When I got down to the field to talk to Gift Ngoepe on Saturday in New Hampshire, Josh Bell was the only other player in the Curve's mostly-empty dugout.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the one, the only, Gift Ngoepe." Bell said, doing his best impression of a stadium announcer. Ngoepe stood up, walked to the front of the dugout, looked up at the stands, jammed with make-believe fans and playfully doffed his cap.
I didn't originally plan on interviewing Ngoepe during my six-game swing with the Curve -- his numbers don't necessarily jump off the page. However, players and team officials kept talking about him in a way that made clear that they love him. And it's not just that he's a good-natured teammate, it's that the Curve's players believe Ngoepe makes them better. In particular, Bell and Ngoepe are almost inseparable, and the latter is helping the former make an important career move to the infield.
When I told Ngoepe what his teammates were saying, he smiled and thanked me for telling him.
"I want to help as much as I can," Ngoepe said. "If I don't make it to the big leagues and if someone I helped along the way [did], I'd be so happy for him. I'm wouldn't take any credit. But just knowing I was a great teammate and that we helped each other along the way would be a great blessing."
From South Africa to professional baseball
Mpho' Gift Ngoepe was raised in Randburg, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. He received his unique name from a stranger who approached his mother at a local church function.
"Some lady approached my mom, and she doesn't know who this lady is, or where she is from, or anything like that," Ngoepe explained. "This lady comes by and, at that time my mom was pregnant with me, and she said, "Hey, you must name your child Mpho', which -- Mpho' in my language means 'gift.' So, my mom translated the name into Gift. So that's how I got Mpho' Gift. Most people do think it is my nickname, but it is actually my second name. "
Ngoepe lived with his mother in a small clubhouse room attached to the baseball park where she worked. Baseball is a relatively minor sport in South Africa, but living at a ballpark gave Ngoepe a love of the game. At a young age, he honed skills performing drills that many of us can relate to from our youths.
"Growing up I practiced a lot by myself," Ngoepe said. "I started playing at the age of three. I had a little tee and practiced my swings. I [also] ended up having a little golf ball, sometimes a baseball, and I had a wall. I'd throw it against the wall and give myself all kinds of different hops and different fly balls. I'd hit wall at a specific spot and it'd give me a fly ball or different ground balls."
Ngoepe excelled at cricket, soccer and baseball. He eventually dropped cricket because it "takes forever" to play, but he said he was a good and aggressive hitter and that the way you read a bowler in cricket is similar to adjusting to a pitcher in baseball. With cricket behind him, he was left to decide whether to pursue soccer or baseball.
"When the Pirates came along in 2008 in Italy for the MLB camp, they said they liked the way I worked and my talent," Ngoepe said. "They said they wanted to sign me. So I had to make a decision between soccer, which I still played, and baseball. With soccer I could stay at home with my family and be comfortable. Or, go to a different country. I love traveling and get to experience so much."
He chose baseball and travel, and when he signed with the Pirates, he became the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract. The historic contract made him a role model for other young black South Africans who want to play baseball.
"I've spoken to a couple kids and they are like, ‘I want to be just like you. I want to play professional baseball,'" Ngoepe said. "I just say to them, ‘Yes, you can do it.' I try to inspire as many kids as I can. When I go back home I try to coach some kids, especially my old province team."
His decision to pursue his baseball dreams and see the world initially concerned his mom, and she wasn't comfortable with his decision to move so far away.
"She didn't really understand me going to the U.S. She was like, 'What is going on with your life?'" Ngoepe said. "She didn't understand when I would come home or how long I was going to be away. I was like, ‘I don't know anything, Mom. I'm just going to go out there. I know it is going to be a long time where I'm going to be gone — from Spring Training until the season ends.' The Pirates said they would pay for my flights from home to here every single year. So I was like, ‘Ok, I'll be able to come home every year.' She eventually understood."
Ngoepe's mom passed away two years ago.
"Me and my mom were very close," he said. "If she needed help with anything, if she was sick, I'd be the one taking care of her. If I was sick, she'd be taking care of me. It was just me and her to start off when I was young."
With the loss of his mother, Ngoepe and his younger brother Victor built an even stronger relationship, which he counts on these days to help get through tough times.
"My little brother, though, is such a blessing to me," he said. "I thank God for bringing him into my life. He is my go-to now whenever I have problems. He makes me smile on dreary days."
Transition to professional baseball
Becoming a pro ballplayer wasn't easy for Ngoepe. At first, he felt isolated and his teammates had a difficult time understanding his South African English accent
"When I got here, it was a bit of a struggle for me. I couldn't communicate with the guys because they said my English was way too fast and I still had the slang from back home, which didn't help the cause," he said. "So whenever I talked to my teammates I had to repeat myself four or five times and I was like, ‘Guys, I'm talking English, how do you not understand what I'm trying to say to you? I'm not speaking gibberish. We speak the same language. I know you guys are U.S [and I speak with an accent] ... but it's all the same language.' It kind of got frustrating."
Adding to the isolation, his coaches initially misinterpreted his work ethic.
"My biggest thing for me was that the coaches didn't understand who I was," he explained. "I'm pretty laid-back, carefree kind of guy. I play the game and do what I have to do, but then when the game is over, I'm done with the game."
American coaches, however, viewed baseball as full-time activity. They wanted him thinking about and working on his game more than he was accustomed to. This led him to burn out and lose confidence in his ability.
"You start thinking more about baseball, and when you're not playing well those negative thoughts play on your mind and start snowballing. Before you know it, you're in June or July and you're out of energy."
Recent offensive adjustments
Ngeope is a plus defender. His glove work around the bag is quick and clean and he has excellent range. According to Brian Cartwright's advanced defensive metrics, he is a career +19.4/150 at shortstop and +14.5/150 at second (runs saved above average).
Ngeope credits his evolution as a defender to his relationship with Barry Larkin, who first start working with him at an MLB camp in Italy -- the same camp at which the Pirates expressed interested in signing him.
"He came into my life and he taught me how to field with one hand and to be more comfortable turning double plays in a certain way," he said. "I thank him for everything he taught me. He was one of my guys that gave me an extra step in baseball to be better than the guys back home."
Ngeope defense makes him an interesting middle infielder prospect for the Pirates. The focus this year is finally getting his offensive game on track. Before the season (his third in Double-A), the Pirates told him that if he could just get his bat going, he could make it to the big leagues someday.
This led him to make an important change.
"The Pirates wanted me to be a leadoff hitter and to wear out the pitcher," Ngeope said. "I've struggled in that department. Left-handed especially, I wasn't very comfortable hitting to the opposite field. I wanted to hit it up the middle and pull, because I was more comfortable that way. And whenever I'd try to go the other way, I'd fail miserably."
Ngeope decided that he would give up switch-hitting and concentrate on becoming a good offensive player from the right side only.
"I keep hearing the same thing -- ‘Your bat, your bat, your bat,'" Ngoepe said. "I was like, ‘Ok, fine. If you guys want me to compete better, I'm going to stay right-handed because I feel more comfortable that way.'"
He knew it would be an adjustment because now curveballs and sliders would break away from him and he hadn't dealt with that before. He's struggling with that so far this season.
"I know what kind of hitter I am right-handed," Ngeope said. "I have more power, but sometimes I'll over-swing. I just need to be consistent in driving to drive the ball to the wall. Now it is coming. I am learning to drive the ball."
As Ngeope's offense continues to be a work in progress, he remains committed to the one thing his teammates value above all else — his knowledge of the game and his willingness to help them improve.
When I asked him about Bell and Max Moroff, he said, "They've both come a long way, especially Josh. I'm trying to just help him not to get so mad when he misses the ball, because there is always another one that is going to come up next. The biggest thing for Josh is just being relaxed and not worrying about what happened before."
Ngoepe believes Bell is progressing quickly.
"He's actually picking the ball much better," Ngoepe said. "He's seeing the ball a bit better. He's moving his feet much better."
Having played both shortstop and second base in his career, Ngoepe is proving an important resource for Moroff, who is making the transition from short to second.
"Max has come a long way," Ngoepe said. "We consistently talk about different plays that happen in a game, so he's always aware of what might happen or what could happen in the game. Him and I communicating throughout the game helps our bond. You have to have that bond with your partner in the middle infield, so that we can be strong as a unit up the middle. Max is making more plays. I'm just working on helping him make different flips and ways to catch the ball and make better transfers."
Ngoepe said he isn't quite sure he wants to get into coaching once his playing career ends, but he's open to it.
"I see what the coaches go through, and I'm not sure I want to deal with all that stuff," he said. "If I one day become a coach, I can say to the players, ‘I've been in every situation you can think of. I've been where I don't like the coach. I can only help you this much, but any way you feel comfortable doing what you do, refine that asset. Refine that diamond and make it more perfect each and every day.'"
That's good advice. Ngoepe might or might not make an impact as a big-league player, but either way, he could play a role in developing some who do.