There are few better stories in baseball than Mpho Gift Ngoepe‘s. A 19-year-old infield prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Ngoepe is one year removed from a Sports Illustrated profile that chronicled his remarkable journey from a mud hut in Limpopo to literally living in a clubhouse in a Johannesburg suburb, to becoming the first black South African ever to sign a professional baseball contract. Currently with the short-season State College Spikes, the athletic—and no less charismatic—Ngoepe is hitting .227/.339/.345.
David Laurila: If someone hasn’t heard of you, how do you explain yourself to them?
Mpho Gift Ngoepe: I’m Gift Ngoepe and I’m from South Africa. I’d tell them where I play—which position I play—shortstop and second base, and the team I play for, which is the Pirates.
DL: What does it mean to be from South Africa?
MGN: South Africa is a great place. There is a lot of learning environment and it is different [from] other countries in that we don’t have as many rules. It’s not as strict and people are free to do whatever they want. It’s just a whole different side from America. America is more strict, and you have to abide by the rules, or else there will be problems.
DL: How different is life for a black South African compared to what it was under apartheid?
MGN: Now, black people have more freedom. It’s not the same as before, when we were restricted to so many things at certain hours. Now we can do whatever, and be in whatever city, be with the white people—mixing with the different cultures and different people around South Africa.
DL: As a baseball player, is it important to you that you’re a black South African?
MGN: It’s not really important that you’re black or white. Everybody is looked at as one. We’re all a family and we all help each other.
DL: Is that a cultural thing, or a personal thing?
MGN: I guess that it is a personal thing that I’ve grown into, because I’ve grown up culturally mixed. I was brought up with a lot of white people, but I also had my culture when I needed it.
DL: How difficult was it for you to come to the United States?
MGN: It was kind of a difficult choice. I had to make a choice to come here and it is a way of helping my family; that is the way that I look at it. Being a million miles away from my family and everything, it is kind of hard to make contact and stay with the people that I love the most. But it is a way of helping them and making their lives better in South Africa.
DL: When did you know that you wanted to play professional baseball in the United States?
MGN: Since I was young. I always had this dream. When I was watching ESPN, I was thinking that one day I wanted to be there playing in that competition with those guys, with certain names, and I just kept working hard until I was able to sign with a professional team.
DL: Do people back home in South Africa think that you’re making a lot of money here, in the low minors?
MGN: Yeah, they kind of think that you’re rich, that you’re getting paid a lot of money because you’re playing baseball in America. They don’t really know how it is and how the system works. Everybody thinks that you start at A [ball] and then go up to Double-A, or Double-H, and then to the majors. They kind of forget about the rookie guys at the bottom. They think the rookie guys are closer [to the big leagues].
DL: What is life in the minor leagues like for you?
MGN: Life in the minor leagues is kind of tough. You have to battle your way through, and you have guys that are better than you, also. Some, you are better than, so you’re really close in competition, which is always keeping you at your highest point of play. You have to play hard every day and come in with a lot of energy. In the minor leagues, everybody is good and everybody wants to reach the goal—as you want to reach it—and that makes you work harder to try to get to the top.
DL: Are you an “energy” guy on the field?
MGN: Yes, I like to bring energy to the team. That makes me calm and relaxed in the game, and kind of builds the team and makes them play harder with a guy who has more energy and can keep them going, no matter what the score is or how we’ve been playing throughout the season.
DL: Are you ever nervous on the field?
MGN: You’ll be nervous every single day that you come out onto the field. You’re kind of nervous about how you’re going to start off, or how it is going to be for you today. You kind of take it as it is, but when that first pitch is made, or when you take that first ball, or when you hit the first ball, you get kind of calm and relaxed and know what you can, and can’t, do for the day.
DL: This year’s World Cup was in South Africa. Did you watch it?
MGN: I did watch it. It wasn’t as interesting as the previous World Cups, but based on the way it was in South Africa, it was kind of exciting, and thrilling, for the people back home to watch. They support soccer. It is probably the No. 1 sport in South Africa.
DL: How important is baseball in South Africa?
MGN: It is not really big in South Africa. It is one of those sports where people don’t know about it, but once they get to play it they kind of enjoy it. You just have to explain the rules. They think it is just pick up a bat, throw, hit the ball—they think that it is that easy. They don’t know the complexity of the game. Once they get involved, they kind of want to play more and do more. It also helps with other sports. Baseball helps with cricket, with the throwing and with your eye—your hand-eye coordination—and everything. It’s a good sport to start off with and teach children before they get into other sports.
DL: Where, besides the United States, have you played baseball?
MGN: I’ve played in various World Baseball Championships games in Taiwan, with the national team. I played in Cuba with the Under-18s, and in Mexico with the Under-18s. I went to a couple of training camps that were in Italy; I went there two years. I spent two months in each of the years and got to meet some of the MLB players that played, and they helped teach you. I also played in the World Baseball Classic, in Mexico, last year.
DL: Do you speak Spanish?
MGN: I do understand Spanish, and speak enough to make a conversation. I speak four or five languages. I speak English. We have a dialect of Dutch, which is from the Netherlands, that we call Afrikaans. Then there is my mother’s tongue, which is Sutu [Sotho]. There is also a dialect of my homeland tongue, which is Sutu, but that is southern Sutu and mine is northern Sutu. Then there is my stepfather’s language, which is Zulu. And then there is Spanish.
DL: To close, what do you want people to know about you?
MGN: I want them to see me as a normal person that likes to do whatever he wants to do. I like to go out and have fun, no matter what happens. I’m always keeping a smile on my face and having energy every single day. And I’m a person who always believes in himself. I trust in people to believe in me.