FSL notes: Ngoepe takes unique path

Bradenton infielder wants to become first South African in bigs

By Guy Curtright / Special to MLB.com | June 13, 2012 6:00 AM ET

Gift Ngoepe lost most of the 2011 season because of a broken hamate bone in his right hand, setting back the timetable for potentially realizing his ultimate dream.

But if the 22-year-old Bradenton shortstop eventually becomes the first South African to play in the Major Leagues, he will have overcome much more.

Ngoepe (pronounced en-Wee-pay) was born to poverty during the final years of apartheid and was introduced to the sport only because his mother was able to find work washing, cleaning and taking care of the grounds for an amateur team in the Johnannesburg suburb of Randburg.

Baseball is a secondary sport to say the least in South Africa, lagging well behind soccer, rugby and cricket. Ngoepe was familiar with a baseball clubhouse at an early age, though. That is were he lived growing up.

"We slept in the clubhouse. It was small, but a happy place," Ngoepe said. "I helped out and learned baseball. I didn't want to play the other sports. I watched ESPN and dreamed about playing in the Major Leagues some day."

Nearly a dozen players from South Africa have signed professional contracts. But Ngoepe was the first back when he was given a $15,000 bonus by Pittsburgh in the fall of 2008 after attending an international academy held by Major League Baseball in Italy.

The Pirates are the organization that signed two pitchers from India after a TV tryout show. This, however, was no publicity stunt, although the speedy Ngoepe quickly drew media attention that included an article in Sports Illustrated entitled "A Gift From Africa."

A switch-hitter, Ngoepe was a veteran of junior international competition, and he showed he was a true prospect by hitting a pair of triples off Mexico's Elmer Dessens in the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

After a year in the rookie Gulf Coast League and another in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League, Ngoepe got off to a hot start with West Virginia of the Class A South Atlanta League in 2011. But after hitting .311 in 25 games, his season with the Power ended in May because of the hamate injury.

"It was very frustrating," said Ngoepe, who suffered a setback during his rehab. "I couldn't even lift weights. I was hungry to play."

Ngoepe had hoped to make up for his lost time by playing in Australian over the winter, but paperwork issues prevented that. So he returned to South Africa and virtual anonymity.

"Some know I play baseball but not many," said Ngoepe, who speaks five languages. "Baseball isn't that important, but if I make the Major Leagues, it will be news."

Ngoepe has taken another step up the Minor League ladder in the Class A Advanced Florida State League. After alternating between shortstop and second base previously, he is the Maruaders' full-time shortstop and usually bats leadoff.

With good range and a strong arm, Ngoepe's defense has been steady with just 10 errors, but he has been up and down at the plate. After a four-hit game Tuesday, he was batting .253 with five homers, 16 RBIs and nine stolen bases in 56 games. He had 23 walks for a .324 on-base percentage, but had struck out 68 times.

Most of Ngoepe's struggles had come against left-handers. He was hitting .171 right-handed and had fanned 30 times in 81 at-bats.

"I hadn't faced many left-handers and it caught up with me this year," Ngoepe said. "I'm adjusting."

Ngoepe has already made many adjustments as he chases his unlikely baseball dream.

"I want to be the first from my country to play in the Major Leagues," he said. "I don't want to be the first black South African. I want to be the first South African. I don't see color. It is all the same in my country now."

And what about his name, which is Mpho Gift Ngoepe? He is actually twice blessed because Mpho' is Sotho for gift.

"My mother believed I was a gift from God," Ngoepe said. "She always told me I was destined to do something special in my life."

In brief

Colvin in bullpen: Brody Colvin, No. 75 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, was 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA in his first five relief appearances for Clearwater before returning to the rotation with six strong innings in a no-decision against Tampa on Tuesday. The Phillies' No. 3 prospect gave up two hits and a run while striking out six and walking two. The right-hander was 2-4 with a 5.64 ERA and had struggled with his control prior to the move to the bullpen after going 3-8 with a 4.71 ERA for the Threshers a year ago.

Arcia, Ashe added: Fort Myers outfielder Oswaldo Arcia and Clearwater third baseman Cody Asche -- two of the league's top hitters -- were added to the Florida State League All-Star Game to be played on Saturday at Charlotte. Arcia, batting .318, replaced Jupiter's injured Christian Yelich (concussion) on the South squad. Ashe, hitting .329, replaced Lakeland's promoted Nick Castellanos.

Marisnick returns: Dunedin outfielder Jake Marisnick, No. 52 among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects, went 4-for-8 in his first two games after spending more than two weeks on the disabled list. Toronto's No. 3 prospect was hitting .262 through Monday with 22 extra-base hits, 26 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 48 games.

Milestone for Huppert: Lakeland's Dave Huppert, who became the active manager with the most victories in the Minors in April, passed the 1,700 mark in wins. Stan Wasiak is the all-time leader with 2,530 victories. Huppert is in his 24th season as a Minor League manager and his second year with Lakeland.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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