When Gift Ngoepe played his first game for the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 26th this year, he became the first player from the entire continent of Africa to make it to the majors. He originally signed with the Pirates in 2008, so it was a long journey to the majors. His story has been widely told, plus he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays this off-season, so I talked to the other two players from South Africa who play for the Pirates in the minors. I wanted to hear about their stories of playing baseball while growing up. You might be surprised about how things are now after a player from their country has made it to the highest level.
Back in January of 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed right-handed pitcher Vince Deyzel. Almost exactly one year later, they signed shortstop Victor Ngoepe, who is the younger brother of Gift Ngoepe. Out of sheer coincidence, both players they signed from a country that produces very few pro baseball players, were born on February 9, 1998. That was apparently a very good day for South African baseball.
As an amateur, Deyzel threw hard for a player from South Africa. If you ever watched the World Baseball Classics over the years, you would have noticed something from watching their pitchers. They got by with fastball control and they would throw a lot of off-speed pitches. It’s also rare to see any of them throw over 85 MPH. Deyzel as a 16-year-old when the Pirates signed him, was hitting 88 MPH. That alone put him in very rare company in his country’s (continent’s) history. He now tops out at 91-92 MPH with the Pirates, basically making him South Africa’s version of Aroldis Chapman. Deyzel told me recently that he occasionally hears about pitchers hitting 85 MPH in his country, which is big news around baseball circles there.
Victor Ngoepe has a lot of the traits we saw in his older brother when Gift first signed. They both showed a lot of skill at shortstop, even though Victor was more rough around the edges and has slowly become better at the position. He also has good speed, but not quite as quick as his brother. Early in his days as a pro, Gift Ngoepe filled out quicker and had the ability to drive the ball when he made contact. The younger Ngoepe still needs to fill out, which is one of his goals for this off-season. That’s one of the big differences between the 19-year-old versions of each Ngoepe.
All three South African players were considered raw when they started playing in the GCL and that was with Gift making his debut when he was already 19 years old, compared to 18 years old for two others. That has a lot to do with their baseball upbringing in South Africa.
I talked to Deyzel first about what it was like growing up in South Africa and playing baseball, but I basically got the same answer from Victor Ngoepe. His brother was already in the U.S. by the time Victor was 11 years old, so most of his formative years playing baseball were spent playing with and against friends. The problem with that, as Deyzel described, is that many kids don’t play baseball in his country. He mentioned cricket and rugby being popular sports, so if he wanted to play he had to travel.
Deyzel said that when he was trying to get better at baseball, he walked 30 minutes to meet his friend at a soccer field so they could play. His friend walked ten minutes from the other direction, and they met up to throw long toss, hit the ball and do fielding drills. That wasn’t because his friend was one of the better players, it was because it was hard to find someone who was that interested in baseball and put that much effort into it.
Both Ngoepe and Deyzel described their early days of playing baseball the same way. The sport was fun for them to play. Their paths occasionally crossed while growing up, mostly because there weren’t many people playing the game, but the limited amount of organized play, meant that they were mostly just kids playing baseball to have a good time.
“Childhood experiences were great,” Ngoepe said. “Just being out there at the field with friends, we didn’t have the best conditions in terms of equipment and the fields were rather patchy, but we made the most of what we had and just be able to playing was good enough for everybody.”
Deyzel described it more like it was a Sunday softball game among friends, rather than kids driving towards a possible profession, and that’s really what got him hooked.
“Baseball growing up was always very fun because it wasn’t a sport you could play in high school, you had to go find a club that played and join them,” Deyzel said. “When you’re playing for a club, no one cares if you win or lose so games weren’t taken that seriously. It was fun, guys would make jokes all the time. Coaches were very laid back and would make jokes too. You could have a little fun without getting in trouble. Everyone there was just there to enjoy the game, take a break from school or work from the week and enjoy it.”
For Deyzel, the fun of playing baseball far outweighed the competitiveness involved in playing cricket or rugby. He was a kid and wanted to have fun, not play in a sport where wins and losses were the only things that mattered and everyone involved took the sports seriously.
There are good and bad sides to making baseball fun for the kids. Both players mentioned that the coaches don’t really know the game well in South Africa, so there isn’t a lot of teaching going on down there, at least not advanced teaching. Deyzel talked about learning more off of YouTube videos, which is where he got the drills he went through with his friend. Even though they helped more than the coaching, it wasn’t teaching him the correct way to do things.
“The drills on YouTube are very broad and basic and you don’t quite get the small adjustments that you would need to make from a coach that you would get in the minor leagues, so I didn’t really improve, but more than anything I wanted to throw harder,” Deyzel said. “When training I just gripped the ball as hard as I could and threw it as hard as I could every time. Because of that, I threw a little harder than the people in my league and my age group in South Africa, but I didn’t know back then that all that throwing I was doing was wrong.”
He also noted that playing cricket set him back with his baseball pitching, even if it did help him throw harder. He would quickly learn from the Pirates that there was a big difference between cricket and baseball.
“When I came to America, they said when throwing you have to keep a loose arm and grip the ball like an egg. Put the ball deeper in my hand,” Deyzel said. “I put it right at the edge of my fingers because that’s how you’re supposed to bowl a cricket ball. All those years of cricket made it a habit, but once I broke all those habits I would hit my highest velocity more often with a lot less effort. The ball wouldn’t go all over the place like it used to. Those are the small adjustments that I wish I knew training in South Africa, but I understand why I didn’t get that kind of information earlier.”
Ngoepe’s first big lesson in the United States was on defense. While growing up, positioning and shifting weren’t really taught in South Africa by his coaches. There was basically a spot to stand when you played shortstop. He said that he mostly played straight up for every hitter and every situation, unless he knew a certain hitter’s habits, then he would go by his own feel. As someone who was known as a strong defensive player before signing, just being in the right spots instantly helped him get better.
“The first thing I learned when I joined the Pirates was the stakes,” Ngoepe explained. “Where to stand when there’s a left-handed batter up or a right-handed batter, and double play depth.”
Part of the reason there isn’t the proper teaching going on is because of the popularity of the sport in the country. Baseball doesn’t get anywhere close to the funding that other sports get, so they are stuck with inferior equipment, makeshift fields and inferior coaching. The good coaches are spread thin in a large country. As bad as it sounds for South Africa, the rest of the continent is even worse, which is evident when they all get together for MLB’s African Elite Camp each year.
Both Ngoepe and Deyzel attended the African Elite Camp as players and coaches. The camp is limited to 40 players from the country, with 20 spots set aside for players from South Africa and another 20 spots for the rest of the continent. The highlight of the camp for most players, especially the ones from elsewhere in Africa, is the chance to get good equipment. Sometimes players there, who are among the best 15-to-18 year old players Africa has to offer, don’t even have the basic equipment before attending the camp. Besides the equipment, it gives them a chance to get better coaching for ten days, while also showing their skills to scouts.
The camp helped both Deyzel and Ngoepe get noticed from the Pirates and led to their signings. For Ngoepe, he really appreciated how it helped him out and that’s the reason why he goes back as a coach now, to help give back to the younger kids.
“The MLB camp was a very good experience,” Ngoepe said. “I enjoyed having coaches from the states come down for the week, learning new stuff and having a current MLB player come as well. That was also a very cool meeting them. I went back last year and I would go back anytime. I love being involved and giving back.”
So I asked Deyzel if he noticed a difference in South Africa now that Gift Ngoepe has made the majors. I thought that was an easy question and he could just describe how it helped. He instead told me that it really hasn’t changed much. It created an excitement of course, but hasn’t helped the game grow. Funding and participation really keep the sport from taking off in the country and it was likely more popular a few years back. Deyzel noted that it’s sometimes hard to put together five teams in their league comprised of players of all ages. He gave a good comparison, which helps explain why Gift Ngoepe’s debut hasn’t helped yet.
“It’s like if someone from America started playing at a T20 cricket tournament,” Deyzel said. “That’s not going to go anywhere besides maybe the guys he used to play with or train with, and that’s not going to have people in America coming from all over to play cricket.”
Despite the lack of funding and the limited interest in baseball, both Ngoepes and Deyzel have something to look forward to in their South African baseball career. The 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo will again have baseball as a sport and all three want to represent South Africa in the tournament. As some of the best talent in the country, especially with 2 1/2 more years of experience for the younger two players, they would be key members of the Olympic team.
They have all represented their country on a lesser stage over the years and they have seen how the lack of coaching can expose them against countries where baseball is more popular. They believe they could be more competitive now and competing on a national stage such as the Olympics could help the sport grow in their home country.