Ngoepe brothers reunite on other side of world

South African natives together in Pirates' farm system

March 25th, 2016

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Mpho' Gift Ngoepe was at home Feb. 9, 1998, inside the small room in the corner of the baseball clubhouse where he lived with his mother, Maureen. But as the evening wore on, five o'clock then six then seven, Maureen was nowhere to be found.
Instead, Gift saw his aunt. Where, he wondered, was his mother? She was at the hospital. But why would she be there?
Gift was too young at 8 years old, too busy running around and playing baseball to notice that something had been different about his mother. His aunt's answer came as a surprise.
"She was like, 'Oh, you're having a baby brother,'" Gift said. "Wow, I guess I'm having a baby brother!"
That was when Gift met Tlou Victor Ngoepe, beginning a brotherhood and friendship that would take them from their native South Africa and eventually reunite them in a clubhouse far from the one they still call home. The brothers, now both with the Pirates' organization, have reunited this spring in Florida.
"It's one of a kind," Gift said. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me, that he came into my life."
Victor grew up in the clubhouse with his mother and Gift. He learned nearly everything he knows about baseball from his big brother. But he'd always been more of a soccer player.
Baseball isn't a big sport in South Africa, not like cricket, soccer and rugby. Victor played cricket, tennis, field hockey and even dabbled in gymnastics. Baseball was something Victor played to stay in shape during the soccer offseason.
Then, in September 2008, Gift became the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract. The slick-fielding infielder, young and raw but full of potential, caught the Pirates' attention at an MLB academy in Italy. His career choice caught his brother's attention, too.
"I realized that, 'Hey, if my brother can do it, I can do it, too,'" Victor said.
So Victor focused on baseball, and scouts began to notice him. He took part in MLB's fifth African Elite Camp in December, and several teams expressed their interest. Most said they could sign him in June or July. Victor wanted to sign immediately.
Tom Gillespie, a scout who covers Europe for the Bucs, makes at least one trip to South Africa each year. He has known Gift since he was 17 and watched Victor play since he was 14. In the younger Ngoepe, Gillespie immediately saw a hard worker and a good defender, a potential shortstop just like Gift.
Gillespie also recognized the relentlessly upbeat, friendly, outgoing personality that endears Gift to everyone he meets.
"That is where you can tell they are brothers," Gillespie said. "Much like Gift, it's tough to meet him and not root for him."
Gillespie left the African camp and returned home to Germany, waiting for approval to officially make Victor an offer. Having seen the Pirates guide Gift through their farm system, Victor hoped it would work out -- but not as much as Gift did.
Gift, a dazzling defender at shortstop, has become a role model for South African children. They ask him for autographs when he goes home and pepper him with questions about baseball and America.
He is one call away from the big leagues due to his own hard work and the Bucs' support. Rather than let him become a Minor League free agent in November, Pittsburgh made Gift the first African-born player named to a Major League 40-man roster.
"They've never turned their back on him," Victor said.
Gift wanted the same thing for Victor, who wound up signing with the Pirates on Jan. 13. Gift walked him through each step of the process.
"I was more worried about another team signing him," Gift said, "because he wouldn't be near me and I wouldn't be able to help him along the way."
Gift helped raise Victor from the moment he came home to the Randburg Mets' clubhouse, where Maureen worked and lived with her two sons. Gift changed Victor's diapers, played with him, looked after him. When he was old enough, Victor would catch a ride to school on Gift's bike.
Victor started throwing around a baseball with his older brother when he was 4 years old. When Gift came home the past few years, tired from the long grind of a full season in the Pirates' Minor League system, Victor asked to practice with him.
"He's like my little son. I've looked after him since we were little kids," Gift said. "We have this unique relationship that's indescribable. My love for him is unconditional."
Recently, Gift has become more like a parent and guardian for Victor. Maureen was diagnosed with double pneumonia and passed away in 2013.
"He's obviously taken over my mother's role, but not proper. Nobody can replace a mother, you know what I mean?" Victor said. "Over these years, he's been my role model. He's been my father figure, too."
"I'm like his father, but at the same time his best friend," Gift added. " We drive each other. We support each other. We make each other smile. In difficult situations, I know I can call him and he knows he can call me."
Gift will spend the year with the Bucs' Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate, perhaps receiving the long-awaited callup to Pittsburgh. In his first professional season, Victor will live in the dorms of the club's Pirate City complex like Gift once did, playing in extended spring camp games and the Gulf Coast League.
When they fly home for the winter, they'll return to the same small clubhouse room where their mother raised them.
Two months after he signed, Victor got off a plane from South Africa and set foot in the United States for the first time. He retrieved his bags, found the car sent to pick him up, stood in front of the driver's door and waited. Back home, that would have been the passenger's side.
"Everything's opposite here," he said. "The driver was like, 'No, you've got to go to the other side.'"
The reality of life in the United States hasn't quite settled in for Victor. He's not yet ready to wrap his 18-year-old mind around the enormous improbability of his family's story playing out the way it has, two brothers who grew up in a South African baseball clubhouse playing professionally for the same Major League organization -- something they dreamed about as kids and visualized every time they'd practice turning double plays together.
"It's really cool to see. The odds of just having two South African players signed, having them be brothers and having them be in the same organization are slim to none," said Larry Broadway, the Pirates' director of Minor League operations. "It's definitely a unique and very exciting experience."
A week ago, the Bucs cut Gift from their big league Spring Training roster and sent him to Minor League camp. For the next few weeks, Gift will be back in the crowded Pirate City clubhouse. It's where he began his career, where Victor will now begin his.
They have come a long way since Feb. 9, 1998, but one thing hasn't changed.
"If he needs help, I'm always here," Gift said. "We'll just be there for each other every single day of this journey."