By now most of us know that Gift Ngoepe became the first African to appear in America’s Major League Baseball, and there are bits of his story that you’ll be familiar with if you read our post from a week ago HERE.
You should stop in there – those videos are pretty epic.
Now the New York Times has done an extensive write-up on Gift, ‘First African to Play in the Major Leagues Is a ‘Pinnacle’ for Baseball‘, and there are parts of it that are going to make you blame someone for cutting onions in the adjacent room.
Ngoepe, who was born in Polokwane, has quite the story to tell. Let’s start with why his rise is so remarkable:
“You know how when you see someone you have something in common with, the way you don’t need to speak, you just look at each other and kind of nod and tip your cap?” said Chris Archer, a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s like the ultimate moment for that.”
“You see a black American on another team and you tip your cap; you know there’s only 7 or 8 percent of us here,” he added. “So now, when you see a black African — not a black American, but a black African — it’s the pinnacle of achievement in baseball for the people of that race, of that ethnicity, of that origin. It’s really an unspoken thing.”
Gift actually signed for the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2008, but it is only now that he has cracked the step up to starter in the major leagues.
It’s all been going rather well since then:
[He] singled off the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester in his first at-bat.
Ngoepe gave his cap to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but kept his bat, he said, because it still had hits left in it. He followed up with three more in Miami and two in Cincinnati. He was 7 for 24 (.292) through Sunday, while playing the smooth defense at shortstop and second base that has kept the Pirates intrigued for so long.
“I played with a lot of people, saw a lot of shortstops, and he ranks up there at the top with them,” said the Pirates coach Tom Prince, who spent 17 seasons in the majors. “His reads on balls, throwing it accurately across the diamond — he’s an unbelievable defender.”
This bit made me chuckle – “pronounced n-GO-pay”.
Ready for the really emotional bits? Onion cutting commence:
His mother, Maureen, was inspired by a conversation she had with a stranger in a church. She was 21, poor and pregnant with her second son, and the baby’s father had left her. The stranger told her that the boy would make her proud, and that his name should be Gift…
Needing a way to provide for her sons, Maureen [below, in 2009] left the children with her parents and found work cleaning houses.
She found shelter in Randburg, outside Johannesburg, at the modest home field of an amateur white baseball club called the Mets. The team practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays and played on Sundays. Maureen ran the clubhouse — cooking and cleaning for players, selling food to spectators — and lived in the small room next to the shower stalls.
Gift soon joined here in Randburg, and the Mets club taught him the sport he would grow to love, but it was in 2013 that things really came to a head:
[There] was an urgent phone call from home: His mother was in the hospital with pneumonia, and it was serious…
“I know I’m not doing too good right now, and if you want to release me, go ahead and do it,” Ngoepe said he told his bosses. “But I need to be home. I need to be with my mom. My mom’s not doing too good. I will pick family over what I want in my life.”
There was no need to choose, Huntington said; of course Ngoepe could take all the time he needed at home. Ngoepe spent five torturous days by Maureen’s side until she died, at age 45, a loss that at first seemed to shatter his brothers. He felt a duty to be strong for them.
“Everybody’s crying — should I join them?” Ngoepe said. “But I was like: ‘Well, you have a responsibility now. You have to look after your brothers. They collapsed. They’re down. I have to pull them up.’”
And pull them up he did.
He is immensely popular with his teammates, and has even convinced one of the team’s star players to come visit him in South Africa during the off-season.
Sporting a tattoo of Africa on his left shoulder, the connection he feels to his country of birth remains strong:
When he was a boy, Ngoepe said, he would plead with his mother not to watch him bat. He never seemed to hit when she did, but he knew deep down that she could always peek out a window and see.
“Nice hit, my son,” she would tell him. All these years later, it is not so different. When Ngoepe reached base after that first single in the majors, Bartee wrapped him in an embrace [below].
“It was hard to hold back those tears,” [Kimera Bartee, a minor league instructor throughout Ngoepe’s climb] said. “I didn’t know what to say. I just told him: ‘Hey, Mom’s here. Mom was right there with you. She’s smiling.’”
Stop it, you guys.
Let’s finish with another comment from Chris Archer, that Tampa Bay Rays pitcher:
“His mom named him Gift for a reason,” Archer said. “You get that feeling when you’re around him.”
No, you’re being emotional.
You can, and should, read the full New York Times story HERE.
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