Playing in the present

Gift Ngoepe has endured struggles on and off the field, but he is focused on one prize

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In a rain-spattered dugout, Gift Ngoepe eats Twizzlers and talks about home. Not the home he shares with pitcher Zack Dodson when he is playing for the Pirates' Class AA affiliate, the Altoona Curve, but his home half a world away in South Africa.

He talks about the place he grew up, the roughly 10-foot wide room that served as the kitchen and bedroom.

There aren't many places where a boy can fall in love with baseball in South Africa. But growing up in a clubhouse might be the best place to start.

That is where this tiny room was: attached to the clubhouse at a ballpark in Randburg, South Africa. His mother, Maureen, worked for a team called the Mets, cleaning and doing other jobs. Ngoepe lived in the closet-sized room with Maureen and his younger brother.

Ngoepe could have played soccer or cricket -- the sports most of his countrymen prefer. But he chose baseball, a game many South Africans don't understand. He told his mother long ago that he would make it to the major leagues, and that when he did, he would provide for her, as she had for him.

He is not the most highly touted prospect. Some fans might never have heard the name Mpho Ngoepe, his first name meaning "gift" in the Sotho language, his last name pronounced en-WEE-pay. He has been in the Pirates system for five years and he has not made it past Class AA.

But yet it's Ngoepe -- not Gregory Polanco or Jameson Taillon -- who was profiled in Sports Illustrated long before he made it out of rookie ball. Not because of his bat or glove, but because he had a story to tell. A story that starts in South Africa and hasn't yet reached its ending.

***

Ngoepe left Africa for an MLB academy in Italy, where the Pirates spotted him. In 2008, he signed with the organization and soon came to America.

A 5-foot-10, 165-pound middle infielder, Ngoepe played for the Pirates Gulf Coast League team in Bradenton, Fla., in 2009 at 19. From there, his ascension through the Pirates system has been slow.

The transition to American baseball was not easy, but the transition to an American mentality might have been more difficult.

Being ready to field grounders and hit batting practice hours before the first pitch was an adjustment. In South Africa, Ngoepe and his teammates were on the field 20 or 30 minutes before the game. American ballplayers are working on their skills hours before game time, and, even then, they have to arrive early.

"If you're not on the field five minutes early, you're late," Ngoepe, 24, said of the American standard. "Five minutes is a lot of time. I can get ready and eat and make it out on time. The atmosphere was more relaxed in South Africa."

His bat has needed adjustments, too. Ngoepe has always been a smooth fielder, playing shortstop and second base. But his highest batting average was .297 in 2011, a year in which he played 27 games between rookie ball and Class A West Virginia. When he made it to Altoona in 2013, his average dropped considerably.

"Last year, I took a lot of pitches and missed a lot of fastballs," Ngoepe said. "If I'm not hitting fastballs, I'm not going to hit anything else."

His average was down to .177 when he received a troubling call from home. His mother had pneumonia and was in the hospital. The team was in Akron, Ohio, for a five-game series in late June. Ngoepe called home again and spoke with his mother. She urged him to stay in America, but she didn't sound well.

The next day, Ngoepe asked Altoona manager Carlos Garcia to take him out of the lineup. He told him what was going on at home and that he couldn't concentrate on baseball.

On the field in warm-ups, a teammate asked him if everything was OK. Ngoepe lost control and tears started flowing. He went back into the clubhouse and again found himself with Garcia. His manager called the Pirates and explained the situation. The team paid for a flight and before long he was home.

***

The hospital in South Africa had only two-hour windows for visitors. When he saw Maureen, his first thought was that she had lost a lot of weight. The next day he was back at the appointed visiting hour, this time with as much food as he could carry.

"I made her eat," Ngoepe said. "I made her food at home and brought it with me."

Ngoepe repeated this routine. On his fifth day home, his mother died. She was 45.

"It was really difficult," Ngoepe said. "Growing up with her and only her, my father wasn't with us, she'd do everything."

Ngoepe stayed in South Africa for a month. When he returned to America, the Pirates assigned him to Class A Bradenton. After everything he went through, getting his mind focused on baseball again wasn't so hard.

"After I let my anger go, I felt a little bit at peace knowing she was in a better place," Ngoepe said. "But, at the same time, I have a huge hole in my heart that is still there."

***

He has missed out on events at home in South Africa -- birthdays and weddings -- but Ngoepe said America hasn't changed him.

His average has improved, but is still nothing stellar -- .251 through Thursday -- and he remains a long way from the majors.

"Sometimes, you forget the fun part of baseball," he said. "Sometimes, we take it to the extreme and say it's hard, but you're just digging yourself a bigger hole."

Ngoepe doesn't want to dig a bigger hole.

He wants to play in the majors like he told his mother he would years ago in a South African clubhouse he called home.

And even though his trip through the minors has been slow, he believes he can make it.

"You've got to have that belief," he said. "Otherwise you're just out there playing a game."

Sean Hammond: shammond@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1466 and Twitter @sean_hammond.


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