Gift Ngoepe’s rise to baseball’s big time is an astonishing tale of persistence. But it’s one that’s not entirely unfamiliar to South Africans. Because like so many of our country’s best stories, it’s one that reminds us what happens when we embrace our humanity and when somebody is presented with an equal opportunity. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Last week, Gift Ngoepe completed an utterly extraordinary journey. That he was the first player from Africa to make it to baseball’s major leagues was in itself impressive. It’s not like the sport is something you really associate with the country, never mind the continent. But, as with all great South African sporting stories, it’s where he came from that has captivated the world.
It’s the kind of stuff Hollywood scriptwriters salivate over. Raised in a small room, the clubhouse at the Randburg Mets, Ngoepe started playing baseball when he was three years old. But he wasn’t supposed to be there. He only ended up in the tiny clubhouse because he drank a bottle of oil that made him so terribly ill his mother decided that she would collect him from his grandparents’ care.
As the years went on, Ngoepe continued to play baseball for the Randburg Mets. His mother, Maureen, or Happy as she became affectionately known, managed the tuck shop, did the cleaning and moonlighted on her off days. His story has harrowing undertones of ordinary South African life, where the gulf between the have and have nots sits starkly right in front of our eyes.
But we share these lived experiences and we make connections beyond our high walls and gated windows. And Ngoepe’s teammates at the Randburg Mets shared his. In a year where his mother could not afford to buy him a birthday cake, they raised the funds to help him travel to Mexico to represent the country at baseball when he was just 15 years old. They did the same a year later for a trip to Cuba and, eventually, for the life-changing trip where he was spotted at a camp in Italy back in 2008.
It would take almost a decade after that camp for Ngoepe to crack the big time. He said last week that it was “his dream since he was a little kid” – and even if his mother was not around to see him achieve what he promised her he would, Mother South Africa has embraced him.
It’s an astonishing lesson in perseverance and for Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates where Ngoepe got his big break, it was validation.
“I would love for him to have $1 for everybody who has looked at him and said he’ll never make it,” Hurdle said last week.
In another life, with stars aligned differently, Ngoepe would have been a star cricketer. He loved the game and was his school’s player of the year in Grade 7. In fact, when he first arrived in America, he would play cricket in the clubhouse when nobody was watching.
It is an astonishing tale, but it’s not one that is entirely unfamiliar.
Some of South Africa’s most successful sportspeople have some of the most extraordinary stories; Makhaya Ntini, with his broken tekkies and no English, who rose to the top of world cricket and become one of the country’s most successful bowlers; Luvo Manyonga, the long-jumper who beats off the demons of addiction every day and jumped to silver at the Rio Olympics last year; Wayde van Niekerk, born prematurely and now a world record holder. Caster Semenya, from a small, rural town to being the best 800m runner of our generation; and there’s Ntando Mahlangu, Siya Kolisi, and Andile Phehlukwayo.
The list goes on, it’s endless and they are ours.
And, in a time where it feels like absolutely everything that is wrong with the world, Ngoepe is everything that is right with it. And his success, celebrated and embraced by everyone, could not be a more welcome distraction.
It’s also a reminder that only a fool would see transformation of our sporting landscape as a bad thing. Because for every success story, there are countless others just waiting to happen. Ten, hundreds, thousands of kids just waiting to be given their opportunity – not just in sport, but in life. And on the day that happens, there will be no stopping us here at the bottom end of the continent. DM
Photo: Cuba’s player Hector Olivera (R) is tagged out by South Africa’s Gift Ngoepe (L) during the match for the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Mexico City, Mexico, 08 March 2009. Photo: EPA/JOSE MENDEZ