When Gift Ngoepe returned to the bag after lining his first major league hit to center field in Pittsburgh’s PNC Park on April 26, he put his head on the shoulder of first-base coach Kimera Bartee, who cradled the Pirates infielder in the crook of his arm like a father embracing a grown son.
There was so much pride and joy in that moment, the culmination of Ngoepe’s eight-year grind through the minor leagues to become the first player from Africa — a continent of 1.2 billion people — to reach the major leagues.
There was also a twinge of sorrow because the woman most responsible for it — Ngoepe’s mother, Maureen, who toiled long hours as a cook and housekeeper to raise three boys by herself before dying in 2013 — wasn’t there to witness it.
“We were both fighting back tears,” Bartee recalled before Monday night’s game at Dodger Stadium. “When he got to first, I told him, ‘Your mom is right over your shoulder watching this; she’s up there smiling right now.’ He had an aura around him. He was just glowing.”
Ngoepe (pronounced n-GO-pay) said his heart “was beating 1,000 times a minute” in the on-deck circle but he calmed his nerves enough to drive a 3-and-1 pitch from Chicago Cubs left-hander Jon Lester up the middle.
“It was bittersweet,” Ngoepe, 27, said. “Sweet because I got a hit in my first at-bat, bitter because my mom wasn’t there to experience it with me. At the same time, I know she’s always watching down on me, very proud of me. She’s always there to guide me.
“It’s like I can hear her voice every single day, ‘No, don’t do this,’ or ‘Yes, you know you can do it.’ She taught me so much. She’s my biggest role model.”
It was Maureen Ngoepe who, when Gift was a baby, left the family’s home — a hut, really — in Limpopo, the northernmost province in South Africa, for Johannesburg and found a job cooking and cleaning for players on the Randburg Mets, an amateur baseball club based in a suburb north of the capital.
Maureen, Gift, older brother Chris and younger brother Victor, now a 19-year-old infielder in the Pirates’ farm system, lived in a tiny room off the clubhouse that Gift said wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet. There was a mattress on the floor, a small kitchen, a dresser and a television.
“We didn’t have much, but we made the most of everything we had,” Ngoepe said. “There was a lot of love in that room.”
And you couldn’t beat the view. His front yard was a baseball field.
“I rolled out of bed and was on first base,” Ngoepe said, “so I couldn’t ask for a better playground.”
Ngoepe grew up tossing pop flies to himself and throwing baseballs against a wall, shagging fly balls, fielding grounders and picking up tips from players on the Mets before becoming one of them.
The game came naturally to Ngoepe, who developed soft hands, quick feet and a strong and accurate arm. He eventually gave up cricket, which he played through the 10th grade and is one of South Africa’s three most popular sports, along with soccer and rugby, to focus on baseball.
The Randburg Mets, seeing Ngoepe’s potential, raised the money to send him to a Major League Baseball academy in Italy in 2007 and 2008, where Ngoepe received instruction from Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin.
Ngoepe’s athleticism and instincts caught the eye of the Pirates, who signed him for $15,000 in September 2008. Ngoepe was so homesick and in so much culture shock during his first season in the Gulf Coast rookie league in 2009 that he nearly quit baseball and returned to South Africa.
“My mom encouraged me to stay,” Ngoepe said.
It was a slow, not-so-steady march toward Pittsburgh. Ngoepe did not play above Class A in his first four years, his bat always struggling to catch up with his glove. He hit .177 in his first taste of double-A ball at Altoona, Pa., in 2013, but shined defensively.
“It was a phenomenal exhibition he put on,” said Pittsburgh bench coach Tom Prince, who managed Ngoepe at Altoona. “A highlight reel every night.”
The lowest point of Ngoepe’s life came that August, when he received crushing news that his mother was hospitalized because of pneumonia. Her prognosis was not good. Unable to focus during batting practice, Ngoepe returned to the clubhouse in Akron, Ohio, and collapsed in tears.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ngoepe said. “It really broke me down.”
Ngoepe told Prince and Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, who happened to be in town, that they could release him if they wanted. The GM told Ngoepe to go home, take all the time he needed. Gift had five days with Maureen before she died at age 45.
Compounding his grief, Ngoepe felt overwhelmed by his struggles at the plate and a gnawing sense he was letting down his country, even an entire continent. He felt the burden of raising his younger brother, the voice of Maureen ringing in his ear. “Don’t let anything happen to my little boy,” Ngoepe said, recalling his mother’s plea from her death bed.
Gift again considered quitting baseball.
“It was tough to make that decision to come back,” Ngoepe said, “but my friends all said this is what your mom would have wanted.”
Ngoepe repeated double A in 2014, hitting .238 with 135 strikeouts. He gave up switch-hitting in 2015, focusing on his right-hand stroke, and hit a combined .257 with 81 strikeouts in 351 plate appearances at Altoona and triple-A Indianapolis.
Ngoepe regressed in 2016, batting .217 with a .289 on-base percentage and 130 strikeouts in 373 plate appearances at Indianapolis.
But he improved his plate discipline this spring, hitting .429 with a .500 OBP in exhibition play, working counts and laying off pitches he couldn’t handle. That gave the Pirates, in need of a middle infielder, the confidence to call up Ngoepe in late April despite his .241 start in 15 triple-A games.
The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Ngoepe has started six games — four at second base, one at shortstop and one at third — and entered Monday with a .292 average (seven for 24) and .433 OBP, a double, triple, four RBIs, 10 strikeouts and six walks.
“He’s a fun-loving guy with a lot of energy, the best defender in the system,” Pirates third baseman David Freese said. “He can flat-out pick it.”
Pirates players and coaches struggle to grasp the magnitude of what Ngoepe has done, though a batch of T-shirts produced and distributed by a Pittsburgh company helped. It reads: “Gift: One in 1.2 billion.”
“You can’t put it into words,” said Bartee, who worked with Ngoepe for eight years as a minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator. “What he’s accomplished, the circumstances he’s dealt with, to make it this far in his journey — not that it’s the end — is unimaginable. I’m just glad to be a part of it.”
Ngoepe’s perseverance paid off when a number of family members and friends gathered in the clubhouse where he grew up and still returns every off-season and watched on television — it was about 3 a.m. local time — as Ngoepe collected that first big league hit two weeks ago.
“There were times I wanted to quit, times I doubted myself and thought it would never happen,” said Ngoepe, who has a tattoo of Africa on his left shoulder. “I had a lot of failure growing up.
“I had to stay strong, not let things get to me, keep my eye on the prize. … It’s good to have the nation looking up at me as a role model and to be an inspiration to everyone out there.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna