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Gift Ngoepe: South Africa to the Pittsburgh Pirates

Gift Ngoepe South Africa Pittsburgh PiratesGift Ngoepe might not be on your fantasy radar or in MVP discussions, but he probably has one of the top moments of the baseball season. Ngoepe became the first African-born player to appear in a Major League Baseball game back on April 26. He has made plenty of appearances for the Pittsburgh Pirates since then compiling a .222 batting average with a double and a triple in 36 at-bats.

I recall hearing about Gift Ngoepe almost a month ago when he made his big league debut and singled off of the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester in his first MLB plate appearance. However, I didn’t think much of it because there wasn’t much coverage outside of a few articles probably forced upon the writers who covered the story. Amidst the unlimited Derek Jeter coverage on Sunday night, I was drawn to various Jeter websites, including one of my favorite sites for stories: The Players’ Tribune.

While scrolling through Jeter stories and his love/love relationship with baseball and the city of New York, the first non-Jeter story I came across was about Gift Ngoepe. If you aren’t familiar with The Players’ Tribune, the athletes write all the articles. Maybe some of them receive help, but it essentially a collection of first person essays from the athletes who play the game.

Ngoepe stuck out to me because of his name, his number 61, and he has a unique haircut for the Major Leagues. He’s not your typical MLB player because he’s the first player from his continent to play in the Majors. His background and path to The Show are very different from typical American-born players. His journey led him from Pietersburg, South Africa, to a camp in Italy, to the minor league system where he would stay for nine seasons.

It is interesting to see what the future holds for potential prospects in African and European countries. The Pirates also made history recently by promoting the first Lithuanian born player, relief pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas. He did not garner as much attention as Ngoepe, but being the first Major Leaguer from any country is still an achievement to be proud of.

Gift Ngoepe South Africa Pittsburgh PiratesThe Oakland Athletics made waves in the early 2000’s with the Moneyball concept implemented by GM Billy Beane. Many teams have focused their attention to sabermetrics and extreme defensive shifts as well as other new game strategy. There is already a fair amount of resources planted in North and South American countries. Asia has its own professional baseball environment. Yet many places still have barely even heard of baseball.

How long will it take for MLB to discover these locations and find a way to hold tryouts to scour the globe for potential prospects? What is the cost of reaching so far when there are thousands of players in America who are just as affordable? Players already practically play for nothing (outside of top draft picks). It is interesting to think that the game could really be more global, but the time resources needed to make that happen are immense. Introducing America’s pastime to young athletes who probably have no idea what a home run is also takes patience to allow the seeds to be planted and grown.

Hopefully, Gift Ngoepe will be a regular Major Leaguer for some time to come. He is only 27, having spent almost a decade working his way up through the minor league system. He is a rookie who could still end up having a 10+ year Major League career if he stays healthy and continues to increase his production at the plate and in the field.

His journey from South Africa to the Pittsburgh Pirates might not be as historic as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, but Gift Ngoepe has shown that the game of baseball has a place for anybody who wants to be a part of it.

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