Gift Ngoepe

Baseball player

Despite its long history in South Africa, baseball has never reached the same popular (and financial) status as rugby, football, and cricket. Yet this niche sport in our country has produced several players who have joined the professional ranks of Major League Baseball.

Each one of these players have unique stories to tell, but Pietersburg-born Gift Ngoepe (26) was the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract when he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in October 2008.

Ngoepe’s story could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood movie. “My mom worked as a domestic worker at the Randburg Mets, with us living in one of the clubhouse rooms. I started playing baseball when I was three and lived the sport all my life,” says Ngoepe.

Such was the talent of the shortstop that he attracted the attention of US scouts while participating at an Italian baseball academy in 2008.

“There was some nerves in making the move to America, especially being far from my family and friends, but that is part of the process. If you don’t have nerves then there has to be something wrong with you.”

While he has not been able to crack the nod for the major leagues quite yet, many pundits there believe it is a matter of when, not if, he gets his opportunity to play at the highest level. To date, he has played close on 700 games in the Minors, with a solid enough batting average of .234 (the average in the majors is .266). However, it is in his exceptional defensive fielding that he has been making waves; he is cited as possibly the best infielder currently in the Minor Leagues. — Iwan Pienaar

Photo: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images