March 11, 2010

A graduate who touched them all

— GORHAM — Mustafa Jamal had news to share when he returned home to his parents and sisters last month. He had pitched a no-hitter that afternoon.

He saw their smiles and went to his bedroom. His mother and father followed. A no-hitter is good, is it not, his mother asked.

''My parents have learned baseball from me,'' said Jamal before Gorham High's spring sports awards ceremony Wednesday night. ''My mother understood. She was happy for me.''

Happy because an only son had persevered through several uprootings, coming to a world and culture they knew existed but didn't fully understand. On Sunday, Mustafa Jamal will graduate with his Gorham classmates. A door will close and, perhaps for the first time, he will open the next doors without worrying what he'll find.

Jamal was about 5 years old when his father, Asif, gathered the family and fled Kabul, Afghanistan. Taliban rule was the law in Afghanistan. Jamal's father was a shopkeeper, and a hard life was turning harsher quickly. There was no joy. They became refugees in Rawalpindi, a city of more than 3 million in the Pakistani province of Punjab.

''We had a small house. I remember fields where boys played. My father didn't want me to go out,'' Jamal said.

After four more years, Jamal found himself in Augusta, the new -- and different -- student in school. His English was poor. At first, it was almost impossible for him to explain the place he had left.

''A teacher said I should go out for Little League. I didn't have a glove. I didn't know the rules. I was the last one picked,'' he said.

In Rawalpindi, Jamal had learned to play cricket. The city was once the largest British military garrison in colonial India. Today, Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium can hold more than 40,000 fans. Cricket and baseball have similarities, but far more differences.

''I learned to catch with my right hand and throw with my right hand. Wearing a glove was very strange,'' said Jamal, who was known as Mustafa Hassanzada in Augusta. He threw side-arm, which is more common in cricket. Baseball coaches prefer overhand or three-quarter motions. But Jamal was fast on the basepaths, had wonderful eye-hand coordination and was a sponge when coaches talked to him.

When he was 12, he was chosen to play on the Augusta West Little League All-Star team, which advanced to the New England regional finals. Jamal pitched when he wasn't playing shortstop. His family's story of coming to America was told to an ESPN audience while he was on the mound one night.

Asif Jamal and Laila Hassanzada sat in the grandstand at the Little League complex in Bristol, Conn. Money had been raised by families in Augusta to pay their expenses. It was one of the very few times Mustafa's parents have seen him play.

As a freshman, Jamal won the starting job as Cony High's shortstop. He had been warned that freshmen rarely made varsity. ''I looked at the list anyway. When I saw my name, you could not believe how happy I was.''

His Little League teammates introduced him to football. He played running back and defensive back. ''We even had a special play for me: Moose Rocket. I would catch a pass and run.''

Like the wind. Frequently, he scored.

Later, he learned he would not be returning to Cony. His family was moving closer to the small Afghan community in Portland. Jamal was more than disappointed. He had found friendship and success in Augusta and it was ending too soon.

Families offered their homes to Jamal, said Tom Vallee, the Augusta West Little League All-Star coach. Jamal was intelligent and humble and caring, in addition to being a student and a good athlete. ''Family was too important to Mustafa,'' said Vallee. ''He had to go with them.''

At Gorham High, he tried to hit the ground running, to prove himself once again to strangers. ''It was like he had to jump right into the spotlight,'' said Rocky Myers, the baseball coach at the time. ''His ability to focus and his competitiveness were something else. He appreciated everything. Every game he pitched was his last game. He was going to take advantage of every opportunity.''

Myers continues to teach at Gorham but did not return as baseball coach this spring. ''I threw Moose an emotional curveball. He was upset. I explained my family needed me more and I had to do this. He understood.''

Gorham won four of 16 games this season and failed to make the playoffs. At some point, Jamal talked to his teammates. Play to win, he told them, but play to have fun.

His favorite player is Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, for the way he plays and his manner on and off the field. Jamal plans to attend Southern Maine Community College. Baseball and courses in business management are important.

Someday he may try cricket. Maybe return to Afghanistan and play for the national team. His older sister, Ferozan Hassanzada, says that cannot happen. Afghanistan is too dangerous and her brother is now an American citizen.

Ferozan understands why her family had to escape their homeland and what it cost. ''My father is so proud of Mustafa. He is happy because he knows everything we have been through.''

Wednesday night, Coach Chuck Nadeau singled out Jamal for baseball's most valuable player award, to applause and cries of ''Moose, Moose'' from classmates. ''When we put this guy on the mound,'' Nadeau told his audience, ''we believed we could win. When I talked to the (opposing) coach, the first question was: Is he pitching today?''

The boy who faced so much uncertainty in his own life became the young man who gave his teammates hope in theirs.

Welcome to America.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

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