Even though Major League Baseball dates back to 1869, the history of this professional sports association continues to be written in 2017. First of all, the Chicago Cubs of the National League are the defending champions after decades of languishing as perennial underdogs; second, in the same National League, a player born in Africa took the diamond as the second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Gift Ngoepe was born in South Africa at the end of the apartheid era. Even though he was born in a part of the world where baseball does not command the attention of other sports such as football and cricket, his entire life has revolved around America’s pastime. When Gift was still a little boy, his mother was forced to move into the clubhouse of the Randburg Mets, a struggling baseball team based in a town outside of Johannesburg. In exchange for a roof over their heads, Gift’s mother prepared meals for the team and kept the clubhouse clean.
As can be expected from a boy growing up in a clubhouse just steps away from center field, Gift fell in love with baseball. He left for the United States at the age of 18. The trip was the idea of his mom, a woman who believed so much in her son that she made the right connections to send him to a baseball academy in Europe. From there it was on to the American minor leagues, an unforgiving and extremely competitive system from where only a few dozen players make it to MLB teams each year.
Most players in the minors never make it to the majors; an incredibly talented player may arrive from Japan, Mexico or the Dominican Republic and spend just two weeks in the minors before a nice MLB contract materializes. This was not the case for Gift; he spent nearly a decade in the minors before getting picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Only a few players choose to stay in the minors past five years; many foreigners choose to return home while others may marry a local and get low-paying jobs that have nothing to do with baseball.
For Gift, there was no turning back. Even if he had to stay in the minors a few more years and sign short-term contracts as a journeyman player, he was obligated to become the first African in the MLB; after all, this is what his mother would have wanted to see in her lifetime. She passed away a few years ago, and thus she was not there to watch her son slide into first base after scoring a single against Jon Lester of the legendary Chicago Cubs.
The MLB and the National Basketball Association enjoy the prestige of being the world’s premier leagues of their respective sports, and league officials know that diversity has been instrumental to this success. Gift’s MLB debut is just the beginning; baseball fever is heating up in Uganda, and a similar situation has been observed in Nigeria. MLB scouts are certainly paying attention.