Players in African Elite Camp show promise
Coaches come away impressed with youngsters' potential, attitude
Garth Iorg has seen a lot in a full baseball life. He carved out a nine-year Major League career (all with the Blue Jays), he played against his brother, Dane, in the 1985 American League Championship Series, and he watched as Dane got the game-winning hit for the Royals in Game 6 of that year's World Series. Garth also coached Major Leaguers and has a son, Cale, who played in the Minors.
But upon arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, last week to lead MLB's fifth African Elite Camp, along with a staff of former big league players and coaches, Iorg was speechless. He said he simply could not believe the pure magic of what he was witnessing and experiencing.
Part of it was the physical beauty of his exotic surroundings. Cape Town, a stunning city on South Africa's southwest coast, is situated on a peninsula surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. High above the city towers Table Mountain.
But Iorg, former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Fernando Perez and Pirates coordinator of instruction Dave Turgeon were even more captivated by the humility, joy, eagerness to learn, and talent of the 40 players and 20 visiting coaches who made their way to the Bothasig Baseball Club for the 10-day camp.
"It's truly amazing," Iorg said by phone after another hard day of work on the camp fields. "The people here are wonderful. They want to learn. They want to get better. And frankly, they can't get enough.
"They drink it in. I've never experienced this before. They can't get enough of baseball. MLB needs to be very proud of what they've accomplished here."
Already, huge strides have been made in the five years of the Elite Camp, which is the most significant player development program in a continent where sports such as cricket, rugby and soccer still garner much of the attention of young athletes. Since its inception, 105 players from seven nations have attended, with four of those players signing professional contracts with big league clubs.
Robert Lewis-Walker (Reds), Callan Pearce and Rowan Ebersohn (Twins) and Vince Deyzel (Pirates) are all Elite Camp alumni, and there are more to come, according to Perez. Maybe a lot more.
"The first day I saw them taking infield and outfield, I was pretty shocked at how good it was," Perez said via phone from the camp. "The game yesterday was really good. They were playing against a club team of 20- to 25-year-old guys, and I was really, really impressed. They took care of the ball. They knew what to do in situations.
"There's something about them that makes them very coachable. And they're really excited about the opportunity."
One huge positive for the campers has been the presence of Gift Ngoepe, a Pirates prospect who was raised in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, signed out of the 2008 MLB European Elite Camp, and recently became the first African-born player to be named to a Major League 40-man roster. Gift's brother, Victor, is a young shortstop who is participating in the camp and turning heads.
"He's natural," said Perez, who was with the Rays in 2008 and 2009 and played in the '08 World Series. "I didn't take pitches like him until I was in Double-A. He's that patient.
"He just does everything very well. He's had the best big brother to copy. They're both very smart. I expect he'll be an exciting young prospect. Maybe the second African-born MLB player, because Gift will be the first."
There are high hopes for the future of baseball in Africa, and the Elite Camp is a large part of it. This year, there are 22 players from South Africa, 14 from Uganda, two from Nigeria, one from Kenya, one from Ghana and the first player ever selected from Burkina Faso.
Twenty African coaches from 10 nations are also involved, and are learning every day from the MLB staff.
"The value isn't just teaching players, it's that we have all of these confederation coaches that are going through the experience too," Perez added. "That's where the seeds are really being planted. The coaches go back to their countries and they have influence with the coaches around them."
But the Africans aren't the only ones being educated, and that's the beauty of coming together from different cultures to share in a universal game.
Perez says he is learning a lot about how he can tailor his instructional skills to individual athletes and to teach youngsters how to observe the game and not just play it.
"[Former big leaguer] Steve Finley once told me in Italy that he didn't really start learning about the game until he was no longer one of the best athletes on the field," Perez said. "That's what I'm trying to relate to these coaches. The game is really, really strange, and a part of what's been exciting, and really fun, is explaining that there's a lot of yin and yang at play in baseball and a lot of things are really situational."
Iorg said he already knows the Elite Camp is something he'll never forget.
"I'll remember how much fun we're having and how much positive work we're getting done," Iorg said.
"But most of all I'll remember these kids and their amazing, smiling faces."