Africa’s Gift to Major League baseball

Sunday Times


TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

“LADIES and gentlemen, now playing second base for the Pittsburgh Pirates – Gyeeft En-Go-Pay!”

There was one out in the top of the fourth inning in Pittsburgh on Wednesday when those words warbled from PNC Park’s speakers.

A crowd of 16 904 heard them. The temperature was 24.4 degrees Celsius. A breeze blew across the diamond, from first to third base, at 9.6 kilometres per hour.

Keep these facts close to your soul, for they are truths of history.

Gift Ngoepe also heard the stadium announcer. Or perhaps he didn’t.

They were words he had dreamed he would hear, but couldn’t be sure he would.

They were words he had prayed his mother, Maureen, would hear. Alas, she died in 2013.

And now they were here and they were real and no-one could unsay them.

Playing second base … for the Pittsburgh Pirates …

With that, 141 years after the first pitch was tossed in what we now call Major League Baseball (MLB), the game’s grandest stage had its first African player.

Before that moment, Ngoepe, 27, from Polokwane via Randburg and then Tirrenia in Italy, and onto Bradenton, Florida and State College, Pennsylvania and Charleston, West Virginia and Altoona, Pennsylvania and Indianapolis, Indiana, had stepped onto a baseball field as a professional in 704 games, most of them at shortstop and all of them in the minor leagues.

He had batted 2 784 times, collected 555 hits, hit 37 home runs, scored 323 runs, drawn 295 walks, and struck out 753 times.    

“Wow – I didn’t know it was that many games,” he told the Sunday Times from Pittsburgh on Thursday. “But it has been a long journey; it hasn’t been easy.

“It took a lot of patience and people to believe in me, and it took believing in myself.”

People like Barry Larkin, a 12-time All Star shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds who encountered Ngoepe in 2007 at the MLB academy in Tirrenia, where he was coaching, and has been central to the South African’s progress.

“He’s my mentor,” Ngoepe said. “He told me that making it to the big leagues is not the hardest part – it’s staying in the big leagues.”

Other “mentors” were referenced, players and coaches and people who “drove me to practice”. Their names drained away down a crackly trans-equatorial phone line, but they know who they are.

Some of them are from Randburg, where Maureen Ngoepe, having left her two sons with her parents in Polokwane, arrived in 1991 seeking a better life.

She found it at the clubhouse of a baseball team, the Mets, who couldn’t afford to pay her but offered accommodation in exchange for labour.

Six months later Gift joined her – the upshot of him downing a bottle of cooking oil – and an obsession was born.

They shared a room six square metres small, but it offered hot water, a flushing toilet, and subscription television that enabled a wide-eyed kid to see that the strange game being played in Randburg was much bigger and better across the world in places like Pittsburgh …

Soon he was out on that Randburg diamond, playing and learning and loving this strange game.

“Then, in 1999, we had the All Africa Games and I got to see the national team play,” Ngoepe said.

“I was inspired from that day onwards.

“I didn’t think I had a chance but I always hoped there was a chance, that somebody would see me and I’d be picked up.

“And when I was 18 I had the choice of playing soccer or baseball.”

What? Wait: Chiefs fan or Pirates fan?

“Kaizer Chiefs all the way. Love and peace. Thank you.”

Anyway: “Baseball came through. The Pittsburgh Pirates saw me in Italy and said, ‘We would like you to be part of our system’.”

And on Wednesday the MLB’s first African player was the first batter up in the bottom of the fourth. On the mound for the Chicago Cubs stood Jon Lester, winner of game seven of the 2007 World Series with the Boston Red Sox, who was part of the Cubs’ fairytale championship in 2016, who had survived lymphoma.

Ngoepe took two pitches, a fastball and a sinker, both out of the strike zone. He fouled off the third, another fastball, for a strike. He watched another fastball streak by: three balls, one strike.

Then Lester threw a cut fastball, which swerves away from right-handers but is faster than a curveball.

Ngoepe swung, and laced the ball up the middle.

Base hit! Ngoepe, Africa – we, dammit – had an MLB base hit!

Later he turned the routine double play that sealed the Pirates’ 6-5 win.

The world can never be the same.

“My life has changed in every way,” Ngoepe said. “I have a job, and a job that I love. That’s a blessing.

“To be able to go back home and provide for my family is phenomenal.”

In a few hours he would be in Miami, where the Pirates started a series against the Marlins on Friday.

Until then he would take calls like this.

“I think I’ve done 10 just today,” Ngoepe said.

It was not yet noon in Pittsburgh.

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