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Gift Ngoepe on His Journey to Become MLB’s First African-Born Player

And the challenges adjusting to American baseball

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Gift Ngoepe waited nine years for his big league chance. After the Pirates signed him in 2008, he spent the next decade working through the minors until this year, when he made his major league debut. Ngoepe, who is from South Africa, is the first African-born MLB player, and his decade of adjustment to American life hasn’t been easy. He joined Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann on The Ringer MLB Show to talk about his experience.

"The journey had its ups and downs," Ngoepe began. "I had good times throughout the season and I had bad times throughout my journey. I just had to stick with the process and keep focusing on what my dreams were and what I’m trying to achieve in my life. It hasn’t been an easy road. It’s been hard. It’s been tough. I’ve been through some stuff, and eventually I prevailed with some patience and some guidance, and support and love from other people. Friends, family, and the Pirates."

After so long in the minors, Ngoepe questioned whether he’d ever make it to the big leagues. He twice considered quitting.

"I had two moments where I thought that I was going to stop playing baseball. The first one was my very first year — I was away from my parents for so long, from my mom and my little brother for so long. [The Americans] didn’t really understand me, and they didn’t make me too comfortable here, so it just took a lot from me to stick with the process and know why I’m here. I wasn’t really comfortable at first, and they didn’t understand the way I was talking, they couldn’t understand who I was as a person, so that made it hard. The second time was when my mom passed away, and I thought I had to stay home and look after my brothers and whatever way I can help them because my mom helped me so much. She told me, ‘Whenever I pass away’ that I should look after my little brother and he should not need anything."

Adjusting to professional baseball creates challenges for everyone — and Ngoepe had to face the same hurdles. Just practicing every day could be "boring."

"The biggest change was being out there every single day. In South Africa, you practice twice a week, and play a game once a week. Coming over here, practicing every single day, and going out there and finding that drive each and every single day, and finding energy to do the same thing every single day — it can get boring catching ground balls every single day. It can get boring when you’re doing the same stuff. So [you] have to find that energy and that drive for every single day. Micro goals just to keep you going."

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.