Gift Ngoepe

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Mpho' Gift Ngoepe

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Biographical Information[edit]

Gift Ngoepe was the first South African player signed out of the European Baseball Academy. In 2017, he became the first player born on the African continent to play in the major leagues.

Ngoepe litterally grew up on a baseball field: his mother was a clubhouse attendant for the Randburg Mets in Johannesburg, and he shared a tiny room, a converted closet, in the clubhouse itself with her and his two brothers. While living conditions were less than ideal, he could practice and play every day and took full advantage of this opportunity, developing into one of the best teenage players in South Africa. He played for South Africa in the 2006 World Junior Championship. He was the youngest player on the South African national team in the 2007 Baseball World Cup. The 17-year-old played all 3 outfield spots and went 1 for 12 with 5 strikeouts and a stolen base. After attending the 2008 European Academy, thanks to donations from teammates, he was signed by scouts Tom Randolph and Jackie Bowen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ngoepe was South Africa's star in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, with two triples (both off Elmer Dessens) in five at-bats, a walk, a run and a RBI in two games. His OPS was almost triple South Africa's next-best player, Brett Willemburg. Despite playing only two games, he tied Jimmy Rollins, Endy Chavez and Gregor Blanco for second in the event in three-baggers, one behind Yoennis Céspedes. He then was featured on the cover of the South African edition of Sports Illustrated. Ngoepe debuted with the GCL Pirates on June 23, going 2 for 4 against the GCL Yankees. He hit .238/.341/.281 that season while playing primarily second base. He led the Gulf Coast League in both sacrifice hits (8) and times caught stealing (9).

Ngoepe led South Africa in hitting during the 2009 Baseball World Cup. Ngoepe was four for ten with a double and two runs scored. In 2010, he appeared for the State College Spikes (.205/.315/.319) and Bradenton Marauders (1 for 4, BB). He missed most of 2011 with a hamate injury, playing for the West Virginia Power (.306/.359/.459 in 25 G) and GCL Pirates (1 for 6). With Bradenton in 2012, he batted .232/.330/.338 with 66 runs and 63 walks. He was 5th in the Florida State League in walks, 4th in caught stealing (14) and was 4th in strikeouts (131). He led FSL shortstops in total chances (560), putouts (188), assists (351) and double plays (71) in his first full season at the position. Baseball America named him the #20 prospect in the FSL, the best defensive shortstop in the league and the best defensive infielder in the Pirates chain. He did well for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League - .261/.370/.413.

In the 2013 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers played in September 2012, he was 1 for 9 with six walks, a steal and a run. He got his lone hit off Leonel Cespedes of France, a double. He led South Africa's regulars in OBP, .005 over Karl Weitz. For all the four qualifiers, he tied Ssu-Chi Chou for the most walks. In the US-based qualifier, he led in walks by two over Weitz, infield mate Jonathan Phillips, Engel Beltre and Josh Satin. In 2013, he fielded .968 at short that summer but struggled at the plate with the Altoona Curve (.177/.278/.282 in 72 G), hitting well for Bradenton (.292/.424/.427 in 28 G). He also stole better, 17 for 21. Baseball America again named him the best defensive infielder in the Pirates system.

Ngoepe struggled in his return to Scottsdale (.078/.172/.08 in 17 G) in the 2013 Arizona Fall League. He mostly played second base with Altoona in 2014 as Alen Hanson manned short. He showed some progress at the plate, hitting .238/.319/.380 with 9 triples, 9 homers and 51 walks. He had a game-ending squeeze bunt to score Keon Broxton one game. He led Eastern League second basemen with 459 total chances. He tied Broxton for second in the EL in triples, behind Hanson. Among Pirates farmhands, he tied Jaff Decker for 7th in walks and tied Broxton and Chase d'Arnaud for second in triples, behind Hanson. Baseball America once again named him the best defensive infielder in the Bucco chain.

He decided to stop switch-hitting in spring 2015, only batting right-handed. He spent most of 2015 at SS for Altoona, hitting .260/.338/.362 and fielding .967 before a late-season call-up to the Indianapolis Indians (.246/.313/.311 in 21 G). Despite having twice been passed over in the Rule 5 Draft previously, Pittsburgh added him to their 40-man roster that winter, perhaps due to declining infield depth (Neil Walker having been traded, leaving only Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Jung-ho Kang and Sean Rodriguez on the MLB roster as 2B-SS-3B options and with Hanson having moved from SS to 2B in 2015).

Ngoepe then was a late addition to South Africa for the 2017 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers held in February 2016. Despite having the most pro experience on the team and being the only 40-man roster player in the Sydney qualifiers (there were 10 former major leaguers), he did a disappointing job (.125/.263/.313) as their leadoff man and shortstop. Only Brandon Bouillon had a lower OPS among their regulars and some players with no US pro experience did far better (Kyle Botha, Keegan Swanepoel). Ngoepe did take Travis Blackley deep to open the finale against host Australia but South Africa wound up falling. He spent the 2016 season with Indianapolis, hitting .217/.289/.355 in 102 games. He was considered the best defensive player in the Pirates' system. He played well during spring training in 2017, hitting .429 in 21 games before being sent back to Indianapolis to start the season. He was called up to Pittsburgh on April 26th, ironically replacing on the roster Dovydas Neverauskas, who had become the first-ever major leaguer from Lithuania two days earlier. He came into the game against the Chicago Cubs as part of a double switch in the 4th inning, he singled and walked off Jon Lester in his first two plate appearances and helped turn the game-ending double play in a 6-5 Pirates win. He ended up playing 28 games for Pittsburgh, during which he hit .222 with no homers and 6 RBIs. In the minors, he played 77 games for Indianapolis, and 2 on a rehab assignment with West Virginia, with a combined line of .221/.301/.296. On November 20th, he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in return for future considerations.

With the Blue Jays in spring training in 2018, he reunited with the first major league player he had ever met: Curtis Granderson. The outfielder had met a teenaged Ngoepe during a goodwill trip to South Africa organized by Major League Baseball in 2007, and had been a major inspiration to the young man. He made the team's opening day roster as a utility infielder.

Ngoepe became a manager with the ACL Diamondbacks Black in 2023-2024.

Gift's brother Victor Ngoepe, who is eight years younger, signed a professional contract with the Pirates' organization in January 2016.

2007 Baseball World Cup South Africa - 12 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 5 1 0 .083 .083 .083 .166 - - - - - - - -
2009 World Baseball Classic South Africa 2 5 1 2 0 2 0 1 6 1 1 0 0 .400 .500 1.200 1.700 - - - - - - - -
2009 Baseball World Cup South Africa 3 10 2 4 1 0 0 0 5 1 4 0 0 .400 .450 .500 .950 0 1 0 0 6 6 0 1.000
2013 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers South Africa 3 9 1 1 1 0 0 0 2 6 2 1 0 .111 .467 .222 .689 - - - - - - - -
2017 World Baseball Classic Qualifiers South Africa 4 16 2 2 0 0 1 2 5 3 2 0 0 .125 .263 .313 .576 - - - - - - - -


Further Reading[edit]

  • Adam Berry: "Ngoepe brothers reunite on other side of world: South African natives together in Pirates' farm system",, March 25, 2016. [1]
  • Adam Berry: "Source: Bucs' Ngoepe to be MLB's 1st African",, April 26, 2017. [2]
  • Gregor Chisholm: "For Grandy, trip to Africa helped produce a Gift: Outfielder met Ngoepe at skills clinic in South Africa in 2007",, February 25, 2018. [3]
  • Nqobile Ntshangase and Steve Dilbeck, Associated Press: "In a baseball backwater, Ngoepe found a field and a dream", USA Today, May 26, 2017. [4]
  • Bob Nightengale: "Pirates' Gift Ngoepe, first MLB player from Africa, wants 'to be an inspiration'", USA Today Sports, May 23, 2017. [5]
  • Geoffrey York: "South African's big-league debut a Gift 'for the motherland'", The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2017, pp. S1-S2.

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