SARASOTA, Fla. -- William Percibel wasn't around on that warm day last December when I visited his home on a patch of baked farmland in the Dominican Republic. His mother showed me the dirt floor where he slept at night on a pile of clothes. A pig was sitting there. The house was a shack made of rusted pieces of metal.
I had watched William pitch that morning at a field for young Dominicans signed by the Orioles. He was 17 and tall and gaunt and just discovering that people ate more than a bowl of rice a day. But he had a killer changeup and an 85-mph fastball. I had watched him throw seven scoreless innings against a team of Astros prospects. Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles scout in the Dominican, took me by his house to demonstrate that something can, indeed, come from nothing.
As soon as William saw me the other morning at the Orioles minor-league camp, he walked up with his hand outstretched, his enormous right hand made strong from cutting sugar cane. "Si, si, senor," he said, smiling. Several of his teammates giggled. He has this jaunty, exaggerated manner that makes everyone laugh.
"He is the clown," says Gus Gil, an Orioles minor-league coach and native Venezuelan, who helps the Orioles' Latin players when they come to America. "Everyone thinks he is hilarious."
A buoyant kid from the bottom rung. A human miracle.
He has been in Florida three weeks, living in a hotel with a big bed and a color TV, a step up that "would be like the rest of us getting to live like Ronald Reagan," said Bernhardt. He has eaten three square meals a day for the first time, gained 4 pounds and played baseball all day.
"It's like Disney World to him," said Chris Lein, pitching coach for the Sarasota Orioles of the Gulf Coast League, a rookie league in TC which William probably will play this year. "He's having a blast."
He also is impressing the front office, although it is early. He threw two scoreless innings the other day. "William looks good," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said. "He's got some presence. He understands what the instructors say. I think he's smarter than people give him credit for because of where he came from."
Where he came from. You have to understand. There is nothing. Nothing except a big family and a lot of love. The other day he saw a cat near the field at Twin Lakes, turned to a teammate and asked if that was something you might cook and eat. He just didn't know. Now his teammates call him gato. Cat.
Every day holds such a discovery. "We turn on the VCR and he goes, 'Wow, how do they do that?' " Gil said. "Yesterday, he saw the pitching machine. A machine that throws baseballs. He couldn't believe that. And all the exercise equipment. He's just speechless at it. And I haven't even taken him into a supermarket yet. When he sees that, he's going to go crazy."
During spring training, he gets three meals a day at Twin Lakes. His growing appetite leaves him hungry at night, though. Sometimes, Bernhardt borrows the camp van and takes a group of the Dominicans out for an extra meal. Sometimes Ozzie Peraza, a veteran pitcher making a comeback, takes them to the mall. To pass time at the hotel, they get together and sing. William keeps them laughing.
But his life will change when camp ends and he stays behind for the extended spring program for rookies, which leads up to the Gulf Coast season. He will move into an apartment with three other rookie Dominicans. They will get paid -- $850 a month, the minor-league minimum -- but will also have to feed themselves and pay rent. The season runs through August.
"We will have a long talk in a few weeks," Gil said. "I will tell them about laws, girls, AIDS. Not to pick up food in the supermarket, that kind of thing. Some kids you worry about. William should be fine. He's smart. He watches the older kids, sees how they do things. Like the salad bar. He'd never seen one. Now he knows how. He's picking it all up fast."
I spoke to William with Gil interpreting. He said he didn't miss home, that he was having too much fun. I asked about money. He said he would send some home for food. "But if I'm going to make it here, I have to forget about my family," he said.
Indeed, for he can't make much difference right now. The money he sends won't buy food for long, and his salary will stop when he goes home in August. There will be no money until the 1993 season. "The family will be right back where they started," Bernhardt said.
So the pressure is on William Percibel. The pressure to pitch well, to move up, to make more money for his family. But he doesn't feel the pressure. Not now. Not when he has his own bed instead of a spot on a dirt floor. Not when he is just discovering the modern world. Not when the course of his desperate life has taken this fantastic turn.