He returned home to South Africa, just as he has every offseason since signing his first professional baseball contract in 2008.
But this winter, everything was different for Gift Ngoepe. It was the first taste of fame. And while it can be exhilarating at times, he found it also could be exhausting.
The 28-year-old fielded media request after media request. Everyone wanted to talk with him. Everyone wanted to write about him. Everyone wanted to celebrate Ngoepe’s story. And while there will always be a pride factor in being the first person born on the continent of Africa to play in the major leagues, the tag can be a bit of a burden as well.
Ngoepe, now with the Buffalo Bisons, appeared in 28 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates last season.
“When I made my big-league debut, it was great. All the fame and the radio stations and newspapers calling me and all the articles,” Ngoepe said. “At some points it was fun and at some points it was a little too much because everybody wants a piece. 'Hey, let me interview you. Hey, let me get you on TV.' Having that tag is great but also can be a little distracting.
“Everybody wanted to interview me. And I’m trying to work out and get my work in to be ready for the next season. ... There’s perks with it and there’s disadvantages to being the first African-born player.”
See, Ngoepe would rather get back to the work of playing baseball, of learning the game and perfecting his craft and, most importantly, finding his swing. The infielder is hitting just .170 with the Bisons this season. And those numbers, well, they won’t get him back to the big leagues any time soon.
“Offensively is the biggest part of the game. If you don’t produce you don’t play or you don’t stay up in the big leagues,” Ngoepe said. “That’s the biggest thing in this game. You’ve got to produce with the bat.
“I mean this season has come with a lot of downs so to speak. “Numberwise there hasn’t been any productivity from me. I just keep battling every single day and try to improve, try to be better than I was yesterday. That’s my goal every single day to be better than I was the day before, the month before. It’s just little things that keep me going.”
The little things are what have helped Ngoepe move through the baseball system, introducing a wider audience to his baseball origin story. The tale was told widely last year after April 26, 2017, when the Pirates called him up.
He is the son of a single mother and grew up with his two brothers in Randburg, South Africa. His mother, Maureen, worked for the Randburg Mets, an amateur baseball club, handling the cooking and cleaning in exchange for living in a trailer next to the clubhouse. Which is how Ngoepe came to learn and love baseball, a sport that lags far behind soccer, rugby, and cricket in popularity in South Africa.
After the Pirates signed him, the infielder began his professional baseball career in North America in 2009 with the Gulf Coast Pirates in the Florida rookie league. He made his Double-A debut in 2013 and cracked Triple-A in 2015.
His MLB debut lasted until June, when the Pirates returned him to Triple-A Indianapolis after he hit .222 in 54 at-bats with six RBIs.
That provided Ngoepe with his latest life lesson in baseball.
“Had a bit of playing time up there and when they sent me down I was a little bit disappointed,” Ngoepe said. “My first thought was let’s push. Let’s push harder and that’s not always the answer. Trying to push for more and do more is not the answer. That’s the biggest thing I learned last year. I was trying to do too much, trying to do more, to get back up to the big leagues, but you’ve just got to play the game, play it hard, and whatever happens, happens.”
In November, the Pirates traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays for cash considerations and the new organization gave Ngoepe a new opportunity.
“I had been with one team for a long time and they knew what I can do,” Ngoepe said. “Coming to a new organization there’s new faces, new people to impress. It was a good move for me.”
He began the season with the Blue Jays because of injuries among the Toronto infielders before being sent to Buffalo in mid-April. At the time, he was hitting .056 with one hit and 12 strikeouts in 18 at-bats. He was recalled for one game in May and then returned to the Bisons.
Along with a new organization, Ngoepe is dealing with a new position this season. The shortstop has moved to third base as the Blue Jays looked at their needs to determine where players may find their best fit in the organization. While Ngoepe has struggled at times with hitting, his defense has been a consistent strength in his game. But learning a new infield position takes time.
He has 23 games at shortstop for the Bisons with five errors, 31 putouts and 16 double plays. He has been error-free in his 12 games at third with 14 putouts and four double plays. He has had four games at second, with an error, six putouts and three double plays.
“At shortstop you have more time and then you can read which hop you want. You create your own hop,” Ngoepe said. “At third base you don’t have that. You have to react at third base. It took me a little while to figure it out but now that I’ve figured out, now I’ve got to get my angles right. There’s a lot to a person moving from shortstop to third base. The ball comes in quicker and you have to trust your instinct.”