“From Phenom to the Farm” releases new episodes every other Tuesday featuring players whose experiences vary across the professional baseball spectrum. Players will discuss their personal experiences going from high school graduation to the life of a professional baseball player.
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If you were to glance at a few details from his background, it would come as no surprise that Gift Ngoepe became a big leaguer.
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Ngoepe quite literally grew up at the baseball field—his mother worked as a clubhouse attendant for a semi-pro baseball team, raising Gift and his younger brother Victor in a small room connected to the clubhouse. He spent his earliest days throwing a baseball against the back of the dugout wall, watching the older athletes go about their day at the field.
With the game of baseball surrounding him, it made perfect sense that with his natural athletic ability, Ngoepe would be destined for the big leagues—except the semi-pro team his mother worked for was in Randburg, South Africa. In the first hundred years of Major League Baseball, no country on the entire continent of Africa had produced a big leaguer—until Gift Ngoepe.
In South Africa, cricket, rugby, and soccer rule the sports world, but Ngoepe (despite also being a well-regarded soccer talent) dreamed of being a big leaguer. As a youth watching 1999 All Africa Games, he saw professional South African players, such as Nick Dempsey, and imagined himself in their shoes.
At MLB’s European tryout camp, the Pirates saw promise in the infielder and made Ngoepe the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract. He began his climb to the big leagues, learning immediately that he’d have to battle homesickness, a far more rigorous game and practice schedule than he’d had at home, and making up for the fewer amount of games he’d played as an amateur compared to his contemporaries from the U.S. or Latin America.
A plus defender at shortstop, Ngoepe’s glove allowed him to steadily advance through the Pirates’ system, with hope that while adjusting to the workload and professional pitching his bat would progress enough to pair nicely with his big league defense.
“I was playing catch-up the whole time—the hard breaking sliders, the way they pitch you, what you’re trying to do at the plate, your approach and everything like that,” Ngoepe said.
Ngoepe struggled initially after making the jump to Double-A Altoona in 2013, and then midway through the season he received word that his mother, Maureen, had fallen ill and was hospitalized in South Africa. Ngoepe left Altoona and was able to spend a few days with his mother before she passed away. His mother was the reason he’d fallen in love with baseball in the first place, but following her funeral Ngoepe found himself questioning his future, and considered leaving professional baseball in order to take care of his siblings.
“My friends and family were like ‘No, don’t stop, this is what you always wanted to do and Mom wouldn’t want you to stop, so get back out there and do your job,’” Ngoepe said.
Playing for his and his mother’s dream, Ngoepe returned to the U.S. and played well for High-A Bradenton to finish out 2013. He eventually made the Pirates’ 40-man roster in the 2016 off-season, and headed to Spring Training 2017 knowing that he was now just one call away from the big leagues. He didn’t have to wait long for the call.
On April 26th, 2017, Ngoepe became the first African-born player to play in MLB, singling off Jon Lester in his first at-bat.
“I said a little prayer as I was running out onto the field,” said Ngoepe. “Mom this is it, we made it. This is the moment that I’d been dreaming of since I was a kid.”
Ngoepe has since seen big league time with the Pirates and Blue Jays and is currently playing in the Australian Baseball League. Two decades after seeing and dreaming of being Nick Dempsey in the All Africa Games, Ngoepe has given baseball playing youth in South Africa greater heights to strive for.
On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm’ infielder Gift Ngoepe takes us through his journey from South Africa to the big leagues. He talks the differences in U.S. baseball lingo, learning to take pressure off yourself, and what he hopes the future for baseball in South Africa will be.