Editor’s note: This summer, Star columnist Greg Hansen is counting down the top 10 of just about everything related to Tucson sports.
Today’s list: the top 10 major-league draft picks from Tucson and the UA.
Sam Khalifa hit .581 as Sahuaro High School’s shortstop in 1982, a player of such dimension that Arizona State coach Jim Brock said Khalifa could’ve started for every team in the Pac-10 that season.
When Khalifa signed a letter-of-intent to play for the Sun Devils, Brock upped the ante on his would-be shortstop.
“Sam will be in the major leagues in four years, whether he plays for us or goes directly to the minor leagues,’’ said Brock in May 1982. “He’s the best pro prospect I’ve ever seen in Arizona, and I go back a few years." By then, Brock had spent 11 years as ASU’s coach and six at Mesa College, where he won two NJCAA national titles.
On the day of the 1982 MLB draft, the New York Mets drafted pitcher Dwight Gooden with the fifth overall pick. The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Khalifa at No. 7.
It remains the highest draft slot for any player from a Tucson school and at the UA.
Brock was correct on his prediction that Khalifa would be in the majors within four years. The 5-foot-11-inch shortstop made his debut for the Pirates on June 25, 1985. He was 21.
But once Khalifa got to the big leagues, his career trajectory went flat. He hit .238 as the Pirates' starting shortstop in 1985, and then bounced between Triple-A and Pittsburgh for two years, never hitting higher than .185 in Pittsburgh.
By 1989 he left baseball altogether. He was 25.
Three years ago, the New York Times quoted ex-Pirates manager Jim Leyland saying: “I wasn’t really sure that Sam was into it as much as you needed to be to maybe max out your ability.’’
Khalifa returned to Tucson; for many of the last 25 years has been a taxi driver. His father, Rashad Khalifa was murdered at a Tucson Muslim mosque in 1990. In recent years, Khalifa was an assistant baseball coach at Sahuaro.
Here is the list of the Top 10 Tucson high school and UA players selected in the MLB draft. The one common thread: almost all ended their baseball careers before turning 30 because of injuries. (The MLB’s modern June draft began in 1965).