The clubhouse was Gift Ngoepe’s home, an equipment storeroom his bedroom. The field, where the beginnings of his road to baseball history started, was his backyard.
Never mind that Ngoepe’s field of dreams was a bit patchy. Never mind that there was no home run fence. And never mind that the Randburg Mets’ park is hidden away on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, where baseball is as obscure a sport as you could imagine.
“I rolled out of bed and was on first base,” said Ngoepe, now an infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Ngoepe made history last month when he ran out for Pittsburgh against the Chicago Cubs, the first African to play Major League Baseball.
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To do it, he turned a lot of adversity to his advantage.
Poor, Ngoepe lived from the age of 2 to 18 with his mother and younger brother — and later his older brother — in a tiny room at the Randburg Mets clubhouse, where mom Maureen worked in the food stall. The room — more of a walk-in closet — was a storage area that was cleared out so Maureen and her boys had somewhere to stay. Somewhere to lay mattresses and squeeze in an old TV.
At night, the boys could spread out into a second room where the team’s equipment had been moved to, if they could find space. The young Gift sometimes slept in there, curled up next to the batting cage net.
It never mattered.
“We took it as a blessing to be with each other in that small little space and make something out of it. Very much love in that room,” Ngoepe said.
And just outside, yards away, was the life-changer. The field.
“I got to play every day. I got to practice every day,” Ngoepe said.
Ngoepe had the hunger and the talent, but there were so many challenges. His MLB debut came at the age of 27, after choosing baseball in a country where few care about the game, after nearly nine years toiling in the minor leagues, and after the death of his greatest inspiration, his mom.
“I would love for him to have $1 for everybody who has looked at him and said he’ll never make it,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Ngoepe didn’t have any friends to practice with as a kid. They were into soccer, or rugby, or cricket, or any one of another half-a-dozen or more sports that are way more popular in South Africa.
“He was the only kid at his school playing baseball,” Randburg Mets chairman and coach Glen Gillman told The Associated Press. “For him to stick to it, it took some heavy going.”
So Ngoepe often played alone, throwing a ball against a wall at the clubhouse and fielding it as it bounced back, honing the ground skills that would make him one of the Pirates’ best defensive players.
“The wall was my best friend for quite some time,” Ngoepe said.
Later, Ngoepe played for the Mets and was good enough to go to MLB scouting camps in Italy in 2007 and 2008. His mom…