Gift Ngoepe walks into the Pittsburgh Pirates clubhouse, and his heart races, looking all around the room as if he’s inside the Louvre, trying to grasp the enormity of it all.
How, he asks to no one in particular, can this possibly be called a locker room? They look more like individual condominiums than lockers. It sure doesn’t look anything like the one he grew up in back home.
Ngoepe, 27, born in South Africa but too young to remember the pain and cruelty of apartheid, and still grasping the historical impact of Jackie Robinson in this country, is the first player from Africa to wear a major-league uniform.
“I know what I’m doing is significant for my country,’’ Ngoepe (pronounced (n-GO-pay) tells USA TODAY Sports, “but to me it’s not black and white. I grew up in the area of apartheid, but the white people were nice to me. I was nice to them. I went to English schools where I met white friends, and people who looked after me were white. I was fine with both races.
“I know there are things that happen here. I’ve been to a couple of places where they look at me like, ‘What is going on?’ But I’m not a guy of much conflict.
“I don’t want to hear about things that are bad. That’s why I don’t read the newspapers. Everything is just bad news, like this guy shot that guy. That guy shot this guy. I know about these things. I just don’t want to get in-depth with it.’’
Ngoepe may have grown up 8,000 miles away in Randburg, South Africa, but every time he walks into a new clubhouse, whether it’s PNC Park in Pittsburgh or SunTrust Park in Atlanta where he’s visiting for the first time this week, it reminds him of home.
The washer and dryers. The big refrigerator in the kitchen. The shower stalls. Even the baseball field just outside the walls.
“What I remember growing up,’’ Ngoepe says, “locker rooms didn’t look like this. And our field was rocky. This is awesome.’’
Ngoepe, you see, actually grew up in a baseball clubhouse.
Not figuratively, but literally.
Ngoepe, his mother, and two brothers lived in a 7 ½-by-9-foot room, about the size of a large closet, next to the clubhouse shower stalls of an amateur white baseball club called the Randburg Mets. They had a bed and a thin mattress, a dresser, a sink, a stool, a space heater and a TV.
His mother, Maureen, was the clubhouse attendant. She cooked and cleaned for the players, who practiced twice a week, and sold snacks during their games on Sundays. Ngoepe was the team’s batboy.
When the players went home after practice and games, Ngoepe kept playing alone. He spent hours throwing baseballs and tennis balls against the clubhouse walls. He threw pop-ups into the air and ran under them. He tossed balls into the air to hit.
“The wall, that was my best friend,’’ says Ngoepe, regarded as the Pirates’ top defensive infielder. “The wall just kept throwing the ball back to me. I didn’t need anybody else. Really, it was my perfect playground.’’
Ngoepe, in a land of cricket, rugby and soccer, became a baseball freak. He developed the soft hands and strong and accurate arm during the day, and would set his alarm at 2 in the morning sometimes, just to catch a major-league game.
He would dream of one day being the next Derek Jeter. The next Roberto Alomar. The next Nomar Garciaparra. He was a Boston Red Sox fan, only because his best friend was a New York Yankees fan.
“I would one day love to meet them,’’ Ngoepe says in his thick British accent. “I would like to meet Ken Griffey, too. Those were my heroes growing up.’’
Now, Ngoepe finds himself a role model, too, for those among the 1.2 billion people in Africa who may harbor similar dreams. If not baseball, he’s a man who exemplifies determination and resiliency.
Ngoepe, who never made more than $43,000 in a season until this year’s pro-rated $535,000 salary in the big leagues, spent nine years and 704 games in the minor leagues. He nearly quit several times, the last in 2013 when his mother died of pneumonia at the age of 45. He flew back home, was at her bedside for five days before she died in his arms, and spent the next 1 ½ months in South Africa grieving.
This was a woman who was three months pregnant with him and crying in church one day because his father abandoned them. A prophet walked into church that day and comforted her, told her that she would have a son. Name him, “Gift,’’ she said, because the child would be a “gift from God.’’
Maureen named her son: Mpho Gift Ngoepe. The first name also means “gift’’ in their native Sotho.
“It was so hard,’’ Ngoepe says, “because my mom meant everything to me. She was always there for me. But I know she would have wanted me to go on. She never wanted me to quit. So I kept pushing and pushing. I had to stay strong. I had to overcome my failures.
“Now, I believe I can be an inspiration.’’
Ngoepe has become a genuine folk hero back home now. Sure, he hasn’t reached the fame of Ernie Els, the U.S. Open and British Open champion, or legendary golfer Gary Palmer. Or swimmer Cameron van der Burgh, the gold medal winner in the 2012 Olympics. But quickly, he’s ascending the list of famous South Africa athletes.
Ngoepe, who produced his first hit off Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs, may be hitting just .200 these days as a slick-fielding middle infielder, but it hasn’t slowed the demands on his time from international media.
“The minister of sports just reached out,’’ Ngoepe says, “and said, ‘When you get home, let us know, so we can give you a hero’s welcome.’
“I’m like, “No. It’s not happening. I like my free time. When I get home, it will be just me, my family, and everything else can wait.’’’
Besides, when you’re trying to hang onto dear life in the big leagues without being sent back to Class AAA Indianapolis, it’s not the time to plan parade routes.
So far, he has been overwhelmed by the support of his new peers.
Pirates players have welcomed him as if they’ve known him their whole lives. Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays and Ian Desmond of the Texas Rangers shot him congratulatory text messages when he arrived to the big leagues. Cincinnati Reds All-Star first baseman Joey Votto walked across the field just to shake his hand. Hopefully one day, Ngoepe says, he can meet Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, too, telling him how much he admires him as a player and role model.
“There’s a little bit of pressure just to stay here,’’ Ngoepe says. “It’s hard. You’ve got to do everything you can to the best of your abilities to stay in this league. But I know if I do well, it will open more doors for African people.’’
No matter how long he sticks around, for a guy who was discovered only after spending three weeks in Major League Baseball’s European academy in 2008, tutored by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, Ngoepe has already beaten the astronomical odds.
“I kept wondering why no one would sign him,’’ says George Santiago, who worked for the International Baseball Federation when he first saw Ngoepe in 2007. “I would mention him to friends of mine and scouts. People looked at me like I was crazy, just because he was from South Africa.
“You saw the talent. You saw the tools. It’s not like you could miss him. He was the only brother on the South Africa team.’’
Says Larkin: “I remember seeing his athleticism and his strength on the field, but what really stood out for me was just his aptitude. He really had an understanding of the game and an ability to comprehend different situations required of him.
“He’s such a great kid, an off-the-charts quality individual. Really, he has fitting name, too, because he is really is a gift.’’
Ngoepe, sitting in front of his locker after a game last week, starts humming along to the music in the background, Michael Jackson’s “Beat it,’’ and breaks into an expansive grin.
Look at him, wearing No. 61 for the Pirates, staying in a hotel walking distance from PNC Park – where fans wave the flag of his country during games – and living the life he dreamed of as a child, however improbable.
“I haven’t made up my mind what I want to do when this is all over,’’ says Ngoepe, who has a tattoo of Africa on his left shoulder. “I do love South Africa, I really do. If the economy gets better, I’ll stay there. The safari. The people in South Africa. It’s such a beautiful place.
“But I know God has a plan for me. And my mom, she still watches over me, too.
“Really, I feel my journey has just begun.’’
This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.