Tuesday, May 09, 2017
First African to Play in the Major Leagues Is a ‘Pinnacle’ for Baseball
May 8, 2017
Pittsburgh Pirates' Gift Ngoepe, the first baseball player from the continent of Africa to play in the MLB, hit a single off Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jon Lester in his first at-bat.
CINCINNATI — Every promotion to the major leagues is a triumph. The rookie has ascended to the top of his profession, realized his dream, validated his toil and sacrifice. He deserves the support that awaits him.
For a new Pittsburgh Pirate, though, the feelings run deeper. Gift Ngoepe has arrived, and Major League Baseball has never seen anyone like him. As the industry struggles with declining participation by black Americans, here is Ngoepe, a middle infielder and the first big leaguer born in Africa.
“You know how when you see someone you have something in common with, the way you don’t need to speak, you just look at each other and kind of nod and tip your cap?” said Chris Archer, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s like the ultimate moment for that.”
“You see a black American on another team and you tip your cap; you know there’s only 7 or 8 percent of us here,” he added. “So now, when you see a black African — not a black American, but a black African — it’s the pinnacle of achievement in baseball for the people of that race, of that ethnicity, of that origin. It’s really an unspoken thing.”
Ngoepe, 27, was born in what is now Polokwane, South Africa, and he signed with the Pirates for $15,000 in September 2008. In his first four seasons, he did not rise above Class A. In his next four, he peaked at Class AAA.
But last month, when the Pirates needed a middle infielder, they finally called for Ngoepe, who singled off the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester in his first at-bat.
Ngoepe gave his cap to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but kept his bat, he said, because it still had hits left in it. He followed up with three more in Miami and two in Cincinnati. He was 7 for 24 (.292) through Sunday, while playing the smooth defense at shortstop and second base that has kept the Pirates intrigued for so long.
“I played with a lot of people, saw a lot of shortstops, and he ranks up there at the top with them,” said the Pirates coach Tom Prince, who spent 17 seasons in the majors. “His reads on balls, throwing it accurately across the diamond — he’s an unbelievable defender.”
As an amateur, Ngoepe — pronounced n-GO-pay — twice attended Major League Baseball’s academy in Italy, where he worked with Barry Larkin, the Hall of Fame shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. Larkin noticed Ngoepe’s athleticism, but also his remarkably advanced baseball instincts.
Ngoepe’s introduction to the game, however, was a twist on the typical American path. Many players in this country learn baseball from their fathers, but Ngoepe never knew his. Instead, he learned baseball because of his mother.
It would be wrong to say she taught him the game — “She had zero idea about baseball,” Ngoepe said — but without her, he might never have known baseball existed: She raised him at a ball field in a suburb of Johannesburg.
Ngoepe’s given name is Mpho Gift Ngoepe, the middle name a translation of the first, which is in Sotho, his native language. His mother, Maureen, was inspired by a conversation she had with a stranger in a church. She was 21, poor and pregnant with her second son, and the baby’s father had left her. The stranger told her that the boy would make her proud, and that his name should be Gift.
“Just thinking about my name and everything that has happened all my life, it was always bigger than me,” Ngoepe said last week, on the bench before a game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. “God had a purpose and God had a plan for me.”
As a baby, in the waning days of apartheid, Ngoepe lived in a hut in Limpopo, the northernmost province in South Africa. Needing a way to provide for her sons, Maureen left the children with her parents and found work cleaning houses.
She found shelter in Randburg, outside Johannesburg, at the modest home field of an amateur white baseball club called the Mets. The team practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays and played on Sundays. Maureen ran the clubhouse — cooking and cleaning for players, selling food to spectators — and lived in the small room next to the shower stalls.
Soon, young Gift joined her there, and in 1998 she had a third son, Victor, who is now a Pirates farmhand. The quarters were tight — kitchen on one side, dresser, television and bed on the other. But the home was so filled with joy that the players gave Maureen a nickname: Happy.
Music filled their world, Ngoepe said — South African and also the hits from the United States. A Whitney Houston song, “My Love Is Your Love,” was a favorite of his aunt’s and popular when he was 9 or 10. He made it a tribute to his mother.
“I’d put on that song on purpose so I could make my mom dance with me,” Ngoepe said. “She’d be like, ‘No, no, no!’ But I’d hold her tight and spin her. It was a fun time with all of us. We didn’t have a whole lot of things, but everything that we had, we just made it work.”
The world outside captivated him, too. The Mets taught Ngoepe their sport, and he took to it eagerly, preferring its speed to that of cricket. He reveled in the camaraderie of the team, and developed quick hands by mastering the craggy infields. By his teens he had become a baseball prodigy, and his sessions in Italy taught him the finer points of footwork.
“He was one of the earliest to arrive and one of the last to leave,” Larkin said. “There was certainly a desire to be as good as he possibly could be.”
In his second year at the academy, in 2008, Ngoepe had built on lessons learned the previous summer. Larkin told him that a Pirates scout, Tom Randolph, was interested in signing him. It was part of an ambitious effort by the Pirates, then a perennial loser, to seek out talent where others were not looking at all.
They signed two pitchers from India who did not advance far in the pros. They pursued but could not sign Max Kepler, now a promising Minnesota Twins outfielder from Germany. They also signed a pitcher, Dovydas Neverauskas, who became the first major leaguer from Lithuania during the same April series in which Ngoepe debuted.
“It was a long venture; it wasn’t something we thought we’d jump into and find a big leaguer right away,” said the general manager, Neal Huntington. “To Gift’s credit, he stayed with it.”
The deepest valley in Ngoepe’s journey came four years ago with the Altoona Curve on a road trip to Akron, Ohio. He had finally advanced to Class AA, the proving ground for elite prospects, but felt completely overmatched at the plate. Worse — much worse — was an urgent phone call from home: His mother was in the hospital with pneumonia, and it was serious.
Ngoepe had managed his homesickness before. (“Gift is a conformist,” Larkin said. “He adapts well.”) But this felt different. He took batting practice in a fog, swinging as hard as he could at every pitch. When a teammate asked what was wrong, Ngoepe came undone.
He fled the field for the clubhouse, falling to the bathroom floor in tears. Prince, then a coordinator of instruction, found him there and let him compose himself. Huntington happened to be in town, and clearly, Prince said, they needed to talk.
“I know I’m not doing too good right now, and if you want to release me, go ahead and do it,” Ngoepe said he told his bosses. “But I need to be home. I need to be with my mom. My mom’s not doing too good. I will pick family over what I want in my life.”
There was no need to choose, Huntington said; of course Ngoepe could take all the time he needed at home. Ngoepe spent five torturous days by Maureen’s side until she died, at age 45, a loss that at first seemed to shatter his brothers. He felt a duty to be strong for them.
“Everybody’s crying — should I join them?” Ngoepe said. “But I was like: ‘Well, you have a responsibility now. You have to look after your brothers. They collapsed. They’re down. I have to pull them up.’”
The feeling was so strong for Ngoepe, Huntington said, that he was not sure he would ever return. Finally Ngoepe did, though, after more than two weeks, convinced that his mother would not want him to quit and believing that her memory could sustain him.
Yet progress was painful. Ngoepe hit .177 in Class AA in 2013, then repeated the level in 2014. After that season, he helped major leaguers run a clinic in South Africa and met Archer, who had no idea that anyone from there played in the pros.
Archer, whose biological father is black, had taken the trip to learn more about his heritage. He was eager to spread baseball to a continent not known for it, but also to interact with people and learn about their life. In Ngoepe he found a native who was grappling with his future in the game.
Archer gave Ngoepe a note with a one-word question: “Why?” Over dinner, Ngoepe shared his doubts and frustration.
“I get it, dude, I get it,” Archer said he had told him. “You’re on a different continent, in a different culture, and there’s no one like you anywhere — in Altoona, Indianapolis, or if you get to the big leagues. But you’re giving hope to more than just yourself.”
Archer insisted that the sacrifices Ngoepe was making — all those seasons away from his brothers, the added pain of leaving them without their mother — would one day make sense. Eventually, Archer promised, there would be a reward. Ngoepe listened and decided to press on.
“His mom named him Gift for a reason,” Archer said. “You get that feeling when you’re around him.”
Reaching the Pinnacle
Ngoepe finally reached Class AAA Indianapolis later in the 2015 season. He abandoned switch-hitting, focusing solely on the right side, and held his own for a few weeks. But last season brought more disappointment: a .217 average, with 130 strikeouts in 332 at-bats.
“He was always trying to find himself with the bat in his hand,” said the first-base coach Kimera Bartee, a minor league instructor throughout Ngoepe’s climb. “But when he’s in between the lines and he’s got that glove on? Extremely comfortable. Always has been, always will be.”
Clint Hurdle, the Pirates’ manager, could not shake the allure of that glove. It lit up the screen when he surveyed the team’s prospects on video. Hurdle would pester the minor league coaches: What about the bat? Do we have a player? But Ngoepe was often his own worst enemy at the plate, too impatient to work deep counts or commit to a consistent technique.
Then, this spring training, things changed: Ngoepe hit .429 with a .500 on-base percentage. He stopped chasing bad pitches, working the counts in his favor and capitalizing. The Pirates ignored his sluggish start in Class AAA because at last, they had seen what they wanted to see. The major league game does not overwhelm him.
“I’m really interested to see how this works out for him,” Hurdle said, “because if the bat starts to play a little bit, he’s a legit major league player.”
Ngoepe is popular with his teammates, his enthusiasm infectious — important for a clubhouse rocked by the drug suspension of the All-Star outfielder Starling Marte and the legal troubles that have kept third baseman Jung Ho Kang in South Korea all season.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the team’s centerpiece, said he was thrilled to witness Ngoepe’s trajectory. He may even visit his teammate in South Africa, where Ngoepe returns for two months or so every winter.
“He’s invited me,” McCutchen said. “I’ve got to take him up on the offer; it’d be kind of cool. I told him already: ‘I want to plan a trip.’ I try to be a man of my word.”
Ngoepe, who has a tattoo of Africa on his left shoulder, knows life will be different when he returns home. Typically he starts in Johannesburg and then spends time with his family in Limpopo, where the sports minister has already promised a rousing welcome-home party. That is fine, Ngoepe said, but really he is most comfortable relaxing, and burrowing his way back in time.
Maureen is gone, and others in Randburg now run the clubhouse. But his older brother, Christopher, still lives at the field, and Ngoepe joins him when he visits, though he could afford something much bigger now.
“Yeah, but I grew up there and all my memories are there,” he said. “I do love being there, knowing that I can practice and work on my baseball stuff on that same field I grew up on.”
When he was a boy, Ngoepe said, he would plead with his mother not to watch him bat. He never seemed to hit when she did, but he knew deep down that she could always peek out a window and see.
“Nice hit, my son,” she would tell him. All these years later, it is not so different. When Ngoepe reached base after that first single in the majors, Bartee wrapped him in an embrace.
“It was hard to hold back those tears,” Bartee said. “I didn’t know what to say. I just told him: ‘Hey, Mom’s here. Mom was right there with you. She’s smiling.’”
Ngoepe had made it, completing a quest unlike any other in the history of the game. Somewhere, perhaps, the former clubhouse manager of the Randburg Mets was dancing again. My love is your love.