May 5, 2017

ELDEN | Ngoepe Leading the Way for African Baseball Players

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On April 27, Gift Ngoepe appeared in his first Major League Baseball game. He made history as the first ever South African-born player to make it to the major leagues. Scratch that, he is the first player ever from the entire continent of Africa to play in the majors. Ngoepe has taken an unusual path to make it to the major leagues. He spent a large part of his childhood (literally) living in a baseball clubhouse. His mother was a clubhouse attendant for the Randburg Mets, a local baseball team. She cooked and cleaned for the players, and in exchange, the team let her and Gift live in the clubhouse.

Ngoepe hung around the field and grew to love baseball. He was mischievous, but helped his mother and brothers to take care of the clubhouse. He played all levels of little league baseball before deciding to officially give up soccer and cricket — South Africa’s primary sports, which as a stellar athlete, he would have had a chance to make a living through — to focus on baseball, much to the dismay of his mother. Ngoepe loved baseball. He would wake up at 2 a.m. to watch baseball games live as they appeared on cable from the United States. He was eventually invited to train and showcase himself at MLB’s baseball academy in Tirrenia, Italy. In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates offered the then 18-year old infielder a minor league contract with a signing bonus of $15,000.

When Ngoepe signed, he left his old life in South Africa. His friends, his girlfriend, his brothers and most importantly, his mother. In a sense he still was at home, as he got to spend most of his time in the United States in a baseball clubhouse. Pat Hagerty, the Pirates minor league clubhouse and equipment manager, said that Ngoepe seemed more at home than any player he had ever seen. Ngoepe even would help maintain the clubhouse, and spent more time there than any other player. He was more humble and less entitled than anyone else who Hagerty had ever seen.

It was not easy for Ngoepe. In addition to losing the people he was close to, it was difficult at times for him to assimilate and get close with other players. There was a cultural divide, and a language barrier between some players. His spunk and style was not necessarily well received by coaches and teammates. Instead of training twice a week and playing in a game once a week, Ngoepe had to adjust to practicing every day and playing nearly every day. He had a skills gap too. Many players were coached from youth and Ngoepe had not received the intense training that American or Dominican players received from early in life.

Nobody would have expected the enthusiastic but raw Ngoepe to make it to the major leagues. His numbers in the minor leagues were consistently lackluster offensively, but his defense has always been excellent.

John Sickels, a well-renowned prospect evaluator and writer commented: “On the positive side, Ngoepe has long stood out for his defense, drawing raves for his range, hands, arm strength and instincts up the middle. He’s certainly an above-average gloveman at shortstop and has been excellent during looks at second base.”

After nine years in the minor leagues, Ngoepe was called up. He currently has five hits and six walks in 19 at-bats, which should keep him in the majors for at least a little bit longer. Every day he stays in the major leagues, he makes a prorated portion of the Major League minimum — $535,000 a season. In just nine days of being on a major league roster, Ngoepe has made just under $28,000, and seems to be headed for a lot more than that if he can stick on the roster. To put this in perspective, Ngoepe has already made more in nine days than he has likely made from playing a full minor league season.

Making it to the major leagues also brings inspiration for young Africans who aspire to escape poverty through baseball, much like it has in the Dominican Republic and other parts of Latin America. Ngoepe has invigorated South Africa with stories of baseball — something that has never happened there. Baseball gave one man a way out of poverty in South Africa, and hopefully could lead the way for many more.

  • Eliot Schumna

    really nice story Noah. These are the sports stories the Sun should cover. Doesn’t always have t be about the Big red. Eliot Schuman ILR 1975 (and current volunteer coach for the Cornell Mock Trial Team)