Gift Ngoepe had quite the busy off-season. After becoming the first African-born player to reach the MLB last season, he was traded from Pittsburgh to Toronto and spent nearly three months back home in South Africa promoting the sport.
“Just trying to make the sport a little bigger, make more people interested and playing so we have a bigger population for baseball,” Ngoepe said on Friday. “Hopefully, me making it to the big leagues and everybody knowing that there is baseball in South Africa, there will be more interest and more younger children coming to play baseball.”
Ngoepe did plenty of talking about baseball in interviews and was involved in youth programs.
“I enjoyed playing with kids, especially down in the development areas where gangster life is the life over there,” Ngoepe said. “So we tried to change their mindset and be like, you know what, this is not the right way and sport is where it’s going to make life better for you.”
Ngoepe learned baseball in a nation where the sport is not popular, because his family lived in the clubhouse of a men’s league ballpark where his mother worked.
He lived there from age two to 18 and played for the Randburg Mets. He was good enough to go to MLB scouting camps in Italy in 2007 and 2008, and was signed by the Pirates in 2008.
He struggled in a different country, but finally made it to the majors last year, when the Pirates called up him from Triple-A Indianapolis.
Ngoepe singled off Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester in his first at-bat and batted .222 (12-54) in 28 games.
“He can handle the glove with anybody, a great defensive fielder out there,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “You can put him at any spot, a great kid ... He brings energy, he’s a tremendous kid and I’ve been impressed with his defense. It’s hard to find guys who can field like he does.”
“Whether I make the big league club or not, it’s not going to break me down,” Ngoepe said. “I’m usually a person who thinks a lot and over-analyzes everything, so this year I told myself we’re not going to go that route and we’re going to have fun.”
Ngoepe knew one familiar face when he joined the Blue Jays: He first met Curtis Granderson in 2007, when the three-time All-Star made a trip to Johannesburg as an ambassador for baseball.
Granderson, who played for the Tigers at the time, encouraged Ngoepe to pursue his dream.
“I remember him talking to the kids and inspiring everybody and saying that they told him that he wasn’t strong enough, he wasn’t big enough and he was able to break through all of that,” Ngoepe said.
Ngoepe’s younger brother, Victor, followed in his footsteps. He signed with the Pirates in 2016.
“He had to choose between soccer and baseball and he chose baseball and I’m very excited for him and his journey with the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Gift Ngoepe said. “I wish him nothing but the best.”
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