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Ngoepe's development a Gift for MLB

First African-born player perservered through long journey to big leagues
MLB.com @philgrogers

Gift Ngoepe isn't a super prospect like Yoan Moncada, Cody Bellinger or Joey Gallo. There would be a bigger stir in Pittsburgh if the Pirates were calling up Austin Meadows.

But in terms of a personal triumph and cultural impact, Ngoepe (pronounced en-GO-pey) is a great thing for Major League Baseball.

View Full Game Coverage

Gift Ngoepe isn't a super prospect like Yoan Moncada, Cody Bellinger or Joey Gallo. There would be a bigger stir in Pittsburgh if the Pirates were calling up Austin Meadows.

But in terms of a personal triumph and cultural impact, Ngoepe (pronounced en-GO-pey) is a great thing for Major League Baseball.

View Full Game Coverage

It is getting a foothold on a new continent -- Africa -- and doing it with a guy who literally was raised by his single mother in the clubhouse of the Randburg Mets, a recreational team located outside Johannesburg.

When Ngoepe joined the Pirates for their 6-5 win over the Cubs on Wednesday at PNC Park, it completed the wildest of his dreams. It also rewarded the Bucs for their imagination and their patience, as they've watched the 27-year-old infielder grow up since 2008, when they spotted him at MLB's European academy in Italy.

Video: CHC@PIT: Ngoepe singles to tally first career hit

The first time I saw Ngoepe was in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He was a blur running around the bases in Mexico City, delivering two triples off Major League veteran Elmer Dessens in one game.

I repeat: two triples in the same game, by a 19-year-old representing South Africa, against a guy who had made 360 Major League appearances.

Ngoepe struck me as such a revelation that I did something I've never done before or since: I e-mailed a scout with a recommendation. But it turned out the Pirates had already locked him up.

Ngoepe spent nine seasons and 704 games climbing up the ladder from the Pirate City dormitories in Bradenton, Fla., to Pittsburgh. The first time I talked to him was outside the vast clubhouse at the Minor League complex in 2010. He had left behind his mother (who has since died), his two brothers and his girlfriend in Johannesburg to become a professional ballplayer, entrusting his future completely to the Bucs.

"It is difficult,'' Ngoepe told me then. "This is where I need to be to play the game I love. I want to make a future here, playing this game. It is what I think about every day. But my family, the life we have, is a long way away.''

Ngoepe started out as a switch-hitting shortstop, but he arrives in Pittsburgh more as a right-handed-hitting second baseman who can play multiple positions. He's a defense-first guy -- witness his .232 career batting average -- which makes it all the more remarkable that the Pirates added him to the 40-man roster in 2015 and have kept him there.

Video: PIT@TOR: Smoak grounds one to Ngoepe at short

Like Lithuanian reliever Dovydas Neverauskas, who made his Major League debut on Monday before being optioned Wednesday to make room for Ngoepe, the South African is part of an intriguing international cast that has passed through Pirate City over the past decade. The best known of those players are pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, who were found playing cricket in India.

Jon Hamm and Suraj Sharma starred in the 2014 movie "Million Dollar Arm,'' which told how the Bucs created a reality television show to find the hardest throwers in India.

A couple Spring Trainings ago -- the first for Ngoepe on the 40-man roster -- he was sought out by Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who had once visited Ghana on a mission sowing baseball's seeds in Africa. That same day I told Ngoepe that his story would make a better movie than "Million Dollar Arm.''

Ngoepe agreed, but he said the time wasn't right.

"My movie will be made after I play in the Major Leagues,'' he said.

The fellow has never lacked confidence. Here's what Ngoepe told me about the transition to American baseball when we talked in 2010.

"The game is very fast,'' he said. "It does not look like it is on television, but you see how fast it is played when you go to a game. Luckily for me, I am fast.''

Ngoepe's climb to the Major Leagues was anything but fast. He was pushed to stay at every level, and there's no way of knowing whether he'll be able to hit well enough to have a long-term future with the Pirates.

But Ngoepe has made it all the way up the ladder to the Major Leagues, with the odds piled against him.

It gives you goosebumps.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Gift Ngoepe