For history-making Pirates rookie Gift Ngoepe, clubhouse is home

RANDBURG, South Africa -- On May Day, the Monday after Mpho' Gift Ngoepe had become the first African-born player in Major League Baseball history, the clubhouse of the amateur Randburg Mets was full of chatter. Players, coaches and parents from the team, which he called and still calls home, lolled about on the deck in postplay relief. An older lady power-walked laps around the 10 floodlight pylons. A long-eared spaniel, looking guilty and lost, watched her. Two kids kicked a rugby ball to each other on the outfield. It was a bright, sunny, autumn Johannesburg day.

It is not hard to find the Mets. Head northwest along Silver Pine Avenue in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, turn right at the sign that points to "Sisulu Hall" and then immediately left onto a short dust road and into the paved parking lot. The field of dreams is on your right. The clubhouse is directly in front of you. Ah, the clubhouse. The Randburg Mets might just have the most famous clubhouse in the world of baseball about now.

It was here that Maureen Ngoepe, abandoned by Gift's father, was offered a place to stay while she worked as a house cleaner after moving south from Limpopo in search of a better life. It was in a 7½-by-9-foot room in that clubhouse that she raised her three sons, Chris, Gift and Victor, a room that one Mets club member described as a "closet." It was from that clubhouse that a new African star found a path to a dream. And it was in that clubhouse -- at 2:49 a.m. South African time on Thursday, April 27, Freedom Day, the public holiday held to celebrate when black South Africans were allowed to vote for the first time -- that the Mets watched their 27-year-old former clubmate and friend make his debut in the major leagues for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Nothing much has changed at the clubhouse since Gift first arrived, at age 2, in a minibus taxi from Limpopo. A Ngoepe still lives there. Chris, the oldest brother, shares the same small room with his girlfriend and their child. Gift and Victor, age 19 and also an infielder in the Pirates organization, will sometimes squeeze into the room for a night or two with their brother on their annual visit home to South Africa over the Christmas period.

"The clubhouse is pretty much the same, and the room Gift and his family lived in is exactly the same," said Mets chairman Glen Gillman, who came to the club in 2008. "Chris still lives at the clubhouse. He does a bit of work there now and then, but it's more of a legacy thing for the club. Maureen, their mother, meant a lot to this club, and she gave so much to it."

Maureen, who died in 2013 of double pneumonia, gave them Gift. There are posters of him in the clubhouse, framed copies of magazine and newspaper stories on him. He quickly became the golden child, the first black Met. He was bubbly, borderline hyperactive and always up to something. Maureen, nicknamed Happy by club members, was not always happy with her middle son.

"His mother had this air of being very strict, as you can imagine with three boys," Gillman said. "There was always some misbehavior -- nothing malicious, but just boys being boys. His demeanor is one of fun. Sometimes the fun could be a little bit naughty.

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"Nothing has changed. Even when he's out here, he's always trying to pull something. ... But he is one of the most generous people I have met. The way he plays is the way he comes across. He doesn't ever shout at his teammates. He was always down to earth, easy to speak to. No matter who he was, he always had time to speak to people. He still comes across as quite humble."

On the field, Ngoepe stood out from his peers at an early age. He was chosen for national teams from age 10, and the Randburg club would raise money so he could travel. Among the trips he took were to MLB's annual European academies in Italy in 2007 and '08. It was at the second one that Ngoepe, then age 18, impressed Pittsburgh scouts enough to be given a contract. He went on to make a slow and steady climb through the ranks of the minor leagues, playing in more than 700 games across every level, before getting the call to the majors.

"You could see he was a special player from when he was young," Gillman said. "The first game I saw him play, I think it was a cup final, he was at shortstop. You don't see players with that sort of footwork or hand speed. So for him to take over eight years to make it to the big league shows just how tough it is over there and how hard he had to work. For Gift to keep on believing and working for eight years shows the character of the man."

Brett Willemburg, who now runs a baseball academy in Cape Town, has played on South African national teams with Ngoepe and shared a room with him for two months during spring training in 2009 after also signing with the Pirates.

"I think I first played against Gift in 2008 at a senior provincial tournament, and then we were roommates the following year in the Pirates organization, which was good for both of us," Willemburg said. "His fielding just blows me away. It's how smooth he fields ground balls. He seems to glide while fielding, which is really special.

"He is also so charismatic and passionate. He just seems to be someone who really enjoys life. Being so far from home, it was just great having someone you know to talk to. We would talk about how great it would be to play together in the big leagues. I think everyone who plays believes they can hopefully make it, and I'm sure Gift believed the same thing. I think by the time he got to high-A or Double-A he realized it was so close and it was possible to actually make it."

And make it he has, playing his first game in Pittsburgh last week as a midgame substitute and singling in his first major league at-bat against Jon Lester of the world champion Chicago Cubs.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called Ngoepe's promotion "a great win for the organization and a great accomplishment by Gift."

"I'm sure a lot of people have told him over the years that he would never make the major leagues: professional scouts, people in uniform, people out of uniform," Hurdle told reporters the day Ngoepe was called up. "But he didn't listen, and persevered until he got here."

The players and their family and friends who were on the deck of the Mets clubhouse on the Monday after Gift made history will surely be joined by new baseball fans who will come to the Randburg ground when the brothers Ngoepe are next home. Gift has become a South African superstar, a history maker from a country at the tip of Africa, the first of the 1.2 billion people on the continent to play in the show. This could be a catalytic moment for South African baseball, which has struggled for coverage and funding, coming well after soccer, cricket and rugby. Since 2011, an annual MLB academy has been held in Africa each year, from which it is hoped the next Gift will emerge.

"It is incredible," Gillman said of Ngoepe's effect on the Mets club. "They all love him. He has time for them. He will spend hours with the kids, even the really small ones."

Change came to the major leagues on South Africa's celebration day of change. It came from a clubhouse of dreams, a clubhouse that has not changed much since it received a Gift.