This is my only time being on a sub–.500 team, and that has really gnawed on me,” he said. “People keep telling me, ‘Oh, you got bad guys, you got this, you got that.’ Bullshit. It’s your own fault. If you got bad guys, why didn’t you do something about fixing it? Send ’em all home, bring in a bunch of new guys. It’s totally in your control.”

Moore went in the kitchen to get more coffee, and I spied a piece of yellow loose-leaf on the table: a letter to Billie. The words HELLO BEAUTIFUL WOMAN were scrawled across the top of the paper in neat, all-capital letters.

“I’m proud of the fact that I’m still hanging out,” he said as he offered me a cup. “I hope I’m doing it every day ’til I’m dead. Be great to die at a ballpark.” His cell phone rang: someone from a debt-collection agency trying to reach one of the players. “I gave him your message probably an hour ago,” he told the caller. “If he don’t want to call you back, that’s not my fault.” He hung up and turned back to me. “I’ll be interested to see what you write,” he said.

I hesitated. “I’m not going to write that you came in first place,” I said. “But I think empathy is important.”

“I like that you say empathy and not sympathy.”

Moore saw me to the door. “You know,” he said, “Trinidad is only a few ahead of White Sands for the final playoff spot.” His eyes widened, and he broke into a capacious smile that animated every wrinkle on his face. “If we could go up there and sweep ’em, and White Sands wins a couple, we could knock Trinidad out! How cool would that be? Ha!” His laugh filled the street. “Screw those guys!”

That weekend, up in Trinidad, the Fuego lost three of four. Rod Tafoya didn’t make the trip. He was down south, on the mound for the Albuquerque A’s, winning his 275th semipro game, bringing him within 25 of his goal. He wrote down his stats on the ball—six innings, 18 strikeouts—and put it on a shelf in his trophy room.

The Santa Fe Fuego wave goodbye to their fans at Fort Marcy Park after the last home game of the season, on July 25, 2012. (Photo: Ryan Heffernan)


Bill Moore is returning this year as coach of the Fuego. Rod Tafoya has signed with a new expansion team in the Pecos League, the Taos Blizzard. As of this writing, he is just 18 semipro wins from 300. He thinks he’ll reach the goal in August.

In his final at-bat of the season, at Trinidad, Andrew Archbold felt a pop in his shoulder: a sprain in his acromioclavicular joint. He decided to move forward with his life. He is driving shuttle vans in Boulder, Colorado, and thinking about what comes next.

Most of the other Fuego players I knew have stayed in the game, but elsewhere. Evan Kohli signed with the Rockford Aviators of the Frontier League just after the season; he never heard from the Nationals. Kieran Bradford spent the winter playing in Australia. In February, he got a call from the Wichita Wingnuts in the American Association. It’s a significantly higher league; a couple of the players on the team have big-league experience. He reports to spring training May 4. Parris Austin is returning to the Pecos League with the White Sands Pupfish.

Soon after the 2012 season, Trent Evins received a surprising message on Facebook. It was an invitation from Chris Paterson, the White Sands coach who had cut him in April, to come pitch in the Texas Winter League. He played well, and at the end of the winter season, Texas City, in the more prestigious United Baseball League, signed him. He informed Scot Palmer of the news by text message.

At the time, Palmer was rehabbing, studying to finish his bachelor’s degree at Newman and training to be a manager at a shoe store in Wichita. He had spent 11 weeks after his surgery in a cast from his shoulder to his fingertips. He wrote back to Evins:

“Do me a favor, man. Don’t ever take one pitch for granted. Don’t even take your training for granted. When you’re hurting and tired remember, you could be me. Never in a million years did I think before that game against [Las Cruces], ‘This will be the last time I strap them up, this will be the last time my name is announced as a starting catcher.’ I know it sounds corny man, but I’m proud of you, bro. You work hard, you play hard, and we both had that chip on our shoulders. Play for me too man. I miss it already.” 

The Defender


The Defender

Manute Bol’s journey from Sudan to the NBA and back again.

By Jordan Conn

The Atavist Magazine, No. 06

Jordan Conn ( is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York TimesSports Illustrated, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Photographs: Brady Dillsworth (cover), Courtesy of Sports Illustrated
Music: “Block the Ball,” written and performed by Mark Tabron (, “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” written and performed by Kenn Kweder (
Film: Matthew Kohn is working on a documentary about Manute Bol and reconciliation in Sudan. Please contact him directly for inquiries (
Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Special Thanks: Terry McDonell, Sudan Sunrise, Mayom Majok, Chris Ballard, and Beth Ritter-Conn

Published in July 2011. Design updated in 2021.

They always bring up the lion. No matter who’s talking about Manute Bol—teammate, relative, fan, or friend—whenever they tell stories, they inevitably end up at the time he killed the lion. Depending on where it’s told, the story takes different forms. Sitting under a tree one afternoon near the Bol family’s home in Turalei, Sudan, his uncle Bol Chol Bol tells it to me like this: Manute, a towering teenager charged with caring for his village’s cattle, saw a lion running across the pasture, hungry and desperate for blood. The lion leaped, and Bol launched a spear, goring the predator in midair. Bol Chol Bol tells the story with no hint of hyperbole, no knowing smile. This is the Manute his village knew: benevolent, fearless, almost superhuman. 

The version commonly told in his adopted home, the United States—repeated in newspaper articles and by close friends—has Bol catching the lion while it was sleeping. Aware that the animal, which had bedded down close to the cattle, might attack if it awoke, he thrust in his spear when he had the chance. Some fans take the legend even further, claiming he used only his bare hands. That’s the way singer Kenn Kweder tells it as he tours East Coast bars playing “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” a paean to one of the NBA’s most lovable stars. Kweder may have taken some artistic liberties when he wrote the lyrics in the ’80s, but when he starts playing, and drunk college kids start screaming, there is only one truth: Bol wielded his hands as weapons, his strength and savagery and indomitable will rendering nature’s fiercest predator lifeless in his grasp.

When Manute Bol came to the United States from Sudan in 1983, the lion story arrived with him. When he became the NBA’s first African-born player, it served as the perfect anecdote to help Americans understand one of the strangest men they’d ever seen, a man who came from a country lodged only faintly in their consciousness. Bol was tall—seven feet seven inches, so tall he needed to duck his head beneath doorframes and barely had to strain to dunk the ball through the net. So tall he towered over the seven-footers who dominated the NBA. And Bol was skinny—185 pounds when he arrived stateside, so skinny his skeleton looked unprotected by flesh, covered only by skin and spindly muscle, each limb a twig with just enough support to keep the body functioning. Skinny enough that Woody Allen once joked, “Manute Bol is so skinny they save money on road trips; they just fax him from city to city.” Bol was also black, so black to American journalists’ eyes that they devised new ways to say “black”—“a moonless midnight,” “darker than dark,” phrases intended to signal that Bol’s skin color was that of a warrior, a tribesman, from a land unseen and a people unknown. Bol’s was the black of a man who killed a lion.

In the canon of Manute Bol mythology, the tale of the lion is but one volume. The others spring from storytellers scattered across two continents, each emphasizing a different aspect of Bol’s complex and multifarious life. “He had this swagger,” a former NBA player begins, “this incredible stature about him.” Others focus less on Bol’s personality and more on his actions. According to his daughter, “He would do anything for his people.” “I would never say a bad word about Manute,” remarks his agent, “but I’ve got to tell you, he abandoned his family.” His uncle introduces listeners to Bol by speaking about how strong he was as a baby. An American friend starts off by saying how weak he was in his final days. In Turalei, a young generation of boys grew up learning about Bol’s triumphs in a distant land. “He was rich,” a nephew remembers hearing as a child. “He was famous.” To many at home, however, success abroad mattered little. “Manute,” says a fellow countryman, “is Sudan.”

Bol lived a life befitting a man of such an outsized body. At any given moment, you could find him on a basketball court or a television screen, in a congressional meeting or a war zone, in a hut or a mansion. He sometimes gambled. He often boozed. No matter the backdrop, he always worked to ensure that those around him were happy. In time his bonds with teammates on the court, winning games and entertaining fans, would be replaced by one with a young man from his war-torn village, fighting to educate their people and free their homeland. But every moment, he was meticulously crafting the legend of Manute Bol.

Teammates laughed and waited for Bol’s response, but he neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. In the locker room, he wasn’t a cattle tender; he wasn’t an African; he was a basketball player. “Fuck you, Charles Barkley,” he said.

Bol, at the time a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, during a 1990 game (Photo by John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated)

1. Feet on the Ground

Even Bol’s birth remains shrouded in myth. It happened in 1962—at least that’s what Western records say, though the man himself was never sure—and for his mother, Okwok, it followed the delivery of two sets of stillborn twins. Before Bol was born, the family consulted a local mystic, who delivered a blessing and predicted the birth of a healthy boy. When the boy was born, they called him Manute, which means “special blessing” and is a common name for babies born in the shadow of lost siblings. On the day of his birth, Bol’s uncle likes to claim, the baby’s body was so long that when he breast-fed his feet touched the ground. His height wasn’t surprising. His father stood six foot eight, his mother six foot ten. His great-grandfather, Bol would later say, was seven foot ten. When British colonizers explored Sudan, some devised a name for the tall and dark Dinka tribespeople who populated the southern regions: “ghostly giants.”

While few villagers remember Bol’s childhood athleticism, his willpower and persistence remain the stuff of local lore. Many Dinka boys in Turalei, which lies in Sudan’s predominantly Christian and animist south, endure tribal rituals in which their bodies are disfigured to signify their transition to manhood. Around age 8, their lower teeth are removed. Later, their foreheads are sliced open and lines are cut across their skulls to mark them as Dinka men. But when Bol’s turn came to endure each of the rituals, he fled, walking for days in search of a new home. First he went to Abyei, a region that straddles the border with Sudan’s predominantly Arab and Muslim north. The second time, he went to Babanusa, even deeper within northern Sudan, where he first experienced life as a racial minority. Both times he eventually gave up and returned home, realizing he could no longer avoid the ceremony. The mystic excised Bol’s teeth and then carved his forehead.

Bol’s countrymen, meanwhile, were embracing a rare era of peace. A civil war had raged in Sudan from 1955 to 1972, killing an estimated 500,000 to 1.3 million people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. In his later years, when Bol talked about his childhood, he spoke little of the diseases, militias, and famines that swept through the region, wiping out entire villages. Because he reached adolescence during peacetime, he’d had the luxury of avoiding the life of a soldier. Instead, Bol had other ambitions. As a child, he boasted that he would one day become executive chief, the richest and most powerful man in Turalei, perhaps all of Twic, the surrounding county. He was, in fact, a member of the local royal family, a grandson of the great chief Chol Bol. Manute’s father, however, had been Chol Bol’s second son, so unless Bol proved himself far worthier than any of his cousins, he would have to line up behind more direct heirs to the chiefdom. To Bol, however, these details mattered little. Someday, he told the village boys, he would rule them all.

Before he could be chief, though, he first had to tend cattle. Cows are held in higher regard than are most other creatures in Dinka culture, both as symbols of wealth and as sustenance for life. Along with the other teenage boys, Bol left the village to work in a cattle camp.

It was while honing his animal-husbandry skills that Bol hit his growth spurt. By his late teens, he towered over his tribesmen. One day a photojournalist from a newspaper in Khartoum, Sudan’s northern capital, visited Turalei and snapped a picture of Bol. The photo caught the eye of Bol’s cousin Nicola Bol, who had moved to the capital and had emerged as one of Sudan’s top basketball players. “I hadn’t seen him since he was a little kid,” says Nicola of his cousin. “I never realized how tall he was, but when I saw the picture I thought, Wow, he needs to start playing basketball.” Soon Bol was recruited to play for a police-sponsored team in Wau, a city in the same region as Turalei, near the border between southern Sudan and Darfur.

Bol moved to Wau and started attending practices, struggling to learn the game. One day he rose the short distance required to dunk for the first time, and as he returned to the earth the net caught on his front teeth, yanking them from his gums. A ceremony had made Bol an official Dinka man. Now he was officially a basketball player.

2. Changing the Game

At seven foot seven, Bol didn’t need long to hone his skills enough to be useful on the court, and he soon moved from the team in Wau to a bigger one in Khartoum. In Sudan’s capital, Bol got his second taste of life as a minority—as a tall and dark-skinned Christian in an Arab city where racial and religious tensions ran high. Yet Bol rarely turned the other cheek when people stopped their cars to gawk or called him abd—Arabic for “slave.” As his Arabic improved he tried to integrate, but when confronted Bol usually responded with fists, not words. “I did fight a lot in Khartoum,” Bol later told the Washington Post. “I was bad. I don’t take anything. Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy. That’s what I can say. We don’t give up.”

Basketball would become his escape from all the animosity that surrounded him in Khartoum. In June of 1982, when Bol was 20, Don Feeley, a coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, arrived in Khartoum to help coach the Sudanese national team. From the moment Feeley saw the slender giant, he was transfixed. Bol, he knew, could change a basketball game. With that height, perhaps, Bol could alter the course of a whole college program. Feeley pulled some strings and was able to secure promises of scholarships at Cleveland State University for Bol and his friend Deng Deng Nhial. There was only one problem: Bol had never attended a single day of school. Feeley called Jim Lynam, the coach of the then–San Diego Clippers, and urged him to select Bol in the 1983 NBA draft, sight unseen. Typically, a player who’d never performed in front of scouts would have no chance of being chosen by a professional team. But “seven foot seven” was all Lynam needed to hear. He chose Bol in the fifth round, only to have the pick voided because Bol hadn’t officially declared his intention to enter the draft.

Bol and Deng instead moved to Connecticut to enroll at Bridgeport University, an NCAA Division II school with lower admission standards than Cleveland State. Bol arrived on campus several weeks before classes started, and word of his presence soon spread. “I’d been hearing about this guy for a couple weeks,” says John O’Reilly, who played alongside Bol on the Purple Knights. “Then I finally got to campus and saw him, and I just couldn’t believe it. Just this massive body, so much bigger than anyone you’d ever seen.” Another teammate, John Mullin, was scrimmaging in the Bridgeport gym when he first spotted Bol. “He was sitting in the lobby, and when he stood up it was like his body was just unfolding,” Mullin says. “He walks through the door and he has to duck, and then he stands up straight and I couldn’t believe it. He’s just joking and laughing the whole time, completely comfortable in that environment.”

Bol spent a year at Bridgeport, his shot-blocking prowess turning the school into a Division II power. The victories piled up, and Bol became a sensation on small-college campuses around the northeast. Every game—home or away—was packed. Opposing players found their fans cheering against their own school, rooting instead for the giant who loped and laughed down the court, treating jump shots like mosquitoes. When Bridgeport walked out of the locker room, “you could hear the air come out of everybody’s lungs,” O’Reilly says.

Bol used his time at Bridgeport to acclimate to American life. Given access to medical care, he replaced his missing teeth. Given access to pizza and beer, he indulged most every night. He developed a reputation across campus for his dominant play, his effervescent personality, and, over time, his stubbornness. Before his first season began, Bol set his sights on the number 10 jersey, which O’Reilly had previously worn. He begged O’Reilly for it, telling him he’d do anything to get it, but his teammate stayed firm. On the day the players were introduced to the media, Bol threatened to leave the team: “I can’t stay here if I don’t wear number 10,” he told O’Reilly. Eventually, O’Reilly relented. (Years later, when Bol was playing for the Golden State Warriors, a rookie teammate, Tim Hardaway, approached him wanting to wear the number 10. Bol initially refused but then told Hardaway he’d let him have it—for $500,000, his entire first-year salary. Hardaway declined.)

After one year at Bridgeport, Bol decided he was ready for the pros. Some friends and advisers told him to stay in college, to polish his game and improve his draft stock. But Bol’s mind was made up. He needed money, both for himself and for his increasingly desperate family back in Sudan. And there was no money to be made as a college athlete. Because his skills were so raw and his Division II competition so weak, Bol’s advisers were unsure how high he’d be selected in the NBA draft. So his agent, Frank Catapano, arranged for Bol to play with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League, a fledgling minor league that would offer better competition and a chance to perform in front of NBA scouts.

Bol dominated. In only eight games, he proved he could compete with top talent, and the Washington Bullets selected him in the second round of the NBA draft, as the 31st overall pick and the tallest player in league history. (In the first round, two years later, they drafted the shortest: five-foot-three Wake Forest University guard Muggsy Bogues.) “A lot of people thought it was just a publicity stunt,” says Bob Ferry, then the general manager of the Bullets, of Bol’s selection. “But I was dead serious. I thought he could play.”

3. The Pro

Once he arrived in Washington, Bol played the game unlike anyone before or since, making the impossible look easy and the easy seem impossible. Most players could never hope to block a jump shot from more than a couple of feet away—reaching their hands into the sky to meet the ball at its apex—but Bol did it all the time. “No one could shoot over him,” says Hardaway. “We used to funnel guys toward Manute because we knew he would block their shot. You just couldn’t understand how long he was until you got up close.”

And yet Bol tended to be an embarrassment on offense. He struggled with the most routine plays, missing layups, bricking free throws, dropping the ball or allowing it to roll away between his legs. Several fingers on his right, shooting hand were disfigured, the result of a birth defect. “It looked like a claw,” Ferry says. “He couldn’t straighten his fingers, and that really hurt him.”

Still, his coaches were so enamored of his shot-blocking ability that he played regularly as a rookie during the 1985–86 season, setting an NBA single-season rookie record with 397 blocks—the second-highest total, for any player, in league history. He achieved that mark despite averaging barely two quarters per game, in an era when the rules prohibited guarding a zone of the court rather than an opponent, which tended to discourage large players from staying close to the basket. “If he played today,” Hardaway says, “he would be one of the most dominant players in the game.”

Off the court Bol was a sensation, landing endorsements typically reserved for far more established players. Over the course of his career, he signed contracts with Toyota, Nike, Kodak, and Church’s Chicken—Bol, the ads went, “blocks out his hunger with the Manute Bol Meal, featuring one leg and one thigh of Church’s Fried Chicken.” Sportswriters loved him because he always spoke his mind (“I don’t say no words to him,” Bol once told reporters, excusing himself after an on-court scuffle with Bulls center Jawann Oldham. “If I look for a fight, I go to Lebanon or maybe Libya and be a marine.”) Teammates loved him because his blocks covered for their mistakes. He even worked his way into his general manager’s family, eating Thanksgiving dinners at the Ferrys’ home.

Before long Bol had the means to bring his own family to America, inviting his cousin Nicola, who played for the Sudanese national basketball team, and Nicola’s wife, Achuei, to move into his home in Maryland. Bol also became engaged to a Dinka woman, Atong, and he moved her to the States to become his wife. Before meeting Atong, he’d had trouble with courtship. Back in Sudan, Bol had once “eloped”—a term Dinkas use to describe a union that occurs before a dowry is set—but the marriage dissolved when the families squabbled over the number of cows. “People thought that if you married Manute, your life would not be OK,” says Achuei, the cousin-in-law, who became one of Bol’s closest friends. “They thought that because of his height, he would not live long. So he had problems with women. He wanted to marry, but the women’s families always told them no.” Bol was thrilled to marry Atong, a woman unwilling to listen to those who claimed his body was destined for a breakdown. After meeting Atong through Achuei, Bol paid an 80-cow dowry for her hand.

Soon the Bol household was filled with babies, as Atong and Achuei had both become pregnant around the same time. Atong gave birth to a girl, Abuk, the first of her and Bol’s four children. Doctors told Achuei she would also have a girl. Bol, however, thought otherwise. He insisted that he would have a “nephew”—southern Sudanese often use familial labels interchangeably—and the nephew would be called Manute. On this, however, Bol would have to fight to get his way. First, there was the matter of biology. The ultrasound had made it clear: Nicola and Achuei’s baby would be a girl. Second, there was the matter of tradition. Manute was a name given only to children whose siblings had died. Dinkas would disapprove if the couple named their firstborn Manute.

Days before the baby’s due date, Manute delivered his most emphatic pitch. He’d found a way around their concerns, he said, an excuse to give their firstborn the name reserved for a family who’d experienced great loss. “It will be OK to name him after me,” he said, “because I’m going to die young.”

When the labor began, the doctors grew worried. Nothing major was wrong, but a cesarean section would be needed. From the hospital, Nicola called Manute. “Don’t do anything,” Bol said. “Wait for me to get there.” A professed Catholic, he arrived with water, which he’d use to perform a blessing. He sprinkled the water on Achuei, declaring that no C-section would be needed; little Manute was going to come out just fine. The labor progressed without complications. Achuei gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

Bol lifted the baby into the air, smiling while Achuei sat speechless and Nicola looked on, and then he kissed the boy on the forehead. Nicola looked at Achuei and settled it: “This baby is Manute.”

He’d found happiness in his family, but as Bol’s basketball career continued, his stature with the Bullets decreased. His problems on offense persisted, and he soon became branded as a role player, a guy who could come in for a few minutes and block a few shots but never be a consistent starter. Bol’s playing time dwindled in his second and third seasons, and in 1988 Washington traded him to the Warriors. That summer he found trouble off the court, too. In July he was arrested and charged with DUI in Maryland, and he resisted as police tried to restrain him with handcuffs. When the officers informed him that a court-appointed lawyer would be provided if he could not afford his own, Bol revealed himself to be a quick study when it came to American politics. “You keep your Ronald Reagan lawyer,” he told them, according to the Washington Post. “I’m going to keep my Jesse Jackson lawyer.” He was arrested again for DUI that August. This time he refused the sobriety test by telling the police that God gave him two legs to stand on and he shouldn’t have to stand on one. “Manute’s problem is he doesn’t yet understand the working of this society,” Ferry told the Boston Globe about the arrests. “He doesn’t understand our rules. Remember, he comes from a society where it’s an achievement just to live through another day. Things that are important to us aren’t a very big deal to him.”

4. Mr. Alibi

Bol arrived in Northern California in the fall of 1988 to begin training camp with Golden State. He settled into a modest home in Alameda, just outside of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. The Warriors’ coach, Don Nelson, had long coveted Bol’s services. Nelson believed he could unlock the potential that a man of such size must inherently possess. One day shortly after being traded, Bol entered the gym with his teammates for a round of two-a-day practices. Some players were still working their way into playing shape, but Bol approached Nelson with a special request. “Coach,” he said, “we have to end practice early today.” When Nelson asked why, Bol informed him that an urgent matter had arisen: He had to get home because the cable guy was coming. Nelson laughed, considered the matter, and addressed his team: “Guys, we’re not going to practice for long today. Nutie has to get cable at his house.”

“There’s no way anyone else in the league would ask something like that,” says Winston Garland, who played for the Warriors at the time. “And there’s no way a coach would let anyone else get away with it.” But Nelson loved Bol. He let him shoot three-pointers, giving Bol the green light if he was open during the Warriors’ secondary fast break. Every time Bol fired a shot from long range, he broke a cardinal rule taught to big men on basketball courts around the world: Tall guys should stay close to the basket. Instead, the tallest of them all fired away, his arms jerking back and flinging forward, the ball launched as if from a catapult. The Warriors often ended practice by running a drill that finished with Bol shooting threes. Sometimes they would run the same drill at the beginning of practice. If Bol made his three-pointer, practice ended right then—no further work necessary. In games, most of Bol’s threes missed, but a few splashed through the net, inevitably followed by riotous applause. “Just a raggedy-ass jump shot,” Rick Mahorn, who played for the Detroit Pistons at the time, describes it. “He’d make it, and you’d just have to look at him like, Ain’t that a bitch?”

Though Bol came to love his jump shot—“He started talking all kinds of shit when he made jumpers, like he was a real ballplayer or something,” Mahorn says—Bol still made his money blocking shots. He turned would-be dunkers away and yelled at them not to try scoring on him again, adopting every shot blocker’s favorite phrase: “Get that out of here!” Occasionally, however, opponents got the best of Bol. They would rise to dunk and he would rise with them, and by some act of skill, athleticism, or sheer luck, the opponent would finish with a dunk over or around Bol’s outstretched arms. “He hated to get embarrassed,” says Garland, “so he was always coming up with excuses.” Maybe another defender had missed his assignment, or maybe someone had blocked Bol’s path to the rim, but always there was something or someone Bol could blame. Soon teammates took to calling him Mr. Alibi: the man with an explanation for everything.

One day in November ’88, the Warriors were playing the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan caught the ball on the perimeter, then drove around his defender and skied for the rim. Bol and seven-foot-four teammate Ralph Sampson rose with him, the fiercest shot-blocking pair in the league taking on the best player in the history of the game. But Jordan kept climbing and then flushed the ball through the basket, sending Bol in a daze toward the bench, where teammates were laughing, eager to hear his excuse. “What happened?” they asked. In response, Bol uttered two words that Warriors players had never heard paired, joined together in a phrase that soon would become ubiquitous on blacktops across America. Eventually, legend would hold that Bol created this saying, though some linguists dispute that claim. Either way, when Bol delivered it in his rumbling, Dinka-inflected baritone, the Warriors players erupted as if they’d just heard the best joke of their lives.

“My bad,” he said. “My bad.”

For the rest of the season, Warriors players said it whenever they made a mistake, always low and guttural in their best impression of Bol. When players were traded the phrase spread, and before long everyone across the league was saying “My bad.”

Bol kept blocking shots and firing threes, and as fall turned to winter a pattern emerged at Warriors home games. Bol caught the ball outside the arc; the crowd screamed, “Shoot!” so he fired away; they gasped as it sailed through the air and then groaned if it missed or erupted if it swished, then went back to waiting for Bol to shoot again. He was still not a great player, nor even a particularly good one. But the crowd noise told you what the stat sheet could not: In the late 1980s, Bol was a star.

Because he was a star, Bol’s phone rang often, bringing praise or requests, introducing him to people eager to be helped by his fame. And because he was a star, Bol was often unfit to answer the phone in the mornings—another night out, another few rounds of Heineken or Beck’s. Bol hated mornings. If a fan approached him at night or even in the afternoon, he would offer a smile, even grinning through jokes about his height if he was in the right mood. His natural friendliness was a source of pride, and he’d worked hard to become a cult figure and fan favorite, shaking hands and signing autographs. Mornings, however, were different. “At that time we flew commercial, so we always had to get up the morning after a game and go to the airport,” says Hersey Hawkins, a former teammate. “People would always come up and want to talk to him, saying things like ‘How does it feel to be so tall?’ and he’d just say, ‘Go away’ and grumble something like ‘Stupid Americans.’ We always laughed when people walked up to him, because we knew what was coming.”

But early one morning late in 1988, Bol’s phone rang persistently enough that he was forced to get up and answer it. He was grumpy, but he listened to the voice on the other end. The man on the phone spoke Dinka. Bol spoke his native tongue at home and with the other southern Sudanese who were scattered around the States, but most of them knew not to call so early. In those days, calls from Sudan were rare. The charges were too expensive, the chances to use a phone too scarce.

Bol hung up, furious. Several weeks later, the man—a representative of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the southern Sudanese rebels—visited the Bay Area while traveling through the U.S. to gain support for his cause. When the caller arrived, Nicola warned the man not to mention the phone conversation. When they met in person, Bol started coming around. He liked this guy—liked his passion, his ideas. It took a little convincing, but eventually the SPLM rep prevailed. It was time, Bol decided, to join the fight.

Once opponents, Bol and hall-of-famer Charles Barkley later became teammates and friends in Philadelphia. “If everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it’s a world I’d want to live in,” Barkley once said (Photo by Damian Strohmeyer / Sports Illustrated)

5. A Cursed Land

“When Allah created Sudan, he laughed,” an old Arab proverb goes. Some interpret the saying to mean God was delighted with his creation, while others think it indicates that the Almighty is a sadist. Nineteenth-century British journalist G. W. Steevens seemed to adopt the latter view when he wrote, “The Sudan is a God-accursed wilderness, an empty limbo of torment for ever and ever.”

The country now known as Sudan has roughly three major regions: the Arab and Muslim north, the black and Muslim west (known as Darfur), and the black and Christian and animist south. (Bol’s village, Turalei, lies near the intersection of all three, technically in southern Sudan but not far from Darfur or Arab country.) From antiquity to the 20th century, southern Sudan was regularly pillaged by its northern neighbors, providing Egypt and northern Sudan with ivory, ebony, gold, and slaves. The British arrived in the late 1800s and ruled the territory from 1899 to 1956, first jointly with Egypt and later on their own. The name Sudan derives from the Arabic bilad al-sudan, which means “land of the blacks,” but when the British relinquished control they grouped the blacks of the south and west with the Arabs of the north, granting statehood to a fractious, mismatched, and artificially created region.

On the first day it came into existence as a sovereign nation, Sudan was already locked in the grips of civil war. After a mutiny of southern army officers, pro-government militias composed largely of northerners and Darfuris ravaged the south. The war lasted from 1955 until the two sides signed a treaty in 1972. Peace lasted little more than a decade, and the year Bol left Sudan for America the fighting began anew, with the sparsely armed villages across the south proving to be powerless against the Kalashnikov- and machete-wielding militias from the north. Not long after Bol had arrived in America, he heard that his father had died. He returned to Sudan to grieve with his family, but access to the country’s Dinka-dominated region was barred. Over the course of the war, Bol would later say, he’d lose 250 family members, some dying at the hands of the militants, others sold into slavery or killed by war-induced famine.

Throughout his time in the NBA, Bol had given money to any family member who asked for it. It didn’t matter who it was—always Bol gave. “There is a problem in the Dinka culture,” Nicola says. “Every family member is to be treated the same as your closest brother. Manute never figured out how to have a balance between the American way and the Dinka way.” Despite making contributions to family members in need, Bol hesitated to involve himself in politics, fearful that the government in Khartoum would harm his family or restrict his visits. So for most of the 1980s, the most famous Dinka man in the world stood on the sidelines while his people were slaughtered.

Soon after Bol received that early morning phone call in 1988, he changed his mind. After meeting with the SPLM representative, Bol helped promote a fundraising effort called Operation Lifeline Sudan, which provided aid to refugees across the south. That was all it took for his fears to be confirmed. On his next visit to Khartoum he was arrested, and authorities accused him of funding the rebellion. Bol was released after several hours, but the incident seemed to fuel his eagerness to contribute. Months later, back in Washington, he met with John Garang, the leader of the SPLM rebels.

An electrifying speaker and indomitable warrior, Garang had galvanized the southerners and unified the rebel army. When he spoke in front of crowds, Garang preached Marxism. In his private and professional relationships, he operated as an opportunistic utilitarian. “Garang was an expert in survival—someone who knew how to bend with the wind yet maintain his political objectives, someone who knew how to seem all things to all men,” filmmaker and Sudan expert Peter Moszynski once told the BBC.

Bol was smitten with Garang, who described for him the desolation in their homeland. The SPLM had struggled in its attempts to gain support from the United States, partly due to its leaders’ communist sympathies. While some East African countries lent support to the SPLM, the movement had trouble raising sufficient funds. They needed the richest Dinka to come to his people’s aid, Garang told Bol.

During the next several years, Bol would contribute $3.5 million to Garang’s SPLM. From time to time, Garang would come to Washington and hold clandestine meetings in Bol’s home. They would station guards outside, keeping an eye out for terrorists or spies as they retreated to the basement, where a group of wealthy Sudanese—both Arab and black—discussed politics and war. Bol briefed Garang on popular opinion among Americans, letting him know what to expect in meetings with U.S. officials. “In Washington, Manute was John Garang’s guy,” Bol’s cousin Ed Bona says. “Garang needed Manute.” Bol made secret trips to the war zone, hiding in the bush with Garang and his men, involving himself in the strategy and politics of war.

In addition to his visits to the bush, Bol traveled to refugee camps in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, and in rebel-controlled regions of Sudan. He paid for extra food to be given to refugees, who mostly subsisted on one meal a day of grain and beans provided by aid organizations. As he walked around the camps, Bol saw familiar faces. People he’d grown up with in Turalei were now scattered around—many of the men fighting in the war, many of the women trying to survive in the camps. Turalei itself no longer existed. It had been destroyed, they told him, like many villages across southern Sudan. The stretch of land they once called home was no longer a place suitable for life.

On an early ’90s trip to the rebel-controlled town of Pochala, Bol stopped as he often did among the masses to shake hands. By this point he’d become a legend among the refugees, both for his international success and for his efforts to help Sudan. Children approached, wide-eyed, gawking at the man they’d been taught to revere. Bol reached down and touched a boy, one who’d known Bol’s name for years, who’d heard all about the tall and funny man who had left the boy’s now-empty hometown of Turalei for America. The boy had a shrunken frame and sunken eyes, his teeth grown in different directions, running away from each other as if every incisor and canine had a mind of its own. His name was Victor, he was about 12 years old, and he was often hungry and scared. The boy stood and stared upward. Years later he would still remember the tears in Bol’s eyes, despondent over the boy whose tragic situation he could do little to change. Victor couldn’t possibly imagine that someday the two would meet again, and that it would be he who would change Bol’s life.

6. On the Run

The moment the militia arrived, 8-year-old Victor Anyar was standing in a pasture, caring for his family’s cows. It was sometime in the late 1980s—the years and the attacks all run together—nearly a decade before he would meet Manute Bol in the Pochala camp. In Turalei they had known for days that the murahaleen—the militia men from the north—were coming. The soldiers arrived near dusk, on horseback. 

Victor recalls his father assembling his family into a group, telling them to stay put, stay organized, wait for the killers to pass. He remembers that his father stood still for several moments, until there was an explosion and his father was falling, shot by the soldiers, crumbling to the ground, dead. Victor ran. Away from the village, away from the bullets, away from the father who was dead, from the mother and the siblings who were screaming, whom he would probably never see again. The murahaleen would kill many boys. They would make slaves of several girls. But they wouldn’t catch Victor because Victor was fast, faster than he’d ever been, sprinting away from the horror and deep into the wild, going far from the roads until he could hear gunshots and screams no longer, until the only sounds were the sounds of wilderness, the buzzing and howling and screeching soundtrack of a Sudanese night.

The next evening, lions came. There were three of them, he remembers, a mother, a father, and a cub. The cub approached Victor and began scratching and sniffing his skin. Victor shouted, “Go away!” desperate to drive it on but scared to draw its mother’s ire. Finally he kicked and shouted, and when the lion’s attention lapsed he was gone, running again. He ran until he felt he wasn’t running at all, until his legs seemed to have stopped moving and his arms seemed to have stopped pumping and he was floating, pushed or carried or willed by a force outside his body, until finally he stumbled on other humans, Dinka refugees with whom, at least for the moment, he was safe.

They walked, setting off across southern Sudan a region roughly the size of Texas—toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia, which borders the eastern side of the country. The group included about 20 boys and one adult leader, following marks that had been left in the trees to point the way. Sometimes they encountered soldiers from the SPLA, the SPLM’s military wing, who brought food. “We ate then,” says Victor. “That helped us not to die.”

After three months of walking, they arrived in Ethiopia, beginning their lives as refugees in the Pinyudo camp. There was no school. Victor lived there three years, until one day violence found him again. Ethiopia had long been embroiled in its own civil war, and the fighting spread and threatened the refugees, whose camp shared land with the Anuak people, a minority tribe that had been oppressed by the government and resented the foreigners. One day the Anuak attacked the camp, and suddenly the refugees were running again, tens of thousands of them at once, desperate to break away. As Victor ran, bodies dropped all around him, most with bullets in their backs. The attack on Victor’s village had been chaotic, with everyone fleeing in separate directions, each person looking for different ways to escape. This time it felt more ordered, systematic. Nearly everyone went the same direction: back to Sudan. Soon they reached the border, marked by the crocodile-infested Gilo River.

As the running hordes descended on the river, the crocodiles basked in the sun. The refugees had a choice: Stay behind and wait to be shot, or jump in and risk being eaten. Victor faced a particular problem—he had never learned to swim. He looked on as boys rushed into the water, some bodies going limp in the crocodiles’ jaws. He watched as others asked, “Who knows how to swim?” When a boy mentioned that he could, several who could not jumped on top of him as he entered the water, begging to be carried. But their weight only forced the swimmer underwater, dooming all of them.

Along with several other boys, Victor ran to a less crowded part of the river. A man swam to the other side and tied a rope to a tree, spanning the river with it. Victor grabbed the rope and moved his hands one after the other, inching his way across.

Bol reaches out to block a shot by Dan Majerle of the Phoenix Suns (Photo by John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated)

7. Big Spender

By the early 1990s, Bol had cashed in. After the 1989–90 season, the Golden State Warriors traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers, and there Bol became a millionaire: His annual salary topped $1.25 million in each of his three years with the team. Much of his newfound wealth went to funding the southern Sudanese rebellion, but Bol allowed himself a few indulgences.

Mostly, he bought drinks—for himself, for his teammates, for friends new and old, for whomever happened to be within his orbit at the bar. “He loved to go to clubs,” says Nicola. “He loved the attention, loved making sure everyone had a good time.” Even when out with teammates far richer than him, Bol insisted on paying the bill. “Sometimes we had to tell him, ‘Manute, we’ve got money, too. It’s OK for us to pay,’” says Hersey Hawkins, a teammate with the 76ers.

On the court, Bol continued blocking shots, launching threes, missing layups. Even if he never became one of the league’s best players, he remained among its most popular. “When you get to the NBA, sometimes you stop looking at basketball as a game and you start looking at it as a business,” says Hawkins. “Playing with Manute, he had a way of taking you back to the times when you just loved to play. Manute made you feel like you would play the game for free.”

“He didn’t have a single adversarial relationship in the league,” says Winston Garland, who’d played with Bol on the Warriors. “When the horn sounded, everybody loved Manute. Before the game, after the game, everybody wanted to be around him.” Everyone except, occasionally, frightened children. While playing for Philadelphia, Bol saw Hawkins’ family in the tunnel after a game, and he reached out his arms to greet the kids. The children cried as he tried to embrace them, afraid of the giant, alien creature they’d encountered. Bol laughed, then grumbled, “Baby Hawks are soft—just like their daddy.”

In Philadelphia, Bol took advantage of his proximity to Atlantic City, escaping for gambling getaways whenever his schedule allowed. Atong once won $465,000 playing the slots at the Trump Taj Mahal. Mostly, though, Bol lost. “Even when he would win,” says Bol’s friend Abdel Gabar Adam, “he would just go ahead and spend the money right there.” Says his agent, Frank Catapano: “He loved to gamble, and he didn’t want to listen to anyone who told him what to do with his money. He did what he wanted.”

Bol, however, saw his vices as tools for good. He used happy hours and gambling trips as diplomatic forums. While living in Philadelphia, Bol made Darfuri and Arab friends, many of whom maintained political clout back in Sudan. Though some Dinkas disapproved, Bol “believed we could all live in peace if we just got to know one another,” says Adam, a Darfuri.

Bol also grew into his role as an activist, emerging as the face southern Sudan showed America. “If I were in the Sudan right now, I would be starving with the rest of my people,” he once told an Oxfam banquet, a scene recounted in Leigh Montville’s 1993 book Manute: The Center of Two Worlds. “I eat good food here in America and I go to sleep at night and then when I wake up in the morning I see something on TV and feel really terrible. There’s nothing I can do. I have about 70 of my people right now homeless in the capital of Sudan. They have no place to go.”

Bol signed with the Miami Heat in October 1993, and he promptly skipped two preseason games to attend meetings about Sudan in Washington. The team fined him $25,000, but donated it to a Sudanese charity. He spoke before Congress, pleading for help and warning of a man who lived in Sudan and plotted death to Americans: Osama bin Laden. How he knew of the then-obscure Al Qaeda leader, at the time just a tiny blip on America’s radar, family members could only speculate. “Manute was like a politician, so he knew all of the secrets,” his cousin-in-law Achuei says. “He knew that Bin Laden was killing people in the south. The government wouldn’t say that Bin Laden was in Sudan, but Manute knew.”

As his activism grew, Bol’s basketball career sputtered. Miami released him in January of 1994. The Warriors awarded him another contract just before the 1994–95 season, but less than a month after the season started Bol crumbled to the ground during a game in Charlotte with torn cartilage in his knee. Eight days later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery.

While trying to rehab his knee, Bol attempted a new profession. He opened a restaurant and nightclub in Washington called Manute Bol’s Spotlight, serving cocktails like Manute’s Slam Dunk and Bol’s Blocked Shot. The restaurant was a joint venture with Deng Deng Nhial, the friend who had moved with Bol to the United States more than a decade before, played for Bridgeport, and stayed in the country. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” says Bona, Bol’s cousin, about the restaurant. “Manute never knew how to manage his money.”

After rehab, Bol spent several months playing for the Florida Beach Dogs in the CBA, a minor league where castoffs and has-beens played for low-five-figure salaries and a chance to keep their NBA dreams alive. He rode buses, flew coach, and never complained when the owner trotted him out to sign autographs. Once, Bol broke curfew the night before a game, drinking until 6 a.m., but the team’s management couldn’t find it within themselves to punish him. He shot all the three-pointers he wanted. “Some players have a long leash,” says Eric Musselman, his coach at the time. “Manute had no leash. We let him do whatever he wanted.” He sat on barstools in Yakima, Washington, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, regaling teammates and onlookers with stories from worlds they’d never know: the village, the bush, the NBA.

Within months, Bol gave up on the CBA. The restaurant went under. He tried playing in Italy and Qatar, but neither country’s league offered an acceptable contract. After 10 seasons in the NBA, Bol had saved between $50,000 and $100,000, Bona estimates. With that in the bank, he drifted back to Khartoum.

8. Stuck

Bol returned to Khartoum for complex reasons, none of them good. His money was largely spent. He’d sold his house in California, and his Maryland home was on its way to being repossessed, so Bol moved in with family who’d been staying at a house he kept in the Sudanese capital.

After years of growing strife, his marriage to Atong had finally disintegrated for good, and she remained in the States with their four kids. Bol’s stepmother had died in a car accident, so he assumed care for his half-sister, who lived in Khartoum. And then there was politics—of both reconciliation and revenge.

As Bol’s NBA career had faded, the Sudanese civil war seemed to do the same. A rift had emerged among rebels of the SPLM, and a coalition of southern leaders split from Garang and negotiated the Khartoum Peace Agreement. The treaty, which excluded Garang and the SPLM, led to increased cooperation between the southern rebels and the National Islamic Front, the northern Islamist movement led by President Omar al-Bashir in the capital. Peace, at least nominally, seemed on its way to Sudan, and Garang, long the south’s unquestioned leader, had been excluded.

So, too, it seemed, had Bol. While he’d once been hailed as a hero, a key player in the future of the new Sudan, he was now ignored. He had no more money to offer, so the attention he’d received waned. “John Garang was a great warrior, a brilliant man, but he used people,” Bona says. “When Manute couldn’t give the SPLM all that money anymore, Garang had no use for him.” The northern government in Khartoum, however, thought they could use him just fine. So Bol went to the capital, where he was given a cabinet post as the country’s minister of youth and sport, treated as royalty by the Arabs who’d once called him slave. “It shocked all of us,” Acuil Malith Banggol, a former SPLA fighter, later told the Independent of London. “He is not a seasoned politician, so he must have fallen prey to nice words and promises. Unfortunately, he did not talk to us about it.” Bol believed the treaty represented a major step forward for Sudan, he later told friends, and he jumped at the opportunity to join a unified government.

One event in the summer of 1998, however, changed all that. On the night of August 20, Manute sat on his rooftop in Khartoum watching bombs drop from the sky. The U.S., he’d soon find out, was attacking Khartoum, lobbing cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant American officials believed was involved in producing chemical weapons for Bin Laden. The Clinton administration had finally decided to act against the man Bol, among others, had long warned about. They missed Bin Laden in an attack launched the same day against a training camp in Afghanistan, and later reports would challenge whether the Khartoum factory was up to anything nefarious at all. But for Bol it wouldn’t matter: That night, he would later say, was when the Sudanese government started to suspect he was a spy.

The peace treaty, it turned out, was a farce. Down in the south the killing continued. And with Bol under suspicion and sharia, Islamic law, ruling Khartoum, the government gave Bol a choice: Convert to Islam, or lose the job. Like many from Turalei, Bol had long been a Christian, mixing Catholicism with tribal practices and beliefs. He grew up learning to hate and fear Muslims. Over the years, he’d befriended many of them. Now he’d been willing to work with them. He was not, however, willing to become one of them.

Bol refused the job. There would be no paycheck, no free car, as he’d also been promised. As his savings eroded, Bol sold the house in Khartoum. Still suspecting he was a spy, government officials told Bol he’d be watched and that they would never let him leave the city. His marriage with Atong over, he remarried—twice. In 1998 he married Ajok, a woman from another region of southern Sudan. Later that year he married Ayak, from Turalei. Bol moved into a rental home on the outskirts of the city, paying $200 a month and sharing the space with 14 relatives. He borrowed money from Catapano, his agent, though Catapano now says he never expected to be repaid. Just a few years before, Bol had been a millionaire, fielding calls for help from his countrymen. Now he was the voice on the other end of the line. Rheumatism took hold of his joints. Lacking money for treatment, he lay still, enduring the pain.

Back in the States, Ed Bona awoke one morning to a desperate-sounding mass email, originated among Bol’s friends and forwarded to all those who loved him. It said he was sick—that if he didn’t get help, he would die. Bona called Bol. He wasn’t dying, Bol said; he was stuck, and he needed help to escape from Khartoum. Bona and several friends in Connecticut began a media campaign to draw attention to Bol’s plight. NBC went to Khartoum for a story. A reporter, Declan Walsh, wrote pieces for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Independent. Bona tried to arrange a plane ticket but couldn’t find a travel agency that would allow him to purchase one in America for Bol to pick up in Khartoum. So Bona called a cousin in London, who found an agency that would cooperate and give him a ticket to Egypt. Bol bribed local officials to give him a passport and validate his travel plans. He showed up at the airport just before departure so as not to give the government time to realize he was on his way out of the country.

Someone, however, apparently did realize what was happening, and Bol was removed from his flight soon after boarding it. He didn’t have a ticket, officials said, though their computers confirmed that he did. Bol told the officials that if they didn’t let him on the plane, he would march directly to the Khartoum bureau of the BBC and tell his story. Eventually, the officials relented. Bol, they decided, caused more trouble than he was worth. He got a seat on a later plane, and on July 12, 2001, more than three years after he returned to Sudan, he left.

In Cairo, Bol worked with the American embassy to get visas for himself and his family to travel to the U.S. He succeeded in obtaining his papers and his wife Ajok’s (Ayak would stay in Sudan), but problems arose when Bol tried to obtain a visa for his half-sister Achuil. Though he’d been caring for her since her mother died, Bol lacked documentation to prove he was Achuil’s guardian. In order to reenter the country without it, he had to apply for refugee status.

Bol waited for months to meet with American officials about the request. Sitting idle in Cairo on September 11, 2001, he watched the news and saw the twin towers in flames. When he heard Bin Laden had been responsible—the same Bin Laden he’d spoken to members of Congress about years before—he was crestfallen. Thereafter he would maintain, to anyone who would listen, that it all could have been prevented if the U.S. government had heeded his warnings when he’d first given them.

A few months later, his immigration request was granted. Three years after he’d arrived in Sudan as a dignitary, he returned to America, a refugee.

9. Whatever It Takes

On the day he became a laughingstock, Bol wore red trunks, black gloves, and the hardened stare of a man who cared too little or too much. He’d returned to the States on March 7, 2002, and now, less than three months after his return, Bol had landed another gig competing on national television. This time it was boxing. Once again his size helped him get the job, but now skill mattered little. It wasn’t a sport. It was a freak show.

As the American public would soon come to suspect, Bol was a little desperate. He was living in a spare apartment in West Hartford, Connecticut, paid for by Catholic Charities. Shortly after arriving back in the U.S., he’d met with Bona and several friends to discuss his future. He’d have opportunities, the thinking went, to make money off his name, finding speaking engagements and autograph sessions and taking small-time endorsements to pay bills. With enough money, Bol could not only support his family but also help Bona with the Ring True Foundation, which he’d formed to help Sudanese refugees. They brainstormed ways to get Bol in front of a national audience, letting marketers know he was back.

In March, Fox had aired a special called Celebrity Boxing, putting D-listers and has-beens in a ring to exchange blows. Time magazine called it “the already-legendary newest low point in reality TV.” Naturally, it was a hit. And when Bol was floated the idea of participating in a Celebrity Boxing 2, hejumped on board immediately. “From the beginning, he knew what he was getting into,” Bona says. “Everybody knew what the reaction was going to be. He didn’t care. He thought it would be fun, competing for the fans. He didn’t worry about all that.” Instead, he worried about finding an opponent. Bol suggested Dennis Rodman, the NBA’s hair-dyeing, cross-dressing, flamboyant and foul-mouthed bad boy, who had competed as a pro wrestler after retiring from the league. One of Bol’s friends called Fox, and the network jumped at the chance to have him fight. Fox paid most contestants $25,000, but according to IRS forms the network paid the Ring True Foundation $26,510, and Bona says Bol received an additional $25,000. With Bol aboard, Fox called to ask Rodman to compete. He declined. The network offered an alternative: William “Refrigerator” Perry. Known simply as the Fridge, Perry had been an NFL defensive end, an overweight bowling ball of a man who became a sensation when the Chicago Bears began inserting him at running back. Like Bol, he’d been an oddity as an athlete, talented but unconventional and known for his personality as well as his play.

Upon returning to the U.S., Bol received treatment for his rheumatism, and now he began running, working out to shape up before the fight. He’d long been a boxing fan, going to fights between gambling sessions in Atlantic City. He also loved pro wrestling, with its savagery and theater and comedy all rolled into one. He didn’t just want to win; he wanted everyone who watched to say that Bol and Perry had been the headliners, the fighters who made it all worth the price of admission. Bol, it seemed, was the only person in America who didn’t see Celebrity Boxing as a joke.

The fight lasted three rounds, Bol dominating from the opening to the closing bell. Perry, who’d ballooned to about 375 pounds, threw the occasional punch but spent most of his time shrinking away from Bol’s spindly arms. Bol looked languid, but his reach was too long as he delivered crosses, jabs, and the occasional uppercut. Eventually Perry just cowered in his corner. In the end, Bol won unanimously, and as the fight announcer raised his arm into the air, Bol said he only wished he’d fought harder.

Several weeks later, Bol and Bona went to a Celtics-Nets playoff game in Boston. “We walk in the arena, and Manute almost causes a riot,” Bona says. “They were shouting, ‘You did it! You beat the Fridge!’” Bol laughed and waved and signed autographs, smiling as they chanted his name. Bona called a friend: “If there was ever any doubt over whether or not this was a good idea,” he said, “it’s over now.” Once again, Bol was a star.

From there, the offers picked up. He signed a contract with a minor-league hockey team, the Indianapolis Ice, but when Bol suited up his feet began swelling in the skates, and he changed out of his uniform before the first game ended. He signed a deal to become a jockey at Indiana’s Hoosier Park. He was fitted for silks and weighed in with the other participants, but he never actually sat on a horse. As the public heard more about his money-raising hijinks, he was either called a saint or pitied as a charity case. “I thought it was sad, him turning himself into a spectacle,” says Catapano. He called Bol, saying, “I want to help you out, but I don’t want to make a circus out of you.”

While replenishing his bank account, Bol reconnected with the southern Sudanese diaspora. Suddenly, they were everywhere—from Omaha to Syracuse, Atlanta to San Jose—newly established Americans, brought to the States as refugees. Mostly young and male, popularly called the Lost Boys of Sudan, they would soon be writing books and starring in documentaries. To the Lost Boys, Bol was a god, the man they’d pretended to be while fighting over a basketball in Pinyudo. He traveled around the country speaking to newly arrived groups of them, encouraging them to earn Americans’ respect. (Even if he’d become a professional sideshow, friends say, Bol still followed his own advice, putting maximal effort into mundane tasks and always showing up on time). In the ’80s, Bol had been one the few southern Sudanese living in America. Now, when meetings were held for all of the American residents from the Twic region, thousands of people showed up. Bol met nephews he never knew he had and treated them as if they’d been close for years, traveling across the country for birthdays and graduations. One, Mayom Majok, had lost his father in the war, and when he was ready to marry, Bol made the traditional arrangements.

But the income slowed when the trouble started. One day in 2003, Ajok stormed out of the house during a heated argument. Bol followed, still arguing, until soon they’d both arrived at a nearby police station. The couple were arrested for breach of peace. Then, in February of 2004, after another argument, Bol was charged with third-degree assault. Citing anonymous sources, the New York Daily News reported that Bol had slammed a door that hit his daughter Abuk’s head and then called the police himself. “Things here and things in Sudan are very different,” Abuk now says when asked about Manute’s violence, though she declined to discuss details. “Things that are acceptable in Sudan aren’t acceptable in the U.S.” Cultural differences aside, the incidents cast a pall over Bol’s image.

Bona chided Bol. “I was saying to him, ‘You can’t do this kind of stuff,’” Bona says. “I told him, ‘If you have an argument with your wife, get out of the house, go into West Hartford and have a drink.’”

After the arrests, companies and organizations were reluctant to hire Bol. The income he’d been earning slowed, and then it stopped.

10. Broken

Bol didn’t know the driver was drunk. Maybe he was naive; maybe he was distracted. His attorney insists that Bol himself wasn’t drunk, but on evenings such as this he rarely refused at least a glass or two. It was a summer night in 2004 at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Bol had just spent the evening gambling and attending a WNBA game. He was alone and unable to drive, arthritis crippling his knees, so he hailed a cab.

“The car is a problem in my family,” Bol once told a friend. “It kills people.” If the war was the greatest threat to the Bol family, perhaps the motor vehicle was the second-greatest. By his count, cars had killed 19 of his relatives. On this night, not only was the driver of the cab drunk, but he was also using a suspended license, speeding down the highway with Bol in the backseat. “Slow down,” Bol pleaded, “or let me out.” The cabbie screamed down Route 2 until he lost control, careened into a guardrail, spun across two lanes, and slammed into a ledge. Bol and the driver flew from their seats then out of the car. Bol lay unconscious. The cab driver went into cardiac arrest; within hours he was dead.

The paramedics’ bodyboards were too short to hold Bol, so they fastened two together, then airlifted him to a hospital, where he was put on life support. He had two broken vertebrae and a dislocated knee. To improve circulation, doctors temporarily fused his left wrist and hand to his abdomen. His face was mangled and his neck was punctured; the flesh from one leg seemed to have all been ripped away.

Bol survived, but he would never be the same. He would walk with a cane and struggle to stand. Once the greatest athlete his country had ever seen, Bol would be turned into just another elder at age 41. He spent months in the hospital, using his wit and perspective to charm reporters who came to hear about the horror he’d experienced. “All the meat in my left hand was gone,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think the road took it.”

But for the first time in his life, words of desperation had crept into Bol’s vocabulary. “I was wondering, What did I do wrong to God?” he told the Boston Globe. “I’ve gone to war zones before and never got shot. Why is this happening to me now?” His medical bills rose. He had no insurance.

Some of his college teammates organized an alumni game at Bridgeport to raise money for his bills, bringing together ex-players from the area. A friend made replicas of Bol’s number 10 Bridgeport jersey. Bol showed up, and again the crowd swarmed to see him, just like the old days. “Bol was talking his usual bag of junk to everybody,” says John O’Reilly, a teammate, but the energy and infectiousness that once had made him king of Bridgeport’s campus had waned. “You could tell he was in so much pain,” says John Mullin, a college teammate. “He was hunched over. He went from being a guy who was very outgoing and friendly, and it took a little off of him.”

Many of his friends helped, but Bol felt miffed over one person who never even called: John Garang. Even though their relationship had gone cold, Bol had expected well wishes from the leader of his homeland. Back in Sudan, peace talks were again under way, and this time Garang—rather than leaders of rebel splinter groups—was deeply involved. A series of negotiations and diplomatic baby steps led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, officially ending the war. Pockets of violence would continue to emerge throughout the south among rebel militias, but the violence that had ravaged Sudan for 22 years was over.

Finally, Bol could go home.

He arrived in his former village to a new Turalei, rebuilt by returning refugees, and there he found the boy. The boy he’d met in Pochala, Victor—the one with the gnarled and quarrelsome teeth who’d run from Turalei into the bush and away from the lions only to sit in squalor for more than a decade, who’d emerged from the camp’s sea of misery just to meet and touch Bol—was back. Only he was a man now, and he stood surrounded by children, all of them crowded underneath the shade of a tree. The tree, it seemed, was a school. The boy now had a title: headmaster.

11. Humble in Heart

After Bol’s visit to Pochala in the early ’90s, Victor Anyar had remained in refugee camps for another decade. His daily struggle for survival persisted, and his moments of comfort were rare. Pochala erupted in violence a year after Anyar arrived, so he moved to a camp in northwestern Kenya called Kakuma, Swahili for “nowhere.” In Kakuma they received rations about every two weeks. Usually, it was enough for one meal a day, but often the members of the local indigenous tribe, the Turkana, came to the camp asking for food. If you shared your rations, they treated you well. If you refused, they shot you. Anyar always shared.

At the camp there was a school, but Anyar says he learned little. He made friends, though they were bound mostly by shared misery. He maintained hope that he would someday leave, but the reports from Sudan seemed bleak; as bad as life in Kakuma was, it was paradise compared with Anyar’s home. “Life was strange,” he says.

But one day, the camp hummed with rumors of a new plan to take some of the boys from Kakuma and send them to America, the richest place in the world, a place where they would all live like chiefs—and the place where Manute Bol had made his fortune. Anyar couldn’t wait to get there. Soon the boys were leaving, heading off to parts unknown. They would send letters back to the camp, where Anyar and his friends learned more: You could only marry one wife in America, and in the winters the cold made Kakuma seem like a furnace. As group after group set off to their new home, Anyar kept waiting for his opportunity. Finally, in 2001, he was summoned for interviews. He told his story, explained that in Kakuma he had no family, that he needed the promise of America to build his life anew. There were forms to fill out, then more meetings to attend, and then finally he received word: He would be going to America. After more than a decade in refugee camps, he would have a bed, a full stomach, a home.

Until one day everything changed. There had been an attack, refugees and workers told Anyar, not in Kakuma or Sudan or even Ethiopia but in the one place where there were supposed to be no attacks, where everyone was rich and peace was a given. A plane had flown into a tall building, then another plane into another building. The buildings fell. The world stopped.

U.S. immigration policies tightened, and no more Lost Boys would be admitted—not for now, anyway. In Kakuma, Anyar sat in his hut, defeated. He would never get to see the country he’d dreamt of, never reunite with the friends who’d gone on to better lives. Former refugees were now college students, factory workers, security guards, and fast-food servers—making a life for themselves, enjoying a freedom they’d never known. One would run the 1,500-meter race for the United States in the Olympics. Anyar kept eating grain and beans. He kept pushing through each 15-day cycle, trying to make his rations last.

Anyar finally left Kakuma for Nairobi, hoping to find work there or continue to another refugee camp on the other side of the country. There he met a missionary named Bob Bentley who lived nearby with his wife and two kids, and worked at a local Church of Christ. When Bentley got to know Anyar, he was struck not by his harrowing story—when dealing with refugees, you hear a lot of harrowing stories—but by his potential to become a pastor. “In Matthew 11, Jesus says, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart,’” says Bentley. “That to me described Victor. He wasn’t an academic giant or anything, but he had the heart of a leader, the heart of a servant. And Jesus chose people who were a ragtag bunch.”

Bentley paid for Anyar to have his own apartment and for English classes at the local Christian school. Anyar became a part of the Bentley family and soon was thriving. His English improved faster than it ever had in Kakuma. He no longer had to worry about saving his rations. He was happy, at peace.

But with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, there was suddenly hope for his homeland, and Anyar decided that perhaps it was time to return. Though he’d seen his father shot, he thought maybe other family members were still alive, waiting for him. He asked Bentley to send him back to Turalei.

Anyar arrived and reunited with friends he hadn’t seen since the day the murahaleen came. He found his mother and brother living not far from Turalei, in another village in Twic. But now that he was home, Anyar had to figure out what to do with his new life. A childhood spent bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp leaves a man with few skills. Where once children had grown up learning to care for goats and cattle, now a whole generation arrived back at their homes unsure of how to do anything. No one in Anyar’s family spoke English, so he began teaching his nephews, the three sons of the brother with whom he’d just reconnected. Every day they sat under a tree and Anyar conducted lessons.

Word began to spread that there was a teacher under the tree. More children came, their parents deciding to give them opportunities most of them had never had. Anyar went to the market to advertise, making sure everyone knew that, in the rebuilt Turalei, education would be available to all. Eventually, Anyar brought in other teachers, who found more trees. Anyar approached the local government and received funding. For perhaps the first time ever, Turalei had an officially recognized school.

That’s when Bol showed up. Bol told Anyar he remembered him from the camps, and Anyar told Bol he needed money. Bol instantly decided to adopt Anyar’s cause. The man who never attended a day of school in his life until appearing in Bridgeport would fund the education of his village’s next generation.

While southern Sudanese in places like Turalei had been rebuilding their homes, the horseback-riding and machete-wielding militias had gone elsewhere, leaving their trail of corpses littered across fresh swaths of land. By 2003, hell had moved to Darfur.

The horrifying news reports caught the attention of Americans, including a pastor in the Kansas City suburbs, Tom Prichard, who in 2004 became the executive director of Sudan Sunrise, an organization dedicated to education and peace in Sudan. Like almost any American who took a serious interest in Sudan, it took little time for Prichard to meet Bol.

It started with $20,000. When Bol approached Prichard with a proposal in 2008, that was all he wanted. Just $20,000 to help Anyar build his school, to give Turalei’s children blackboards, backpacks, a roof over their heads. Prichard jumped on board. He and Bol began making trips to Turalei together, and Sudan Sunrise sent builders to oversee construction and educators to train the local teachers. They would work by day and talk and sip whiskey into the night. Bol’s friends and family from all over Twic would come to sit at his feet, where they would discuss politics and trade stories.

Bol never became executive chief, as he’d once predicted as a boy. But, Prichard says, “everyone treated him like a chief. The other chiefs would all gather around just to listen to him talk.” At night Bol slept like the other villagers, just as he had years ago, in a tukul hut, with cockroaches sometimes falling from the roof and into the beds. For decades politics and war had kept him away from his home. Now he was back, drinking and laughing and building a school, bathing in the sweat that clung to his body in the triple-digit heat, welcoming the critters that invaded his hut. Let the cockroaches fall. Let the wild dogs howl and the mosquitoes buzz. Bol was home, and he was happy.

Mornings, however, remained an issue. On one occasion, Anyar decided to surprise Bol by bringing the schoolchildren to sing a song at his home. Groggy, Bol emerged from his hut to find dozens of singing and smiling kids, there to thank and celebrate the man charged with funding their education. They learned the same lesson the SPLM representative had learned on the phone in 1988. You don’t wake Bol, no matter how important your cause. “Can’t you see I’m sleeping?” he said. “Get out of here.” He waved them away and retired to his hut, only to reemerge hours later eager to play with the kids. Though Bol’s short fuse was legendary, so was his ability to forget an argument. In his playing days, he sometimes indulged in an on-court scuffle, then would be cracking jokes two or three minutes later, leaving his opponent seething. “I never once saw him angry and felt like he actually meant it,” says Matthew Kohn, a documentary filmmaker who traveled to Sudan with Prichard and Bol several times.

Bol was focused on the school, coordinating logistics and serving as a bridge between the village and the volunteers. At some point, he began thinking beyond this one school, thinking beyond Turalei to all of Twic, even all of Sudan. One day he just started saying it: “I’m going to build 41 schools.” He wanted them all over the south and even a few in Darfur and the north. Though he represented a fractured nation, Bol preached reconciliation among religions, races, and tribes. “Manute wanted to do something for every marginalized person in Sudan,” says Abdel Gabar Adam. “That’s very unusual.” At the school in Turalei, Bol insisted, all children would be welcome.

After construction ended on the first building, a sign went up: “Manute Bol Turalei Primary School.” Bol hadn’t cared about giving the school his name—in fact, he even argued against it, albeit tepidly. Prichard wanted to call it that, both because of Bol’s commitment and because it wouldn’t hurt fundraising to attach a famous name to their efforts. Some of Bol’s friends, however, were concerned. “In Dinka culture, you don’t put up any monuments or name anything after someone who is still alive,” says Bob Justin, a close family friend from Turalei. “To name something after yourself while you’re still alive, it’s almost like a sign,” he says. “It’s like saying you’re going to die.”

12. Choice

During his time in the NBA, Bol almost always drank Heineken. Teammates laughed at that. “Heineken, Heineken, Heineken,” Rick Mahorn says. When traveling in Africa, Bol scoffed at the Kenyan and Ugandan beers, deeming them unacceptable to his taste buds. During his stint in the CBA, he’d grown more sophisticated, schooling the youngsters about fine liquor, particularly Grand Marnier.

When drinking with the man who would become the first president of the Republic of South Sudan, however, Bol changed it up. In Salva Kiir Mayardit’s home, they sipped a South African red wine. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January of 2005, the south had gained autonomy and was ruled largely by its own government. A plan was installed to take independence a step further: In 2011, the southerners would vote on a referendum to decide whether to secede from Sudan entirely.

In 2005, former SPLM leader John Garang had been installed as the first vice president of Sudan and, essentially, president of southern Sudan. When Garang died in a plane crash later that year, Kiir stepped into the role. Though Bol’s friendship with Garang had soured, he remained close to Kiir, and the two made a point to meet whenever Bol traveled through Juba, the de facto capital of southern Sudan. While Garang had seen Bol as a pawn, friends and relatives say, Kiir saw him as both an ally and a companion. They would sit in Kiir’s office sipping wine, talking politics and war until 2 or 3 a.m. Kiir belonged to the SPLM, which now competed with several other southern Sudanese political parties, and as the 2010 election approached Bol pledged unyielding support. He believed the SPLM should be given the chance to govern, particularly since they had been the ones who fought and negotiated for peace.

At the end of a trip to Sudan in the spring of 2010, Bol visited Kiir the night before Bol was to fly back to the U.S. The president was exhausted, unable to talk for long, but he made time to discuss politics with his friend. Election season was approaching, and the SPLM was campaigning to maintain control of southern Sudan. Kiir emphasized the importance of the upcoming elections. The southerners needed to elect politicians who would push for the independence referendum. Although popular sentiment leaned heavily toward secession, pockets of southerners believed it was best to remain unified in a new, peaceful Sudan. Bol and the president grew animated as they discussed the challenges that lay ahead for the SPLM. And on the larger points they agreed: It was essential that the party maintain control and push the referendum to passage.

Though he befriended people from across the political and ethnic spectrum, Bol was not one to keep a cool head while talking politics. He knew he was right, and if you were against him you were wrong, and he let you know it, often loudly, leaving some of his friends to swear off political discussions with him altogether. Likewise, if he agreed with you he became energized by your shared beliefs, turning talk into plans and plans into action before the conversation had even ended. So as he sat with the president on this night, scheduled to depart for the U.S. the next day, it took all of 20 minutes for Bol to decide to stay in Sudan and campaign for the SPLM. By helping the SPLM, Bol believed, he would be helping the southerners move toward independence.

In the ensuing months, when friends and family spoke of this meeting, they would say that the president had asked Bol to stay. But Bob Justin, a third person in the room that night, insists Bol made the decision on his own. Either way, the president was happy to have his country’s greatest icon campaigning for his side. He told Bol he would organize and pay for his transport, coordinating logistics for Bol on the campaign trail.

Bol skipped his return flight and hit the road, riding in a truck from village to village, his body jolting each time the truck hopped over craters in the dirt roads. His arthritis worsened as his political efforts intensified. Over the next few weeks, more U.S. flights were booked, and he skipped them all. “I overslept,” he told Prichard after missing a plane. “I stayed up late to watch a game.”

Soon, Bol’s body began to break down. He’d used a cane for years, but as he traveled around the country days passed when he couldn’t walk at all, when the largest man most people had ever seen had to be carried from place to place, a rag doll in the arms of his tribesmen. Still, people flocked to see the feeble and unmoving leftovers of a once powerful man—to hear him talk, to see him smile, to have the opportunity to tell others about that one time they met Manute Bol. Despite his limitations, Bol delivered his message. Handlers would carry him from the car and place him in a chair under a tree, where he would sit and wait for the villagers to arrive. Then he’d offer a charge, urging the onlookers to push their country forward, to vote for the party that had brought southern Sudan to this, her highest point in modern history. Reports circulated of other parties attempting bribery, offering villagers food and money for their votes. “Take their money,” Bol would later recall saying, “but don’t give them your votes.”

Word spread that his arthritis had worsened, so the president insisted Bol return from the campaign trail and seek medical help. The president flew Bol back to Juba and then on to Nairobi, where he could receive adequate care. Bol’s condition improved, and soon he insisted on returning to Sudan. He flew to Juba and then back to Turalei, resuming his political work. His favored candidates were far ahead in the polls. In April, 2010, the SPLM dominated the election, paving the way for the south’s eventual secession. Bol’s state, Warrap, elected the country’s first female governor, a woman Bol had championed. Southern Sudan was on its way to freedom, he believed.

But as the country continued to heal, Bol lay still, wallowing in agony. The pain had once laid deep in his joints; now it rose up to his skin. Rashes stretched across his body, the itching so bad it rendered him once more immobile. Bol returned to Juba, where he refused help from friends and lay in a hotel room, waiting for a flight back to the States to receive treatment in Kansas City. His plane arrived in Washington late, after the last flight had left for Kansas City. Bol checked into a nearby hotel, his body exhausted and drained by the travel and unrelenting pain.

In the morning, Prichard called Bol to wake him. Another morning, another unwelcome interruption of Bol’s sleep. Only this time was different. Bol didn’t yell—he lacked the energy for that. He didn’t bark. Instead he cried. “I can’t go to the airport,” he told Prichard. “I just can’t do it.” Prichard called the hotel manager, who called an ambulance to rush Bol to an emergency room.

Bol lay in the hospital, fielding phone calls and greeting visitors, insisting he was fine. His body told a different story. “He was so incredibly weak,” says Prichard. “He was really struggling.” Bol’s kidneys failed, and he was placed on dialysis. He bled internally, but doctors had trouble figuring out which organ was the source.

One day at the hospital, Prichard sat next to Bol, who rested on his bed, unaware that soon he would die. Talk turned to politics, with Bol gloating over his candidates’ success in the recent elections. They talked about the school, the upcoming referendum, the hope that had emerged after the killing finally stopped. Weak and frail and on the verge of death, Bol offered a feeble smile. “I did it,” he said. “I did it.”

13. At Rest

Wails and songs and prayers erupted early one June morning in Turalei, the village chaotic and disconsolate, shaken by the words they’d just heard. There was a time when it had taken months to deliver a message to their greatest hero, when a woman had to tell a man who had to tell another man who had to send a letter, carried by car then plane then car again, all the way to a suburban home in the United States. Now the news of his death traveled the same distance in an instant. In Washington the doctor told Bol’s cousin. That cousin called Nicola in Juba. Nicola called Bob Justin in Turalei. Justin told the chiefs. The chiefs told the village.

President Salva Kiir arranged to have Bol’s body returned home. Roughly 10,000 people descended on Turalei, arriving from America, from Europe, from all over Twic and the whole of Sudan, to say their good-byes. His uncle Bol Chol Bol examined the body. He poked it. Sure enough it was Bol.

Memorials were held in Washington, at the National Cathedral, and in Kansas City, where members of Bol’s disparate worlds all came to pay their respects. Basketball players told stories from the court. Diplomats told stories from meeting rooms.

Seven months later, in January 2011, the southern Sudanese flocked to the polls to vote on the referendum to secede from Sudan. In London the night before the vote, Achuei says, she had a dream. She was in Turalei, standing under Bol’s favorite tree, and there he was, sitting in his chair surrounded by loved ones, passing the day with laughter and conversation. She awoke the next morning, printed out a southern Sudanese flag, grabbed a picture of Bol, and went to a polling station set up for the Sudanese diaspora. “Manute,” she said as she put her card in the ballot box. “That’s for you. That’s not for me.” With Achuei as his surrogate, Bol had cast the same vote as 98.5 percent of the people who showed up at the polls. He voted yes. Yes to forming the Republic of South Sudan. Yes to the notion that his people should be free.

They would be free, yes, but for the most part they would still be poor, still be uneducated, still be vulnerable to disease and spasms of violence. On the Peoples Under Threat rankings compiled by Minority Rights International, Sudan ranks as the second most dangerous country in the world, just behind Somalia and just ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the spring of 2011, pockets of fighting erupted throughout the border regions as the northern forces fought to take control of disputed areas before the south was scheduled to declare independence, on July 9. In Abyei, the region Bol visited when he fled from home as a boy, 80,000 people were displaced. About 15,000 of them descended on Turalei. In late June, a renegade militia attacked Turalei on foot, and 11 people were killed. Of the dead, two were Manute’s cousins. Though the south stood on the brink of independence, many across the region were fearful of another war. Only this time, it would no longer be a civil war, just a war between two states. “I hope the international community can stop the war before it starts,” says Rudwan Dawod, a Darfuri activist and former friend of Bol’s. “It’s going to be a war between country and country.”

Looking for a place to stay, many refugees set up camp not far from Bol’s school. The school stands as the village’s crown jewel, the top public school in the region, a beacon of hope for the future of Turalei, of Twic, of the Republic of South Sudan. Here is what that beacon looks like: It stuffs more than 100 students into a cramped and broiling classroom and is staffed by teachers long on patience and determination but short on education and pay—most of whom never graduated high school, none of whom earn more than $3 a day. The headmaster, Anyar, forgets his spelling and pronunciation sometimes, and he knows he needs more education but lacks the means to acquire it. After returning to Turalei, he fathered two sons. In the past year, they both died. He smiles here and there, mostly when talking about his wife, Veronica. “A lot of days,” he says, “I feel sad.”

The school goes months without providing food, until Prichard flies over from America to persuade bureaucrats from the World Food Program to provide daily meals. It goes months without clean water, until a South African engineer flies in from Khartoum to fix the pump in the school’s well. When the rains arrive the campus floods, and the kids slosh their way to class each morning, slapping and dodging disease-ridden mosquitoes. As of July 2011, there were two buildings and plans for a kitchen and five more classrooms, but still many classes take place under a tree.

Bol wanted 41 of these schools. A year after his death, they’re still working on number one.

One morning in April, a few dozen khawajas—the term Dinkas most commonly use for foreigners—came to town. The children poured out of their huts and followed the crowd to the village square, where everyone had convened to gawk at the foreigners and remember Bol. It was a moment for celebration—of Bol’s life, of southern Sudan’s impending independence, of a basketball court that had just been built by USAID. A cavalcade of speakers proceeded to the podium, alternating between khawajas and Dinkas. They extolled the virtues of Bol and preached the importance of sports, saying athletics can keep kids off the street and give them healthier ways to spend their time—the same clichés spouted at youth centers in inner-city neighborhoods across America. A black man shouted Bol’s name in celebration. A white man listed all the ways America had helped southern Sudan. Afterward, the locals began dancing, and soon the khawajas joined them, beating drums and flailing about and moving with all the flair expected of middle-aged white people attempting tribal dance. Representatives from all of the realms in which Bol once operated—the realms of government and nonprofit aid, of sports and education, of Dinkas and khawajas—all of them were here, smiling and shaking hands. The inevitable benign friction that occurs when worlds collide was amplified by the absence of the man who linked them all.

The dancing subsided and the basketball began as the celebration moved from the square to the court and everyone gathered for the inaugural game. Players started dunking—in the land of the Dinkas, someone can always dunk—each slam battering one of the brand-new rims until it sagged from the backboard. And soon after the rim broke, the khawajas were gone, back on their plane, en route to Juba. The villagers scattered, then resumed their daily business, the children playing drums on the khawajas’ leftover Coke bottles, the adults returning to their shops or their homes, a few teenagers shooting around on the limp rim they’d just been given. If you walked toward the edge of the village, away from the market and past a long row of tukul huts, you could see a solitary mound of dirt, the earth piled on top of itself a thousand times over. You’d find scattered flowers and shimmering wreaths, a fence to deter the hyenas and wild dogs. At the head of the dirt pile you would find two twigs fastened together in the shape of a cross.

If you asked around, you’d hear of plans to place a tomb there. But in the moment after the visitors departed, you would find only dirt. Dirt and rocks and the ground, with hawks circling overhead, the sun waging war on all that lies below. There would be no headstone, no sign, nothing to tell whose body rests there. Nothing to say “Here lies Manute Bol.”

They always brought up the lion. Wherever Bol went, even late in his life, they wanted to hear about the time he killed the bloodthirsty predator. Old friends asked him to tell the story again. New friends begged to hear it for the first time. Bol hated it. After all these years in America, all the time he’d spent energizing arenas across the country, all the effort he’d put into securing a future for the people of southern Sudan, people still kept asking Bol about that one damned lion.

One day, late in his life, Bol sat with a group of friends, and this time it was Tom Prichard’s turn. Prichard had grown close to Bol, helping to fuel his passions, so it seemed reasonable enough that he should get to hear about the lion. Bol kept saying that he didn’t want to tell it, that he’d told it so many times he got tired of doing so, that it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t need to be discussed. Prichard kept pushing until Bol responded with a shrug and left Prichard unsure if he was serious or joking.

Prichard never asked again.

Manute Bol’s legacy: The next generation takes to a new basketball court in Turalei in May 2011 (Photo by Jordan Conn)