DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Curtis Granderson has traveled all over the world as an official ambassador for Major League Baseball. He has been to Asia, Europe and New Zealand, but it's a 2007 trip to South Africa that he has spent a lot of time thinking about lately.
Memories from that decade-old journey have come flooding back. Granderson arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the goal of growing the sport he fell in love with as a kid. He ran clinics and talked to local youth. What Granderson didn't know back then, was that he was also meeting one of his future teammates.
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At the time, Africa had never exported a professional baseball player to North America, and as far as Granderson knew, it wasn't about to happen any time soon. But that's one of the reasons he was there. The short-term objective was to encourage more people to play the sport, but the long-term plan was to develop a pipeline of young talent that one day would chase their big league dreams.
Unbeknownst to Granderson, the player who would break down all of the barriers was taking part in his clinics. A young infielder with soft hands and incredible range by the name of Mpho' Ngoepe went through all of the drills on those South African backfields, hoping somebody would take notice. Less than a year later, Ngoepe would become the first African-born player to sign with a Major League team.
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"They said there was a Detroit Tiger, Major League Baseball player, coming down and everybody was excited to meet him," said Ngoepe, who was 17 at the time. "Then, [Granderson] was there a short period of time in Johannesburg. He caught some of the kids and told them stories about the Major Leagues and just gave them inspiration [for] wanting to pursue life in baseball."
For Ngoepe, it was his first exposure to a big league ballplayer. He wasn't new to the sport -- Ngoepe grew up living in a 7 1/2-by-9-foot room adjacent to a field, where his mother worked as a clubhouse attendant for the Randburg Mets -- but he never envisioned making a living by playing baseball, because nobody from his country had ever done it before.
Granderson's message was simple. It doesn't matter where you come from, what your skin color is, or how big you are, never stop chasing your dreams. Granderson used his own story about growing up in basketball-crazy Chicago and frequently being told he was too small, or not fast enough to make it, as motivation in life. Those lessons aren't restricted to a baseball field, but hearing the struggles of someone who made it only added fuel to the fire for Ngoepe.
Ngoepe showed enough during those initial clinics that he was invited to participate in MLB's academy in Tirrenia, Italy, the following year. That was when at least one scout stopped paying attention to where Ngoepe was from and instead focused on his skill set. Shortly after that, he signed a contract with the Pirates and his professional journey was under way.
The first person to accomplish just about anything usually paves the way for someone else. In Ngoepe's case, it didn't take long to realize that. MLB has been around for more than a century, but until last season there wasn't a single player to make the Majors out of Africa. Now, there could be two from one family, as Ngoepe's brother Victor signed with the Pirates organization in '16. Sometimes, all it takes is one person to break down the stereotypes.
"I think from a player standpoint, as long as you have somebody you can connect with and go, 'Wow, he actually did it when a lot of people didn't say he could. I'm from his neighborhood, I'm from his city, I'm from his country. Maybe that can be me,'" Granderson said.
"From a scouting standpoint, when you see a lot of people who have a very similar makeup to someone like Gift -- like his brother -- [you] realize that there are a lot of things we can explore [in Africa] by coming to observe and coming to scout. Worst case, bring him over here to the U.S. and give him an opportunity to run around and play with some of the talent over here."
Granderson has always looked back on that trip to South Africa as one of the highlights of his baseball career, but he wasn't aware of Ngoepe's history until the two were reunited midway through last season. During a Mets trip to Pittsburgh, Ngoepe approached Granderson to share his story.
In a way, Ngoepe's journey helped validate a lot of the work that Granderson has done in communities all over the world. Ngoepe isn't here because of Granderson, but he's in North America because someone finally gave him an opportunity, and that's what Granderson's trips overseas were all about.
"For me, it was like, 'Wow,' I got a chance to meet somebody during the baseball ambassador trip, and part of the reason they brought me over there, was to promote the game to hopefully get the first Major League Baseball player to come out of it, and he was the guy," Granderson said.
"I had a chance to have a little bit of impact in it and now here we are together, in Blue Jays uniforms going out there, doing a lot of the same things we talked about back in 2007. Now, instead of me being the one teaching, now I'm learning from him and we're going out there to do our best to improve our careers and make the most of it."