(AP) – The clubhouse was Gift Ngoepe’s home, an equipment storeroom his bedroom. The field, where the beginnings of his road to baseball history started, was his backyard.
Never mind that Ngoepe’s field of dreams was a bit patchy. Never mind that there was no home run fence. And never mind that the Randburg Mets’ park is hidden away on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, where baseball is as obscure a sport as you could imagine.
“I rolled out of bed and was on first base,” said Ngoepe, now an infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Ngoepe made history last month when he ran out for Pittsburgh against the Chicago Cubs, the first African to play Major League Baseball.
To do it, he turned a lot of adversity to his advantage.
Poor, Ngoepe lived from the age of 2 to 18 with his mother and younger brother – and later his older brother – in a tiny room at the Randburg Mets clubhouse, where mom Maureen worked in the food stall. The room – more of a walk-in closet – was a storage area that was cleared out so Maureen and her boys had somewhere to stay. Somewhere to lay mattresses and squeeze in an old TV.
At night, the boys could spread out into a second room where the team’s equipment had been moved to, if they could find space. The young Gift sometimes slept in there, curled up next to the batting cage net.
It never mattered.
“We took it as a blessing to be with each other in that small little space and make something out of it. Very much love in that room,” Ngoepe said.
And just outside, yards away, was the life-changer. The field.
“I got to play every day. I got to practice every day,” Ngoepe said.
Ngoepe had the hunger and the talent, but there were so many challenges. His MLB debut came at the age of 27, after choosing baseball in a country where few care about the game, after nearly nine years toiling in the minor leagues, and after the death of his greatest inspiration, his mom.
“I would love for him to have $1 for everybody who has looked at him and said he’ll never make it,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Ngoepe didn’t have any friends to practice with as a kid. They were into soccer, or rugby, or cricket, or any one of another half-a-dozen or more sports that are way more popular in South Africa.
“He was the only kid at his school playing baseball,” Randburg Mets chairman and coach Glen Gillman told The Associated Press. “For him to stick to it, it took some heavy going.”
So Ngoepe often played alone, throwing a ball against a wall at the clubhouse and fielding it as it bounced back, honing the ground skills that would make him one of the Pirates’ best defensive players.
“The wall was my best friend for quite some time,” Ngoepe said.
Later, Ngoepe played for the Mets and was good enough to go to MLB scouting camps in Italy in 2007 and 2008. His mom didn’t have the money but teammates, amateurs like at every ball club in South Africa, gave what they could and got him there.
He was spotted and signed by the Pirates in 2008. He moved to the United States, but struggled, found it tough to fit in, and nearly quit. His mom urged him to keep going, motivating him as she always did.
Then in 2013, he got a call to say his mother was ill. He rushed back to South Africa to be with her, spending precious days with her before she died. She wouldn’t be able to see him achieve the dream she nurtured just as much as he did.
It’s with this backstory that Ngoepe trotted out onto PNC Park in Pittsburgh on a Wednesday night for his debut, the first player ever from his continent in the majors. He went over to catcher Francisco Cervelli and third baseman Josh Harrison and asked them to put a hand on his chest to feel his heart beating. They did, and they smiled.
“Racing at 1,000 miles per minute,” Ngoepe said.
When Ngoepe singled off Jon Lester in his first at-bat, it took all his control not to cry on first base coach Kimera Bartee’s shoulder.
“My mom wasn’t there to experience that moment with me. At the same time, I know she’s looking down on me,” Ngoepe said. “I’m sure she would have been proud, and probably crying at the same time.”
They were also watching in Randburg, where former Mets teammates gathered at the clubhouse and sat up past 3 a.m. to see his debut on TV. With them was Gift’s older brother, Chris, who still lives in that converted storeroom at the clubhouse.
“I was so happy. For the first time I saw him playing,” Chris Ngoepe said, sitting in the room all three brothers still see as home.
On a wall there’s a poster of Gift in a Randburg Mets uniform, kneeling on the first baseball field he knew – the field just outside the door – and clutching a bat. Next to the poster hang three batting helmets. They’re ready to be used for practice when Gift comes home, as he does every year with younger brother Victor, now a Pirates prospect himself and part of their development program.
Chris loves it when his brothers come home but, typically South African, he doesn’t care much for baseball. He likes soccer.
Associated Press journalist Nqobile Ntshangase in Johannesburg and Associated Press writer Steve Dilbeck in Los Angeles contributed to this report.