In Passport Prospects, MiLB.com will feature Minor Leaguers who did not grow up in traditional baseball-playing nations. Leading off the series is South Africa native and Pirates prospect Gift Ngoepe.
Despite spending most of his childhood inside a clubhouse, Mpho Gift Ngoepe's baseball journey is as far from "typical" as you're likely to find anywhere in the Minor Leagues.
Ngoepe was born in the small rural town of Pietersburg -- now called Polokwane -- in South Africa's northern-most province of Limpopo, 25 days before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
At the time of Ngoepe's birth toward the end of apartheid, Limpopo province -- bordered by Zimbabwe to the north, Mozambique to the east and Botswana to the West -- was designated as a "white" region.
Ngoepe's mother, Maureen, did her best to provide for her son, juggling the demands of low income and single parenthood while raising her baby in a largely undeveloped area in a house built with large rough stones and finished with a straw roof.
Ngoepe's father was not around. In fact, his absence led directly to his son's unusual multilingual name.
"When my mother was pregnant with me, a lady at the church came up to her and told her to stop crying and told her that I must be named 'Gift.' They gave me Mpho [Sotho for gift] and then they translated that to English, Mpho Gift," Ngoepe said.
"She was like a prophet. It's kind of hard to explain, but she can talk to the ancestors and kind of see what's happening. She just walked up to my mom randomly -- not knowing anything about my mom and my mom not knowing the lady or who she is or where she's from -- and she said this is what they want you to name your son. My mom has never seen her since and I have never met her."
Job opportunities, let alone career opportunities, were few and far between. Agriculture dominated what industry there was in Limpopo.
"There wasn't much in the town," Ngoepe recalled. "I grew up in Limpopo, where people basically live on farms. You look after cows and horses and all of that. That's pretty much what you do. If you are able to, you leave after high school. If not, you end up living there and working as farmers or finding a job two hours away."
That's exactly what his mother did, taking a bus some four hours south to Randburg, just outside Johannesburg, to look for work. It was here that Ngoepe's baseball journey began.
Maureen found work with the Randburg Mets baseball team -- cooking, cleaning and keeping the small wooden clubhouse in shape. Instead of paying a salary, the Mets let her live in one corner of the building. Space was tight, even moreso when Ngoepe's younger brother, Victor, was born, but they made it work. The family had little choice.
"I pretty much grew up in a baseball clubhouse. The people that owned the place at the time let me live with [my mother]. That's how I got into baseball," said Ngoepe, who was 2 years old at the time. "I was in Limpopo and she came and got me and I started living with her next in Randburg in one of the clubhouse rooms. It was like a 20-second walk to the baseball field."
Ngoepe's interest in baseball grew in his new environment.
"Every day, people came in and played baseball and I watched and slowly learned what they were doing," said Ngoepe, who joined a team for players 6 years old and younger when he was 3. He mimicked the older players on the field, and when he got back to the clubhouse, he found old tennis balls to throw against a wall.
"I gained a lot of experience because most of my friends were older than me. I would talk with them and play with them and when they had practice I would join them," he said.
"Most of them played Tuesdays and Thursdays, then Fridays they had a get-together-type thing. Saturday they would practice, then they would play games Sunday. When nobody was there, I would just practice with myself. Most of them were very close to me. I grew with them from a young age and they took me in and they helped me along."
By the time Ngoepe was a teenager, he knew baseball was what he wanted to do. It may have been all he knew. Soccer was always an option, but his best subjects in school -- biology and geography -- didn't offer the same opportunities, especially if he had returned north.
"Hopefully, I would have picked [soccer] up, but I really wanted to take baseball to another level," said Ngoepe, a shortstop whose knowledge of Major League Baseball was shaped by the occasional Yankees or Red Sox game he could catch on cable TV in the clubhouse if he was still awake at 1 or 2 a.m. "If not, just any job good enough to put food on the table and cover my head with a roof."
His big chance to do just that came when he was invited to MLB's European Academy in August 2007. The 17-year-old took an eight-hour flight to an Olympic training facility outside Pisa, where he was put through his paces with some 50 other players from across the world by former big leaguers such as Rod Carew, Barry Larkin, Art Howe, Wally Joyner, Dale Murphy and Bruce Hurst.
The 5-foot-10, 165-pound switch-hitter was invited back to Italy, the closest international camp to South Africa, the following year. Larkin, the special guest the previous summer, was now the main coach and Ngoepe impressed him with his work ethic, ability and demeanor, both on and off the field.
Among the teams that showed the most interest in 2008 were the Pirates, who ended up giving him a $15,000 signing bonus and invited him to join the organization's Rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2009.
In doing so, he continued his dream to become the first South African -- black or white -- to reach the Majors.
Once the Gulf Coast League season started that spring, Ngoepe hit .238 with a homer and nine RBIs in 47 games. There could have been many reasons for his slow start in professional ball: Getting acclimated to the speed of the game, the steep increase in ability, the longer season and heavier schedule of games or the language barrier with teammates and coaches who had considerably more experience but weren't able to communicate with him.
Ngoepe entered the Pirate City complex with a good grasp of English. But while he spoke -- or at least understood -- three other languages, that didn't prove too useful with teammates from Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.
"I spoke Sotho and Zulu and I understood Afrikaans, but I hadn't used it in a while," said Ngoepe, who gained valuable experience at the Baseball World Cup in 2007 and at the World Baseball Classic and Baseball World Cup tournaments in 2009. "In the beginning, it was a struggle. They didn't understand me and they didn't realize that I had the same ability they had. ... The coaches would point at me and say slowly, 'Do. You. Understand. What. I. Am. Telling. You?' But once I got to know them and they got to know me, it got a lot easier.
"Then the Latin guys taught me Spanish, how to speak it and understand it. I was able to adjust and they were able to adjust too."
The 2010 season provided different challenges in the short-season New York-Penn League. The first was living with a host family and being responsible for getting to the ballpark and taking care of himself every day. Then there were the struggles at the plate -- a .205 batting average and .319 slugging percentage.
Ngoepe knew his biggest value was in the field, but he also realized he had to improve on being a gap-to-gap hitter who could work his way on base.
"Back home, it's more like amateur leagues. If you can throw or catch, you can play in the league," he explained. "It's very slow and there are a lot of errors. They don't have the sharp breaking balls or the sharp sliders or the good change-ups. Their fastballs aren't very hard, you're basically facing 88 [mph] and that is at the top maybe. It's 84 or 85. Here it's 96 constantly with a good breaking ball.
"I might be behind some of the others with games and experience, but I'm picking it up and making progress with my abilities. I get better and stronger as time goes. They have been playing a lot of games from a young age, so they know what they're doing and what they need to do to get it done. For me, it's about getting game time and getting experience. It's a learning curve for me."
Ngoepe admitted the season didn't go as well as he wanted. But his chance to make amends in 2011 were crushed when he was limited to 25 games and 85 at-bats with Class A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League before undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his right hand. At the time of the injury, he was hitting .306 with two homers -- as many as in his previous 113 games.
"I got off to a very strong start, but I wish I could have played the whole season to see how I would have done," he said.
He got his answer this year. In 124 games with Class A Advanced Bradenton, Ngoepe had nine homers, 66 runs scored, 36 RBIs and 22 stolen bases. "I had ups and downs, started slow but figured it out. I got a little tired along the way, but playing 100-something games can get to you. It was also the first time they had pitched backwards, threw a lot of off-speed stuff to start off with, first-pitch sliders for strikes. Overall, I'm just learning still and getting experience at every level I play at."
The Pirates sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .261 in 16 games against some of the Minor Leagues' top prospects.
On Opening Day last April, there were 243 players from 15 countries or territories outside the United States on big league rosters. That represents more than a quarter of the players on 25-man rosters and inactive lists. In total, more than three times that many countries have been represented at one time or another.
"It's tough for the guys in the Minor Leagues. You represent South Africa and your family, but I am not alone in this boat to make it to the Majors," Ngoepe said. "Guys like [Mariners pitching prospect] Dylan Unsworth [have] had two great seasons and others are slowly progressing and making it through the Minors.
"It would be a great accomplishment. It would be good to represent my country and my family and everyone in South Africa, being the first one up there and opening up doors for guys to get seen. It's going to be fun."