- Ngoepe was born to poverty during the final years of Apartheid and was introduced to the sport only because his mother was able to find work washing, cleaning and taking care of the grounds for an amateur team in the Johnannesburg suburb of Randburg.
Gift speaks very good English, but he also speaks four other toungues -- two dialects of Sotho, some Zulu and Afrikaans.
Baseball is a secondary sport to say the least in South Africa, lagging well behind soccer, rugby and cricket. Ngoepe was familiar with a baseball clubhouse at an early age, though. That is were he lived growing up.
"We slept in the clubhouse. It was small, but a happy place," Ngoepe said. "I helped out and learned baseball. I didn't want to play the other sports. I watched ESPN and dreamed about playing in the Major Leagues some day." signed with the Pirates for a bonus of $15,000 in September 2008, out of Randburg, South Africa, a suburb of Johannesburg.
"It's a great feeling to be signed," Ngoepe said. "I've worked all my life for this. I've always wanted to be a professional baseball player."
- In the spring of 2009, Gift played for South Africa in the World Baseball Classic. He hit two triples for South Africa -- both hitting lefthanded and both off a pitcher with 12 years of big league experience, Mexico's Elmer Dessens.
- Ngoepe has confidence in his ability. He has a lot of questions about how to improve at the game. And he does his best to apply the instruction.
Following is an excerpt from a 2009 Sports Illustrated story by Gary Smith:
Talk about coming from modest means. Where was "home?" Was it a "native reserve" to which the Sotho were restricted in northern South Africa when the white government sectioned off tribes in 1913? Or the "homeland" that the Sotho were "given" nearly 50 years later so South Africa could wash its hands of the tribesmen's misery, lack of education and claims to full citizenship? Was it the thatch-roofed mud hut in Limpopo where Gift, whose father was not around, spent his first two years, living with his mother's parents? Or the tiny room inside a baseball clubhouse where he'd ended up?
His mother, Maureen, was 21, three months pregnant with him and weeping in a Zion Christian Church in 1989 when a prophet materialized beside her. That's what Maureen called the woman, whom she'd never seen before and never would again. "Why are you crying?" asked the stranger.
"My second child is due in six months," Maureen sobbed, "and the father just left me." The implications were clear. Some of her neighbors survived by swatting locusts with a branch, drying them under the sun and eating them.
"Everything will be O.K.," the stranger informed her. "Your baby will be a boy, and you must call him Gift, because he is a gift from God."
Maureen named him Gift twice: in Sotho with his first name, Mpho, and in English with his middle name, so the white man would know too. A year and a half later, tears flowing once more, she packed her clothes into an old paper bag, left her two boys with her parents, and took a bus to Johannesburg to find a way to feed them.
She was just one more in a sea of undocumented black migrants searching for work in a country disintegrating from the effects of Apartheid. She crawled under a seat and hid beneath a jacket when authorities boarded the bus. In Johannesburg she stayed with a brother and then a friend, ever fearful of arrest, clutching the thin hope that the Tembu tribesman who'd recently been freed after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, could alter her demoralizing existence.
She found her way to a baseball field in the suburb of Randburg. Like most of her countrymen, she'd never seen the game before, had no clue that American gold miners working in Johannesburg's Crown Mines had introduced the game to South Africa in the late 1800s or that the sport had survived at the club level. A group of young white Randburg baseballers, playing for an amateur club called the Mets, had sold hot dogs from a car trunk for years and raised just enough money to build a clubhouse. The clubhouse consisted of a changing room for players, a small equipment room, a few toilets, showers and a "tuck shop," from which snacks, soda, beer and liquor were sold. No, the Mets couldn't afford to pay Maureen, but ... she could live in the tiny tuck shop in exchange for cooking, cleaning and working the cash register each game day, which was Sunday, her off day from cleaning homes.
Maureen looked at the 7½-by-9-foot room. "Like putting people in a closet," Rory Vincent, a Mets coach, lamented later. But Maureen saw a bathroom of her own a few feet away, after a lifetime of slinking into the bushes. Shower faucets and hot water instead of a bucketful of goose bumps. Roof tiles rather than leaky straw from which cockroaches fell. Maureen leaped at the chance ... and became Maureen no more. Her cheery greetings to the regulars, her brightly colored head wraps, her exuberance about her new home turned her in no time into ... Happy! For what Met could utter that nickname without an exclamation mark?
And still, Happy would have remained a beautiful misnomer for a mother separated from her two children, and Gift never in a million years would have become a baseball player ... if not for the boy's boundless curiosity. Hoisting a bottle of cooking oil to his lips at his grandparents' house, the two-year-old didn't do what any other toddler would: blanch and spew at the first swallow. He downed the entire liter, and his bowels spasmed with diarrhea so dire that Happy, in a panic, scraped together 300 rand—just over $100, more than her weekly wage as a domestic—for a six-hour taxi ride back home to fetch her limp second son. She returned with Gift to Randburg, and once he'd rounded back to form, the coaches and ballplayers were so pleased to have a Happy and a Gift that they decided both could live in and light up their clubhouse. And six years later that Victor, the product of Happy's happiness with the club's Zulu groundskeeper, could stay too.
The family's quarters would remain that tiny room, so cramped by Gift's single bed, the thin mattress on the floor where his mother and brother slept, a small space heater, a two-plate burner that served as both stove and backup heater, a sink, a stool and a bucket for a chair, that there was barely enough floor space to plant a human foot. The changing room became Gift's living room and rec room. There he, Maureen and Victor would practice their new dance moves or drag their blankets and pillows at night to watch the TV on the shelf, to jump and scream and flap their arms like birds when their favorite soccer team scored, and to keep up with the news after apartheid collapsed, Mandela ascended to the presidency and their tribe became part of South Africa again in 1994. The Mets' shower became Gift's scrubbing room; their baseball field, 40 yards from his bed, his front yard. The new and larger tuck shop that was added later became Gift's kitchen, its refrigerator became his family's. Players tugging on their uniforms would sniff the meal that Happy often prepared—maize boiled and mashed into a kind of grits called pap—and say, "Smells good, Gift, what's for dinner tonight?"
The Mets adopted him as a tyke, taught him to play catch and swing a bat. He became their mascot, their water boy and their batboy, their most gifted young player as he climbed through age divisions ranging from T-ballers to adults ... and the only Met who was black.
When the others went home, he went right on playing, alone, using the fraying tennis balls that locals flung to their dogs in the outfield and the waterlogged balls uncovered by the mowers' blades. He fielded grounders he bounced off the clubhouse wall, launched pop-ups into the night sky to catch, flipped balls to himself to hit, ran base paths in the dark.
By age 10, if he played poorly or incurred someone's anger, Gift would climb onto a trash can and scramble onto the clubhouse roof, lie down and stare at the stars. When he saw a shooting star he'd make a wish, always the same one: to make a life of the foreign game he loved, the one he's set his alarm at 2:00 a.m. to watch on cable TV, beamed all the way for the States -- to play Major League baseball. (Gary Smith-Sports Illustrated-8/10/09)
Gift was his school's cricket player of the year in 7th grade. But he abandoned both that sport and soccer, where he also excelled, to focus on baseball. "When you watched him, he grew on you,” said Pirates scout Jack Bowen, who scouted Ngoepe as an amateur at a tournament in Italy. “The more you see, the more you like. There wasalways something he was doing, you could tell he was the favorite of the coaches. He would always make you notice him, whether it was on the field or the way he handled himself.”
The Baseball America Prospect Handbook rated Ngoepe as the 31st-best prospect in the Pirates organization in the spring of 2010. After being left out of the book in 2011 and 2012, he was at #30 in the offseason before 2013 spring training. And he was at #29 in the spring of 2014.
He has plus makeup. He often flashes a big smile. He is very nice young man. And Gift has a real passion for the game with a great work ethic.
Ngoepe returned to South Africa in the offseason before 2010 spring training, where he spent some time coaching youth clinics. Because of his high profile there—Sports Illustrated and other major outlets documented his baseball journey during the summer of 2009—some of those children were seeking his autograph and other keepsakes.
On the impact of the SI story, Ngoepe said: "The whole world read it, probably, but it doesn't have to change who you are. You have to stay the same. I'm having fun."
Gift speaks five languages.
What what about his name, which is Mpho Gift Ngoepe? He is actually twice blessed because Mpho' is Sotho for gift. "My mother believed I was a gift from God," Ngoepe said. "She always told me I was destined to do something special in my life."
Ngoepe played for South Africa in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament in November, 2012.
Gift missed a month early in the 2013 season at Altoona, having returned to South Africa for his mother's funeral.
Ngoepe was added to South Africa's roster for the World Baseball Classic qualifying round, to be played Feb. 11-14, 2016 at Blacktown International Sportspark in Sydney, Australia.
March 25, 2016: Ngoepe was at home Feb. 9, 1998, inside the small room in the corner of the baseball clubhouse where he lived with his mother, Maureen. But as the evening wore on, five o'clock then six then seven, Maureen was nowhere to be found.
Instead, Gift saw his aunt. Where, he wondered, was his mother? She was at the hospital. But why would she be there?
Gift was too young at 8 years old, too busy running around and playing baseball to notice that something had been different about his mother. His aunt's answer came as a surprise.
"She was like, 'Oh, you're having a baby brother,'" Gift said. "Wow, I guess I'm having a baby brother!"
That was when Gift met Tlou Victor Ngoepe, beginning a brotherhood and friendship that would take them from their native South Africa and eventually reunite them in a clubhouse far from the one they still call home. The brothers, now both with the Pirates' organization, have reunited this spring in Florida.
"It's one of a kind," Gift said. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me, that he came into my life." (A Berry - MLB.com - March 26, 2016)
Pirates Minor Leaguers Gift Ngoepe and Dovydas Neverauskas were arrested following a fight outside a bar in Toledo, Ohio, according to documents provided by the Toledo Municipal Court and Toledo Police Department.
Neither player has played since the incident took place. The Pirates announced that they suspended both players for seven days, keeping them off Triple-A Indianapolis' roster the rest of the season.
"We are aware of the incident that took place over the weekend in Toledo and are extremely disappointed in the actions of Gift and Dovydas," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in a statement. "We have made the decision to suspend both players for seven days, taking them through the remainder of their seasons."
Tigers Minor Leaguer Warwick Saupold was also involved in the incident, and he was arrested and charged with assault. (August 28, 2016 - Adam Berry - MLB.com)
April 26, 2017: Ngoepe's remarkable story added an historical new chapter.
The Pirates recalled the slick-fielding infielder from Triple-A Indianapolis, making Ngoepe the Majors' first African-born player.
April 27, 2017: Gift singled in his first plate appearance in a Pittsburgh Pirates 6-5 victory over the Cubs.
April 28, 2017: Ngoepe made his first start a memorable one in the Pirates' 12-2 win over the Marlins. The second baseman, who moved to shortstop late in the game, batted eighth, and reached base all five times. Officially, he was 3-for-3 with two singles and a triple, and scored twice. He also drew a pair of walks.
Before the game, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he was infusing some defense at second base in his decision to give Ngoepe his first Major League start.
"That's it exactly," Hurdle said. But Ngoepe injected some offense as well in a most productive night. He said that given the whirlwind he's been on the last couple of days, controlling his emotions is the key at this point.
"I'm driving on adrenaline right now," Ngoepe said before the game. "So I just have to calm myself as much as possible and just breathe. Make sure my heart is not beating a thousand beats per minute and just go out there and do my thing.
"I knew when I signed my contract and getting to the big leagues and being the first one from the whole continent and country that all this publicity is going to happen, but it must not change me."
Remaining the same person that he was prior to making the big leagues is also a prime focus.
"That's the theme, just being who you are," he said. "Everybody is excited for me, so I'm excited for myself. Just being here is a phenomenal time for me."
But with each passing day, Ngoepe said he feels less and less pressure.
"You get to know the guys and they kind of bring you in," Ngoepe said. "That makes it a lot easier." (G Sattell - MLB.com - April 29, 2017)
July 2018 : He returned home to South Africa, just as he has every offseason since signing his first professional baseball contract in 2008.
But this winter, everything was different for Gift Ngoepe. It was the first taste of fame. And while it can be exhilarating at times, he found it also could be exhausting. The 28-year-old fielded media request after media request. Everyone wanted to talk with him. Everyone wanted to write about him. Everyone wanted to celebrate Ngoepe’s story. And while there will always be a pride factor in being the first person born on the continent of Africa to play in the major leagues, the tag can be a bit of a burden as well. Ngoepe, now with the Buffalo Bisons, appeared in 28 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season.
“When I made my big-league debut, it was great. All the fame and the radio stations and newspapers calling me and all the articles,” Ngoepe said. “At some points it was fun and at some points it was a little too much because everybody wants a piece. 'Hey, let me interview you. Hey, let me get you on TV.' Having that tag is great but also can be a little distracting. Everybody wanted to interview me. And I’m trying to work out and get my work in to be ready for the next season. ... There’s perks with it and there’s disadvantages to being the first African-born player.”
See, Ngoepe would rather get back to the work of playing baseball, of learning the game and perfecting his craft and, most importantly, finding his swing. The infielder is hitting just .170 with the Bisons this season. And those numbers, well, they won’t get him back to the big leagues any time soon.
“Offensively is the biggest part of the game. If you don’t produce you don’t play or you don’t stay up in the big leagues,” Ngoepe said. “That’s the biggest thing in this game. You’ve got to produce with the bat.“I mean this season has come with a lot of downs so to speak. Numberwise there hasn’t been any productivity from me. I just keep battling every single day and try to improve, try to be better than I was yesterday. That’s my goal every single day to be better than I was the day before, the month before. It’s just little things that keep me going.
”The little things are what have helped Ngoepe move through the baseball system, introducing a wider audience to his baseball origin story. The tale was told widely last year after April 26, 2017, when the Pirates called him up. His MLB debut lasted until June, when the Pirates returned him to Triple-A Indianapolis after he hit .222 in 54 at-bats with six RBIs. That provided Ngoepe with his latest life lesson in baseball.
“Had a bit of playing time up there and when they sent me down I was a little bit disappointed,” Ngoepe said. “My first thought was let’s push. Let’s push harder and that’s not always the answer. Trying to push for more and do more is not the answer. That’s the biggest thing I learned last year. I was trying to do too much, trying to do more, to get back up to the big leagues, but you’ve just got to play the game, play it hard, and whatever happens, happens.”
In November, the Pirates traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays for cash considerations and the new organization gave Ngoepe a new opportunity.
“I had been with one team for a long time and they knew what I can do,” Ngoepe said. “Coming to a new organization there’s new faces, new people to impress. It was a good move for me.”
He began the season with the Blue Jays because of injuries among the Toronto infielders before being sent to Buffalo in mid-April. At the time, he was hitting .056 with one hit and 12 strikeouts in 18 at-bats. He was recalled for one game in May and then returned to the Bisons. Along with a new organization, Ngoepe is dealing with a new position this season. The shortstop has moved to third base as the Blue Jays looked at their needs to determine where players may find their best fit in the organization. While Ngoepe has struggled at times with hitting, his defense has been a consistent strength in his game.
But learning a new infield position takes time.He has 23 games at shortstop for the Bisons with five errors, 31 putouts and 16 double plays. He has been error-free in his 12 games at third with 14 putouts and four double plays. He has had four games at second, with an error, six putouts and three double plays.
“At shortstop you have more time and then you can read which hop you want. You create your own hop,” Ngoepe said. “At third base you don’t have that. You have to react at third base. It took me a little while to figure it out but now that I’ve figured out, now I’ve got to get my angles right. There’s a lot to a person moving from shortstop to third base. The ball comes in quicker and you have to trust your instinct.” ( Amy Moritz - The Buffalo News )
September 2008: The Pirates signed Ngoepe as a free agent, out of South Africa.
- November 20, 2017: The Blue Jays acquired Ngoepe from the Pirates.
- August 13, 2018: The Jays released Gift.