Spring training loomed, and Gift Ngoepe was eager. But first, Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson wanted a word, and his message would be rather direct.
"He sat me down," Ngoepe recalled Wednesday, "and said, `We're going to do things differently, because your way hasn't worked. I want you to try this way, and we'll go from there.'"
The offensive renaissance of Gift Ngoepe was about to begin.
The 2016 numbers for Ngoepe don't lie, suggesting magic with the glove, and a nightmare with the bat. The shortstop with the best fielding percentage in the International League and enough gems for his own highlight show also hit .217. There was never a game that ended with him above .231. Not one.
Let Ngoepe explain how maddening all that was.
"Just knowing you're so close to the big leagues can put pressure on you without you even realizing it, especially if you go into a slump the first couple of months and you feel like, `I need to do better, I need to do better.' You keep pushing yourself, and you end up pushing yourself into the ground. The more you try, the harder it's going to be."
But that was yesterday. Today, Ngoepe is hitting .391 after the first homestand of the season-a two-run homer in the opener, a three-hit performance in game 3, a couple of doubles in game 4, hitting safely in all six starts. That, after he stormed through spring training with a .429 average, the finest in the Pirates' camp. He went into the winter the proverbial good field-no hit shortstop, and came out swinging the bat like Honus Wagner.
So what's gotten into Gift Ngoepe?
We can begin with Indians' hitting coaching Butch Wynegar.
"No. 1, last year was his first year hitting right-handed fulltime. He had been a switch-hitter, so there was really an adjustment period with that breaking ball going away from him.
"I'm going to give a lot of credit to Jeff Branson, about getting him in the hitting position early. You watch Gifty now, he's putting his foot down early, which is helping him with his pitch recognition.
"But the biggest thing with Gift right now is he's bought in to what we're trying to get him to do. The big thing I had said to him was, `What is your Pirate identity as a hitter? What does Clint Hurdle want you to be able to do when you come to the big leagues? It's not hit the ball out of the ballpark. It's play your gold glove defense, and then just chip in as a hitter. Handle the barrel, move the ball, move runners. You do that Gifty, you're in the big leagues.'''
He keeps this up, it won't be long.
There is something that must be understood about the 27-year-old man with the tattoo of the African continent on one arm. Home, and the chance to make history for it, means everything. Ngoepe longs to be the first African-born player to reach the major leagues. That's the dream that fuels him, but it can also be a little heavy to carry, especially when the hits aren't falling.
The glove has never been a problem. There are few things more fun at Victory Field these days than watching Ngoepe turn a difficult play into another routine out. "Even if the offense is not working," he said, "I know the defense should be there every single night."
It was the other half of the inning that was such a struggle in 2016. Long before Branson looked him in the eye, Ngoepe understood that something had to change. But what?
"My approach and my mentality at the plate. In the years before I'd go up there and just try to see the ball and hit it. This year I'm more focused on what I need to do at that point in time, how the pitcher is going to pitch me. Put a good swing on it and have a quality AB, relaxing and having fun rather than trying to push so much.
"The minute I let go of everything and I just focused on the moment, everything went much better."
The hunger for history is still there, but maybe now the weight is a little lighter.
"As long as you keep the main why, the why that gets you up every day and gets you to the ballpark and gets you to play every single inning and every single pitch, as long as you keep that why strong, that's all you can do," he said. "You're competing with yourself, the man in the mirror."
"It feels great to help your team win a game every night. That's the way it should be. Don't worry about numbers, just go up there and compete and put up a W at the end of the day."
Wynegar has watched the maturation of Ngoepe up close. He mentioned the execution game.
The execution what? The Pirates use that in camp, sending players to the back field to face a pitching machine and hit for situation. Move a runner over. Hit the ball the opposite way. Pull off the hit-and-run.
"Watching Gifty, we started saying `You know what, his swing is different when he does the execution game. It's not big. It's not muscular. It's just short and it's quick."'
And productive. So between a different approach, and a different management of self-inflicted pressure, Ngoepe seems to have found a new level.
"He's a very prideful kid. He even mentioned that if he got to the big leagues, there'd be a story, there'd be a movie about him," Wynegar said. "I said, `Gifty that's wonderful, I hope that happens for you. Just remember, if you don't ever get there, then there will be no story.'
"That was my main selling point to him. You can't worry about the future. It's not going to happen the way you'd like it to happen if you don't do what you need to do now."
And now he is.
"The hope was always there," Ngoepe said, even through all those 0-for-4s. "Knowing I'm still close to the big leagues, I still can make it.''
Wynegar thinks so, too.
"He can go there and play 10 years, and I'll see the Gift Ngoepe Story one day. I'm pulling for him."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.