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‘I told myself not to cry’: South Africa’s Gift Ngoepe makes MLB history

Pittsburgh Pirate's Gift Ngoepe makes his major league debut in the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park on April 26, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It came as a rare glimmer of good news in a country struggling with economic and political crises: a South African has crossed a historic barrier by becoming the first African to reach baseball's major leagues.

Gift Ngoepe's landmark debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates was a boost for baseball's global ambitions, adding another potential market to its checklist for world expansion. But it meant even more for Ngoepe. Born in the final years of apartheid, the son of a Johannesburg domestic worker, he had toiled in the minor leagues for nearly nine years after first learning the sport in a country where baseball is an obscure and largely foreign game.

Ngoepe's breakthrough was big news in his homeland on Thursday, dominating the airwaves and sparking a buzz on social media. Video clips of his historic first hit – a single up the middle against the Chicago Cubs – swiftly went viral here, shared by everyone from cabinet ministers to ordinary citizens, as the country celebrated.

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To add to the drama, Ngoepe's debut came in the early hours of a national holiday known as Freedom Day – the anniversary of South Africa's first free election, when Nelson Mandela was elected president after the end of apartheid.

"It's a dream come true for me, because it's been my dream since I was a 10-year-old boy, but it also means so much to the people of South Africa and baseball in Africa," he told reporters before the game, just hours after being promoted from Pittsburgh's minor-league affiliate in Indianapolis.

He later admitted he was on the verge of tears when he entered the game in the fourth inning as a substitute second baseman. "I was holding it back," he said. "I told myself not to cry."

The 27-year-old middle infielder, regarded as a slick fielder but light hitter, made his first plate appearance later in the same inning. He found himself facing veteran Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, a perennial all-star whose salary is $25-million this season. On a 3-1 count, Lester threw him a cutter at 89 miles an hour, and Ngoepe slapped a sharp grounder into centre field.

In the dugout, his teammates shouted "For the motherland!" They retrieved the ball as a souvenir for him, while first-base coach Kimera Bartee hugged him. He ended up with a single and a walk in three plate appearances.

Ngoepe's teammates on the Pirates were thrilled. "Guys get called up all the time, and it's special, but this is just different," shortstop Jordy Mercer told a Pittsburgh newspaper. "He's from Africa. Come on. He lives with giraffes and lions. Let's go!"

Baseball is still a novelty in most of the African continent, where soccer remains by far the most popular sport. South Africa is sports-crazy, but dominated by soccer, rugby and cricket. Even basketball is more popular than baseball here. Yet baseball has slowly made inroads in Africa in recent years, sometimes sponsored by U.S. church groups and American philanthropists.

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Major-league baseball now holds an annual training camp in South Africa for elite groups of teenaged players from across the continent. Players from eight African countries were invited to the latest training camp near Johannesburg last December. Major-league scouts often attend the camp to hunt for potential major-league prospects.

Uganda is the African country where baseball has enjoyed the greatest popularity in recent years. Despite the obstacles of poverty and equipment shortages, baseball has become the East African country's fastest-growing sport.

Uganda was the first African country to send a team to the Little League World Series in 2012, and its team was so dominant at the latest Europe-Africa regional finals that it swept its five games by a combined score of 67-2. South Africa, meanwhile, succeeded in qualifying for the 18-and-under world cup of baseball in 2015.

Ngoepe's journey to the major leagues began when he was born in Polokwane, in Limpopo province, not far from the Zimbabwean border. His family moved to Johannesburg and his mother got a job as a cook and cleaner for the Randburg Mets, a local baseball club. In exchange, she was given a room in the team's clubhouse, and Ngoepe grew up with baseball all around him.

From the age of 12, he spent all his spare time on the diamond. "The clubhouse was my house and the field was my backyard," he told a South African radio network.

At the age of 17, he was invited to a major-league training camp in Italy, where a Pittsburgh scout noticed him, and he was soon signed. (His younger brother, Victor, has also been signed by the Pirates organization.)

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Growing up in a country with little tradition of baseball, Ngoepe had to overcome obstacles that others don't face: a late start in the game, a shortage of good teams to compete against, and a lack of top-calibre coaching. He has told interviewers that he sometimes wanted to abandon the game when the frustrations in the minor leagues seemed too daunting.

But he persevered. In each of the past five seasons, he was rated as the best defensive infielder in the Pirates system. In 2015, he became the first African to be selected to a major-league 40-man roster. Last year he led the International League as the shortstop with the highest fielding percentage.

When he reached first base with his first hit as a major-leaguer, his memories came flooding back as he tried to contain his tears. "I thought about where I've come from, what I've been through, all the struggles of the minor leagues for almost nine years," he told reporters later. "And finally to be here and get a base hit."

In South Africa, news of his breakthrough game caused a sensation on Thursday. It was a top story on radio and television broadcasts and on social media. South Africans, needing a reprieve from a stagnating economy and endless corruption scandals, were ecstatic that one of their citizens had made history in the United States.

They laughed at the U.S. television broadcasters who mispronounced Ngoepe's name. But there could be more African names on major-league rosters in the future. Garth Iorg, a former Toronto Blue Jay player, was impressed by the African prospects when he coached them at the training camp in December.

"You will not find better people in the world than these kids," Iorg told The Globe and Mail. "They are fun, they are eager."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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