Gift Ngoepe: Coaches, Scouts and Friends Recount the Journey of MLB's First African-Born Player

Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe at PNC Park, Pittsburgh, April 26.
Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe at PNC Park, Pittsburgh, April 26. Ngoepe made his MLB debut against the Chicago Cubs. Charles LeClaire/USA Today

On April 26 2017, Gift Ngoepe stepped up to the plate at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, and hit a single off Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester.

Behind an ordinary play was an extraordinary story. Ngoepe, a 27-year-old shortstop from Randburg in South Africa, is the first African-born player to reach Major League Baseball.

Two days after his debut, on his first start for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ngoepe recorded three hits and collected two runs. For a player called up from the Indianapolis Indians for his defensive skills, after more than eight years in the minor leagues, it was a dreamy start. Through 12 games for the Pirates, Ngoepe is batting .250, with seven hits and four runs from 28 at-bats.

Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe at McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Florida, March 19 2017. Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe at McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Florida, March 19 2017. Ngoepe spent almost a decade in the minor leagues before he was called up by the Pirates. Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Here, some of those who have known Ngoepe best—and helped him along his journey to the major leagues—share their memories of a baseball trailblazer.

Josh Chetwynd is Director of International Operations at Elite Sports Group, the agency that represents Ngoepe. He played college baseball, a season professionally in Sweden and for the Great Britain national team. He worked for MLB before finding a niche looking after players from non-traditional baseball backgrounds.

Gift had signed for the Pirates when I started agenting. When I got involved with Elite Sports Group, they asked me: ‘Is there anyone currently in the minor leagues who you think is a prospect you think we should go after?’ My first player, I said, was certainly Gift Ngoepe. He was sort of a special combination of ability, intelligence and heart. And just such a unique player. He had a tremendous amount of energy about him. There’s such a positivity about him when you spend time with him, it’s truly unique. Maybe that’s a little overstated, but he is very special. And I don’t think anyone that has ever met him would feel any differently. We started and I said, ‘Let’s call Gift.’ So we brought him on as a client. He was still 19 years old and in the early days of his professional career.

Jason Holowaty spent 15 years in charge of game development at Major League Baseball, scouring the globe for raw talent to be moulded into stars. On a business trip to South Africa in the early 2000s, he met Ngoepe for the first time.

I started that role [game development at MLB] in 2002. One of the major markets we were working in was South Africa. We were doing a lot of schools programmes, a lot of grassroots programmes, basically identifying South Africa as a market that had a lot of potential and had a pretty good baseball culture and could kind of serve as a foothold for the game in Africa.

At one of our big national youth events—a pinch hit and run national final, I believe it was, in Cape Town in 2002 or 2003—I noticed a rather small 12-year-old boy. I believe he was on the Gauteng team. He was a bit unique, I guess you could say. He played with a lot of energy, a giant smile on his face. And you could tell by watching him that he understood the game. He obviously had a good familiarity with it. He knew what to do out there. A lot of the kids that were playing in the tournament were very new to baseball, and it kind of showed on the field. But he knew where to be, he knew what to do and he was a very good little athlete. But I think the thing that struck me the most if you saw him on the field then was just that smile. That joy of playing baseball.

Tom Randolph played professional baseball in the Czech Republic before becoming a college coach and then an international scout with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He discovered a teenage Ngoepe for the team in Italy in 2008. In the week Ngoepe made his MLB debut, Dovydas Neverauskas, also scouted by Randolph, became MLB’s first Lithuanian player. He left the Pirates in 2011 and is now Senior Buyer at General Motors.

I first saw Gift in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2005. He was 15 and I was a coach for the Czech Republic 16-year-old national team competing at a world tournament there in August...a very high-level competition. The likes of Cuba, USA, those guys. We played the South Africa team. And that was a refreshingly even level of competition although we had a couple of guys that went pro later too. But Gift I would say single-handedly won that game as a scrappy, diving clutch-hitting center fielder.

They [South Africa] had a guy who I think is still kicking around the minor leagues named Anthony Phillips. He was a year older and he was their shortstop. And I think he pitched a little too. Gift is a year younger, he wasn’t physically mature yet. So he played center field that day. I did remember him.

Fast-forward to ‘08 [at the European Elite Camp in Italy]. I hadn’t been in touch with him. I hadn’t been considering him. There was this guy Max Keppler who is now in Major League with the [Minnesota] Twins. He was there and he was only 15 himself. But aged 18, Gift was the best player there.

It just took the initiative to go do it [sign Ngoepe for the Pirates]. I think that’s where myself and then there was a colleague from the Pirates there with me named Jack Bowen, a senior guy [who was sent by the club]. I think they were minding me perhaps in my early excursions. I felt pretty good about what I was going to do. Anyway he was with me. And he was helpful in obtaining buy-in from headquarters. This initiative may or may not have happened as quickly if it had been only my word alone.

Brett Willemburg moved to the United States long before Ngoepe, when he was signed in 2000 by the Kansas City Royals. He spent two years in the minor leagues before a second chance in American baseball in 2009 with the Pirates, where he linked up with his South Africa teammate.

I think I met Gift in about 2008 at an inter-provincial tournament. That was in South Africa, our annual tournament. I think that’s the first time I came into contact with him. I think he had just signed with the Pirates. Later on in ‘08 he made the national team for the first time. He went away with us to I think it was Taiwan. That was the first time we actually got to play together. And then in ‘09 I was signed by the Pirates. I went over there and we were roommates for maybe a month or two. We spent a lot of time together every day, as you can imagine.  

Gift Ngoepe in Dunedin, Florida, February 27 2017. Gift Ngoepe, right, during spring training at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin, Florida, February 27 2017. Ngoepe's natural fielding ability stood out from a young age, those close to him say. Butch Dill/USA Today Sports

Josh Chetwynd: I have had this with other players where the physical [side] hasn’t been the hardest thing, it’s been the mental [strain] of going to minor leagues, riding the buses all around. Going from having played 30 or 40 games in a year to playing more than 100 games. It’s a psychological toll and it really is so hard for some of these players to get their heads around it. I have had players that retired who were progressing in their careers. They thought, ‘This isn’t for me’ and have gone home. Because it is incredibly hard.

That mental piece is one people don’t realize. They think, ‘Oh wow, you’re playing a kids’ game. It’s so much fun, you must love going to the ballpark.’ But it becomes a job and it’s not glamorous at all. It’s not glamorous until you make it all the way. And the pay is not good. When you start in the minor leagues you’re making $1,100 a month. And that’s only for during the season, and you need to find another job in the offseason. The sacrifices that these players make without any certainty of ever getting to the highest level are great. And for European players, it’s the cultural difference [too]. I represent Dutch players, Italian players, Czech players before that. It’s hard for all of them.

Jason Holowaty: He would have spent a lot of time in Bradenton, Florida, which is where the Pirates are based. Minor-league baseball is not an easy environment for a young player to thrive in. They are on the move a lot, they are in unfamiliar places. All of a sudden they are having to take care of themselves. They’ve got to make adult choices out there. Handle themselves like adults, and like professional athletes which is tricky if you’re 18 years old and having to adapt to life in Bradenton or Des Moines, Iowa, or wherever you are.

There are players like (Los Angeles Angels outfielder) Mike Trout, (Washington Nationals outfielder) Bryce Harper that sign at 18 and at 19 or 20 years old they are up in the big leagues, thriving. For most players, it takes a lot of time for them to develop the skills and the mentality necessary to play Major League Baseball. And it also takes a little bit of good fortune, too. You can be an exceptional shortstop but if your organization has Derek Jeter playing shortstop for ten years at a major league level, that’s quite difficult. One thing worth acknowledging is that the Pirates organization did a really good job with Gift. They were very, very patient. They kind of understood his potential. And they understood, I think, what it took for him to get there.

For a lot of these European kids and African players, the biggest thing they need is time. They need time to catch up because they are coming from baseball cultures that are not as advanced as a player coming from southern California. It’s not a great coincidence that the day before Gift made his debut, the Pirates debuted the first Lithuanian player [Neverauskas], the first eastern European player ever to make the major leagues. And Dovydas came from a very similar situation. A very small baseball country, but he came through the MLB Academy...and again got into a good professional system that kept him going.

Brett Willemburg: It [baseball] is fun and it is all of that. But on the other side, what people don’t see is the grind of it. The long hours, the long bus rides in the middle of the night. Especially in the minor leagues where you can travel on the bus for eight hours and have to get off the bus in the early hours of the morning. Have a little nap and then go play that night. Then get on a bus again three days later to go to another state. The ups and downs of your performance throughout the season, because you’re playing every single day for what, 160 games? You know, that’s not even including spring training games [or] if you make the playoffs. All of those types of things.

And then as the levels go up the competition just gets better which means the frustration can grow sometimes. If there’s one thing you’ve got to learn when playing there, and I think Gift has said it in one of the interviews he has done, it’s learning to just switch off when the game is done. It’s harder said than done sometimes. You can’t go too high but you can’t also go too low. It can wear on you a little bit, it can get frustrating. Especially because of all the extra time you are putting in. It’s not just the games that you play, it’s the extra training you’re doing, the extra fielding. All the extra work you are putting in. It was the hitting part that I think really frustrated Gift at times, because he knew he could hit. It was just that things weren’t clicking. And then this year it just seemed to all come together, which is awesome to see.

Tom Randolph: It was a long road. I signed a guy named Brett Willemburg, a fellow South African [for the Pirates]. This was his second opportunity in professional baseball [after the Royals]. He had come and gone, when he was just 17 or 18 or so. I liked him but the fringe benefit was he could give some support to Gift. Being so far from home. And be a mentor to an extent. I think that played itself well at a key time when it was probably very new and intimidating, perhaps, at that early stage. That was a key step. He didn’t develop very far himself, just played the one season. But he played this other role.

Brett Willemburg: It was good for him and myself to have someone that we knew, especially those first few months. I think he was a little bit homesick. But I think having someone else he knew made the transition just a little bit easier. I know he did struggle a bit later on in the season with the homesickness. We all went through that process of missing home. You dream about this but people don’t really understand how difficult it can be at times. Physically, emotionally, mentally, the whole package. It can be quite draining on you. And from my own personal experience, I know what that was like—wanting to quit and come home. You think you’re good and you are good. But when you get over there, everybody’s good. That’s why what he’s been able to accomplish and achieve, making it to the big leagues, it’s absolutely phenomenal.

Tom Randolph: I would serendipitously come to his games. Even after I left the Pirates. The thing with Gift is when I saw him in Italy [in 2008] he remembered me, and other Czech players from that game. [And] he saw me in the stands in Connecticut in a game in AA. There was a double-header that started in the morning and between games he said , ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ He’s that kind of a guy. I kept tabs.

There is an experienced international scout, a Harvard man named Jim Stoeckel who was at the Cincinnati Reds and other clubs along the way. He said, ‘We hook em, and they cook em.’ Meaning the scouts sign them and then it’s really up to the players and the development people to take it from there. I wasn’t actively involved but I certainly was a keen observer and I think that Brett Willemburg’s accompanying signing was designed to help smooth the transition.

Jason Holowaty: The adjustment to a higher standard, that’s the biggest thing. The game speeds up, the game gets really fast when you get to the higher levels. And that’s where some of the kids struggle from this region. Another thing that kids have to adjust to when they go from European and African baseball to the U.S. is they play every day. You get to professional baseball, and at the major league level they play 162 games plus spring training. It’s every day, all day. It becomes your life, that daily grind of the season. That can take a toll on a kid maybe playing a few times a week in his home country. He goes to the States, that intensity level just increases.

Another challenge for young kids coming from Europe and Africa—because they can sign at a younger age, they can sign at 18, it’s a very big transition to leave home, to move to the States. They are on the road for months and months and months at a time. Not around a lot of familiar faces.That’s another big challenge, trying to adapt to a completely new country as a young man.

Josh Chetwynd: Baseball is a sport that gives rewards to people who really commit themselves to it. It’s a craft and like any craft, you put the hours in and you can improve. That was certainly the case. Gift became the best defensive player in the Pirates’ organization. It was always a question of whether his hitting could catch up.

He has worked so hard to get to the point where he could play at the highest level in terms of hitting. And to really have what’s called an approach...at the plate. So he could go up to the plate and have an idea of what he wanted to do, what pitches he wanted to swing at, what pitches he would be disciplined enough to avoid. That was what was so beautiful about his first couple of at-bats. He’s facing one of the best pitchers in baseball in Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series last year. And he showed such great plate discipline, it was so wonderful to see all that work and all that effort pay off.

Brett Willemburg: I enjoy how smooth he is when it comes to fielding ground balls. It almost seems like he just glides on the field. Sometimes you can’t actually teach that. It’s just a natural ability and a natural instinct that you have when you’re playing. It’s just awesome to see when you play that position, knowing the difficulty of it, to see him doing it with such ease is what impresses me the most about that.

Tom Randolph: I think the best description of Gift I have heard is from Rene Gayo, the Pirates’ Latin America scout, and someone who was very supportive of me. Rene said he is active in small places. That’s a phrase he likes to use and that’s a good description. He’s quick, he’s got good hands, quick with the bat. The other thing that stood out there is his character. I was thinking of Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox when I saw him. He’s a winner, he’s got the charisma and the attitude that any coach would want. And then the last point I would say is from Jason Holowaty. Jason’s a really good guy and he has been permanently involved in this development programme for 10 or 15 years. Jason told me and I consider him a friend, that he’s the best guy we have ever had in camp. The best person we have ever had. On that level. That tells you something.

Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates scores after a RBI double hit by shortstop Gift Ngoepe, not pictured, May 4 2017. Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates scores on a double by shortstop Gift Ngoepe, not pictured, May 4 2017. Ngoepe is batting .250 through the first 12 games of his MLB career. David Kohl/USA Today Sports

Jason Holowaty: He’s bigger. He’s now a man. Make no doubt about it, Gift is an exceptional athlete. He is not that little 12-year-old kid I saw scampering around a field in South Africa so many years ago. He’s an extremely strong, agile, adept athlete. That points to a lot of hard work that he’s put in over the years. One of the nicer things, one of the nice touches I had came at the end of my MLB career. About five years ago we started up the MLB African academy. So we had the chance to get players from all around Africa together for ten days in South Africa to go through that intense spring training-style training. In 2014-15 we brought Gift back as a special instructor.

So he was working with the best young South African, Ugandan, Nigerian players. And was exceptional. He was a really good instructor. He has got a magnetic personality. The kids loved him. He still had that same smile when he is in the ball field, he still has that same bubbling energy that he has always had. The thing I saw working with him as a coach was that added level of maturity. Where he kind of saw himself as a leader, as a role model, as kind of a pioneer, which he is. It was really heartening to see him develop into that kind of admirable young man that he is now. That was a very special thing to see.

Josh Chetwynd: To see him there [in the major leagues] is emotionally satisfying for so many people. I worked with the South African national team so I know so many of his teammates. The joy that they were expressing online last night [after his debut against the Cubs] was just so gratifying. Because it means so much for so many people. On the flipside is a tremendous pressure. You have the hopes of your teammates and all the people in this community on you. And Gift handles all of that gracefully. I have never seen him complain about that weight, he takes it in stride.

Brett Willemburg: I was so overwhelmed with excitement. I have known him for so many years. I know last year he was very very close, and he didn’t get called up. This year he had such a phenomenal spring training. It was kind of a long shot, hoping he was going to make it. He didn’t, but just the excitement of all of that happening, him being the first one from Africa. Not even South Africa, the entire continent. The occasion and the magnitude of what happened is so phenomenal. It’s almost like a barrier was broken for the rest of the younger kids coming up. It’s like, ‘You know what, that is possible.’ I think in Africa as a whole. Everybody that’s played pro ball, we all wanted to be that person.

Tom Randolph: It has been an emotional week for me with the Lithuanian pitcher (Dovydas Neverauskas). That was my guy. And then Gift, right on the heels of it. I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. I made such an effort, I put everything into all of my baseball activities for my life. Even knowing that I probably wasn’t a baseball lifer-type person. That’s probably not what I am supposed to do. But I put so much of myself into all of those experiences that I kind of felt that—that someone was saying you did a good job. Because there isn’t a lot to show for it except getting behind in my career. But make no mistake, it’s Gift. It’s him, he’s the guy. It’s him. We crossed paths and that’s just good luck.