Interview: Gift Ngoepe’s journey to becoming a baseball star
From his humble beginnings at the Randburg Mets Clubhouse to becoming the first continental African player in Major League Baseball, Gift Ngoepe has had a career that sounds like it’s been taken straight out of a Hollywood script. Gift’s story of passion meeting destiny is captured in the documentary Africa’s Home Run: The Gift Ngoepe Story, streaming on Showmax.
We spoke to 30-year-old Gift about his journey to becoming a professional South African baseball player living his dreams overseas.
“Keep pushing, no matter the circumstances”
Growing up in Limpopo, Gift was a far cry from a kid who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Like any child raised in a village, Gift helped his grandfather with herding cattle and other livestock at home.
After moving with his mother to Johannesburg, Gift noticed that he had less than his more privileged friends, but he was always optimistic.
“I got my optimistic attitude from my mom,” he says. “She never looked at others and what they had. She always told me to enjoy life and to keep pushing, no matter the circumstances. There were times when I looked at my friends and envied what they had. But, I knew what my mom could give me, so I didn’t ask for anything more because I knew what she could and could not provide. My mom gave me everything that I needed, so why should I ask for more?”
“My mom is the reason I wanted to achieve great things”
As we see in the documentary, Gift’s late mom, Maureen, played a pivotal role in his journey to stardom, but passed on when Gift was just reaching the peak in his career.
We asked the baseball star what his mom would think of the documentary.
“One of the rules growing up in my mother’s house was that we had to respect the family name. I think if she watched this documentary, she would feel that I have respected her and the family name whole-heartedly. And I think she would be pleased that I’ve given her the praise she deserves for making me the man that I am today. She was my ‘why’ I played sports and ‘why’ I came to the United States and ‘why’ I wanted to achieve great things. It is all because of her.”
“I was never known as a home-run hitter”
We asked Gift what he remembers about his first home run as a professional baseball player.
“I was never known as a home-run hitter, so I only began developing strength when I was eighteen. When I went professional and played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, I could hit the ball over the fence in practice, but in matches, I just couldn’t. I’d ask myself, ‘What is going on with you right now?’
So my first home run in my professional career became one of those memorable firsts. It was the last day of my season and I had to fly out to come home. I hit a home run and was so excited, but immediately afterwards, I had to take a shower and catch a flight back home. It was crazy.”
“I’d love to give disadvantaged kids the chance to play baseball”
Gift tells us that one of his lifelong dreams is to make baseball more popular and more accessible in his home country.
“I’d love to give kids in South Africa, especially disadvantaged kids, the opportunity to play the sport. Limpopo has a baseball team and they’re actually very good at softball – they’re one of the best teams in the country. They just don’t have the equipment or the resources to form a proper league. I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to give them what they need to allow them to compete at a higher level.”
“At the end of the day, it was up to me to decide whether I wanted this or not”
The message that Gift would like people to take from this documentary is that, to succeed, you have to believe in yourself.
“I can’t stress this enough,” he says. “You will have people who will believe in you but that’s not going to be enough to take you all the way. I had to defy all kinds of odds to become the first African-born player to play in the Major League. There were times when I didn’t believe in myself, but at the end of the day, it was up to me to decide whether I wanted this or not. So believe in what you’re doing with your craft and then give it your all.”
More sports documentaries
Watkykjy also spoke to the documentary producer, Niel van Deventer, about some of his highlights of creating the movie.
A fun logistical challenge
Niel says that to cover everything for the doccie, the production crew had to have teams shooting in South Africa, Canada, the US and Australia.
“Logistically,” he says, “it was quite a challenge, but a fun one.”
“His passion drove me to tears”
When asked about his highlight from filming, Niel says, without a doubt it was the day of the hero interview with Gift in Johannesburg.
“The emotion of the story and his passion for the sport and his love for his family drove me to tears. Also, we were shooting it outside and a storm started brewing and just as we were done it started bucketing down with rain”
Another highlight for Niel was the day of shooting in the village of Bayswater in Limpopo.
“It was the 27th of December and myself and Dirk Smit left Joburg at six in the morning with a camera and a drone. We were met by Gift and his brother, Victor, and spent the day with them until sunset. Everyone was so friendly and cheerful and it was a great day of filming, but certainly the longest I have ever had.”
“An even more unlikely story than Siya Kolisi”
Watkykjy asked Niel why he was so excited to tell this particular story. His reply? Because it’s so inspiring, and so unusual.
“I mean, here you have a guy born in 1990 more than four-hundred kilometres from Johannesburg in a settlement that is not even on the map, and twenty-seven years later – after a life of challenges that he just faced head-on – he makes his Major League Baseball debut for The Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I would say it’s an even more unlikely story than that of Siya Kolisi in the sense that if you were going to make it in South Africa in sport and lift yourself out of poverty, you would almost certainly do so in rugby, like Kolisi, or athletics, like Caster Semenya. But a lot of things will have to happen and fall into place and coincide for you to actually become a professional baseball player.
“It did for Gift and that is why it was so exciting to tell his story!”