Home from home run: Gift Ngoepe’s baseball diaries
US Major League Baseball found a kid who grew up dirt poor in a room in a Randburg clubhouse
Gift Ngoepe doesn’t hit the headlines anymore. At least, not like he did when he became Major League Baseball’s (MLB) first Africa-born player in April last year.
“SA baseball sensation hits ‘home run’, gets ENGAGED!”
That’s the crappy clickbait headline that hit South Africans unfortunate enough to have stumbled across this site on July 18, days after Ngoepe and Cait Anderson, a television producer, announced their betrothal on, of course, social media.
“Congratulations to Gift and Cait, from South Africa!”
That was the last, clumsily punctuated line of the six-paragraph story.The penultimate line of the piece was also grammatically challenged, but at least it told us something we might not have known: “Ngoepe is yet to hit a home run in MLB.”
That’s true. But it would have added context to include that Ngoepe, like many light-hitting utility infielders who have vast range in the field and speed to burn but not much power, doesn’t hit many home runs.
And that he hasn’t played a game in the MLB since May 2 in Minneapolis, when his only involvement was as a pinch runner for Kendrys Morales — who had reached third base in the top of the 10th inning for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Minnesota Twins with Toronto leading 5-4.
Aledmys Diaz rapped the first pitch he faced from John Curtiss past third base for a single. Ngoepe scored in what became a 7-4 Blue Jays win.
In his previous game, at Yankee Stadium in New York on April 20, Ngoepe replaced Curtis Granderson in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Granderson had pinch hit for Diaz, the Twins’ starting shortstop, in the top of the eighth.
Then Ngoepe helped effect a rare 1-2-6 double play — pitcher to catcher to shortstop — to end the eighth inning when Neil Walker stuck out swinging to John Axford and catcher Luke Maile’s throw reached Ngoepe in time for him to put the tag on Aaron Hicks, who was trying to steal second.
Alas, for the Twins, the Yankees won 4-3.The last time Ngoepe batted in an MLB game was in Toronto on April 18, when he went 0-2 against the Kansas City Royals.
He was up ninth and struck out both times, and both times to Ian Kennedy; first in the bottom of the second on four pitches — the three strikes all knuckle curves he didn’t swing at — then on eight pitches, having worked the count to three balls and two strikes, in the bottom of the fourth.
Maile pinch hit for Ngoepe with two out in the bottom of the fifth and Toronto leading 5-4 in a game they would win 15-5.
As of Monday the Blue Jays have played 79 games since that May outing against the Twins in Minneapolis, all of them without Ngoepe.
Instead, five days after he last appeared for Toronto he was sent to the minor leagues, where he is playing for the Buffalo Bisons in upstate New York.
There, in 137 plate appearances, he has had 19 hits, 22 walks and once been hit by a pitch, which also gets you to first base.That earns Ngoepe an average of .170: not tolerable even for a valuable infielder playing in the big leagues, much less for a minor leaguer hoping to get back to the bigs.
Ngoepe doesn’t need to hit home runs — that’s accepted as the job of first-basemen and outfielders — but it wouldn’t hurt his chances if he did.
What he needs to do more than anything is gather base hits something like consistently in a game in which players who do so in even a third of their turns at bat are considered excellent.
Thing is, hitting a baseball successfully at MLB level is among the most difficult feats for anyone playing any sport to accomplish anywhere.
It’s fiendishly harder than hitting a cricket ball where you want it to go: laying a flat bat on a round ball properly is far easier than getting a good result from putting a circular bat to a round ball.
Polokwane-born Ngoepe first hit the headlines as the star of a fairytale. He was the kid who grew up dirt poor with his mother and brother, who all lived in a 6m² room in the clubhouse of a Randburg ballpark.His interest was piqued by what he saw out the window, and the rest was a tale of wonder: somehow he went to an MLB academy in Tirrenia, Italy; somehow he played 704 games in the minor leagues; somehow he made his MLB debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh on April 26, 2017; somehow he cracked the Cubs’ ace, John Lester, up the middle for a single in his first at-bat …
Somehow has nothing to do with it. Ngoepe is who and where he is on the back of a ton of talent, a little luck and boatloads of bloody hard work.
He grew up, lest we forget, impoverished in a country that calls itself a democracy despite the moneyed classes not recognising people like him until they become what are considered problems.
It’s all good as long as you aren’t being impoverished on the pavement outside our luxury apartment blocks or at the windows of our expensive cars.
Kevin Anderson grew up in Johannesburg’s leafier suburbs with a tennis court in his back yard, a family who all played the game, and a father who doubled as his coach.
Tennis earned him a scholarship to the US, and he has claimed four tournament titles and reached the final at the US Open and Wimbledon.Again, all good. But it might make us want to shout: “You’ve had every advantage and many privileges and you’re 32. What the hell is taking you so long to win something significant?”
Ngoepe plays a sport that has almost no presence where he was raised and has moved to a country that doesn’t understand much about the world he came from, as a feature on him by a website there published in May made clear, telling its readers that “… baseball’s popularity in South Africa ranks somewhere behind soccer, cricket, rugby, field hockey and something called netball …”.
Whatever. Ngoepe clearly has stickability. But he averages only .181 in 82 plate appearances for Pittsburgh and Toronto, where he was traded in December, and where he had only one hit and struck out a dozen times in 18 appearances.
Does that make him any less successful than Anderson? No, according to this reporter.
But we’ll all have our own opinions. Here’s a fact: Ngoepe has hit 45 home runs in the minor leagues, two of them for the Bisons this year.
Put that in your headline and publish it.