Gift Ngoepe made history in April 2017 when he became Africa’s first representative in Major League Baseball. Following a childhood spent living in a baseball clubhouse, he is now on a mission to break rugby and cricket’s stranglehold on South Africa’s sporting psyche - by leading their side to Tokyo 2020.
“There are 1.62 billion people in Africa, so to be the first person from a whole continent to do something is pretty cool,” said Ngoepe. “I did it for my family, for my country, for Africa. But I try not to let it get to me. My journey hasn’t ended, it’s just started.”
It’s only when Ngoepe puts it in such terms that the remarkable nature of his sporting journey really hits home. Back in April, in the fourth inning of a game against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ second baseman stepped up to the plate to bat. In doing so, he became the first African ever to play Major League Baseball.
“It was huge, and there was a lot of pressure on that moment,” said the 27 year-old. “Everything we’d done and worked for came together. I wanted to cry, there were so many emotions at the same time. I just thought: have fun, control your breathing, don’t try to do too much. And luckily he threw a pitch down the middle that I could hit, I put a good swing on it and off I went.”
This special moment had been many years in the making. Ngoepe was literally raised at a baseball club: his single mother Maureen, battling to raise three boys, moved into a small room in the clubhouse of the Randburg Mets, where she worked as a cleaner.
"The clubhouse was my house, the field was my backyard,” said Ngoepe.
“I can swing a cricket bat, but a game that takes three days at a time was too slow for me,” he said. “I learned a lot from all the guys in the Mets team. They took me under their wings and showed me the way. I practised a lot. I’d watch American baseball on TV on a Monday night. I just fell in love with it.”
There are 1.62 billion people in Africa, so to be the first person from a whole continent to do something is pretty coolGift Ngoepe
Ngoepe was an obvious talent, too. He made South Africa’s national teams from 10 years old, and at 18 was selected to attend MLB’s annual European academy in Italy. On his second trip there, his accurate throwing and quick feet dazzled Pittsburgh’s scouts, who signed him up.
“The scout said ‘We can turn you into a major league player’. I was on board with that. It was my dream,” said Ngoepe. “It was exciting and nerve-wracking. I’d only ever left my family for a few weeks at a time before. Now I was moving to America.”
He soon settled, but all this progress far from guaranteed big league action. Even the most promising rookies generally need to slog through the minors, proving their worth before being invited to play in ‘the Big Show’. It would take Ngoepe a decade, and 700 games across all levels, before he made it to the majors.
“It’s been a journey and a half, there have been some bumps and bruises, but it’s come out the way I wanted it to,” said Ngoepe. “There were bad days when I thought: ‘Why am I playing this game?’ People come and go in baseball. But the Pirates have been awesome, and always believed in me.”
The announcement that baseball was being re-admitted to the Olympics for Tokyo 2020, meanwhile, gave Ngoepe a new target – along with his brother Victor, who is also now on the books at Pittsburgh.
“I talk to the South African guys who have played at previous Olympics, and they cherish those memories,” he said. “The international tournaments I’ve played at are great – countries coming together, learning about each other, bonding, bringing joy. It’s something you never forget.
“Playing internationally opens your eyes, you grow as a person. So the Olympics is very exciting. We’re so happy to represent our country. I would love to play in Tokyo, and I’d cherish the chance to play alongside my brother.”
Ngoepe is under no illusions about the challenges facing a country where baseball is still a minority interest. “We have talent, but a lot of holes in the side,” he said. “We don’t play enough games, for one.
“It’s hard to compete when we only play every few years. Guys have normal jobs, they
don’t always have time to practise, they are worn out. Baseball isn’t easy to just go out and play nine innings. It is mostly mental. You need experience to grow stronger mentally. There’s lots of work to be done.”
The team spirit is not in doubt, however.
“When South Africa played at the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers, we did a tremendous job as a team,” Ngoepe added. “Our staff and players were totally committed all the way through. People were talking about us.”
Ngoepe’s success can help. “I try to inspire the young players,” he said. “They can look at us and know what it takes. The game is developing in South Africa, and the MLB are sending scouts. If we can really tap into the athleticism of our country, we can do well.
“The Olympics can certainly help with that, too. They are going to be phenomenal and hopefully will lead to lots of exposure for our game. It’s tough to rival cricket, rugby and soccer, but some doors might open, and the sport can grow in Africa.
“I’m very blessed to be in America playing the sport I love. I’ll continue until I retire or they take the jersey off my back.”