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Baseball’s Billion-Person Cactus League

Gift Ngoepe was the first African-born player to make it to the big show. Major League Baseball is betting he won't be the last.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 14: Gift Ngoepe of South Africa runs to first base during the World baseball Classic Final match between Australia and South Africa at Blacktown International Sportspark on February 14, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.  (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 14: Gift Ngoepe of South Africa runs to first base during the World baseball Classic Final match between Australia and South Africa at Blacktown International Sportspark on February 14, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — When Gift Ngoepe jogged onto the infield at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park for the first time, the Pirates rookie’s heart was racing — and in his locker, his phone was blowing up.

“I heard from all over,” Ngoepe said of his April 26 Major League Baseball (MLB) debut. Interview requests poured in from “radio, magazines, newspapers. [Others] were congratulating me, giving me a lot of love and support from everybody.”

That kind of attention is to be expected when a baseball player realizes a lifelong dream. But Ngoepe’s calls weren’t just from his hometown, or his high school coach, or his local newspaper. They were coming from strangers in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, and other African countries: When Ngoepe took the field that April evening in front of a crowd of 16,904, he became the first African-born player to make the major leagues.

“When Gift does something, it blows up Facebook all over Africa,” said Garth Iorg, a nine-year MLB veteran who works with the league on international development.

Ngoepe is one in a billion — literally. He is the only player on a continent of more than 1 billion people to make it to the big show. And he doesn’t have much company in pro baseball’s minor leagues, either: There are just six active African minor leaguers, including, now, Ngoepe, who was demoted in June to the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis after 28 games. For comparison, the Dominican Republic, a nation of just 10.2 million, has six Major League players… on the Pirates, Ngoepe’s team.

But Iorg and others are working to close that gap. The former Milwaukee Brewers first base coach has been heading MLB’s annual African Elite Camp for the past two years. As part of this event, tryouts are held in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa to select a group of 40 players for a tournament and training event held in South Africa. From 2011, when the event began, until 2015, at least one player was signed by an MLB organization each year.

Five players from a continent of more than 1 billion people might not seem like a lot, but outside of South Africa, where there’s a minor professional league, baseball isn’t so much unpopular as it is unknown. Fledgling African leagues try to organize on soccer fields or cricket pitches, competing for space — and kids’ attention — with more popular sports like rugby and soccer that don’t require expensive equipment. While their 10-year-old counterparts in California are getting $100-per-hour hitting instruction, boys in the Kenya Little League are sharing worn, used gloves — usually donated by American nonprofits — and taking batting practice on dusty, grassless soccer pitches that back up against Nairobi’s slums.

George Mahinda, the president of the Kenyan league since 2010, said almost none of his players have seen a baseball game before they take the field for their first practice with one of his roughly 50 associated school programs across the country. Even Ugandan coach George Mukhobe, a former chairman of that country’s baseball federation who now works as a MLB scout, has never watched a World Series game — baseball isn’t on TV almost anywhere, he said, and World Series games would start around 3 a.m. local time, anyway. African ballplayers, in short, are starting from scratch.

“When you sign an African kid, you’ve got to let him catch up,” said Iorg. He points to Ngoepe’s eight-year minor-league development as an example: Because most players in Africa haven’t played all their lives as Americans have, their talent is essentially raw. When Ngoepe made his MLB debut in April, he was 27 years old, an age when most players are reaching their prime. Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins slugger who leads the majors in home runs, is also 27 — but this is his eighth major-league season.

Both Ngoepe and Iorg say that African prospects typically don’t have the arm strength to throw day after day without tiring, and pitchers don’t throw with as much velocity. Dylan Unsworth, a South African pitcher who has been in the minors since 2010, throws a fastball about 89 mph — 4 mph slower than the MLB average for 2016.

“Our arms needs strengthening,” said Ngoepe, who has returned to South Africa for the MLB recruiting event in recent years. “At African Elite Camp, players struggle with their arms. Their arms are not strong enough to last the whole tournament, so I know that’s our biggest issue.”

But giving these players a chance to develop is important to MLB because of that 1 billion number: It’s not just a new generation of baseball players, said Kim Ng, the senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB, but a generation of fans as well. According to Ng, growing the game’s popularity in Africa will go hand in hand with improving the quality of players here. So MLB is focusing on reaching younger people in the hopes that they will embrace the sport.

“We feel like if we can go in and influence them earlier, get them to really enjoy and understand the game a little better, we’ll have a better chance of widening the talent pool,” Ng said.

In addition to the African Elite Camp in South Africa, which caters to the 15-19 age bracket, MLB is donating equipment, training youth coaches, and holding clinics in seven other countries to reach players as young as 12.

Although MLB views its expansion in Africa as a generational project, it clearly believes the talent is already there: The league has four full-time staffers in South Africa and has trained 10 scouts to scour the continent for players. Europe, by comparison, only has three to four MLB staffers at any given time; Australia, which has an established professional baseball league, has none. MLB also sends players and coaches, like Iorg, to Africa to train local coaches and evangelize for the sport.

Mukhobe, the former chairman of Uganda’s baseball federation, attended a coaching clinic put on there by MLB in 2011. The next year, 11 Ugandan kids went to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as the first team from sub-Saharan Africa to participate in the Little League World Series. They were bounced from the tournament by Panama in the first round but won a consolation game against a team from Oregon, earning the continent’s first-ever win in the series.

“In Uganda, we have players. We need to work on their mechanics and the basics. But if we had good facilities, we can beat South Africa,” said Mukhobe. Since Uganda’s surprise appearance at the Little League World Series, he said, the ranks of young Ugandan players has swelled to more than 1,000. Last year, 17 attendees of the African Elite Camp came from the country — more, Mukhobe points out, than came from South Africa. “Within a few years, we can get some players making it to the colleges [in the United States], or the minor leagues.”

And there are other reasons to think that MLB’s Africa talent search could be fruitful. The continent’s athletes, for starters, aren’t just rail-thin marathoners from Kenya and soccer standouts from Ivory Coast. Three of the top 30 rugby teams in the world hail from Africa, including third-ranked South Africa. NFL teams have recruited players from Cameroon, Nigeria, Angola, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, among others. Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, drafted fifth overall out of Brigham Young University in 2013, is Ghanaian.

But the best model for the MLB may come from basketball: Through its Basketball Without Borders program, the NBA has held camps for more than 3,160 kids from 127 countries and territories since 2001. Forty-seven participants have been drafted into the NBA, including nine from Africa. During the 2016-2017 season, 14 African-born players suited up for NBA teams. And that number is likely to grow: Recently, the NBA opened its first permanent African basketball academy in Senegal, where players can live, go to school, and practice year-round at a facility that resembles an Olympic training center.

But first the MLB needs to spark more interest in the sport. And to do so, it is looking to Ngoepe, who happens to be a public relations dream: The infielder is handsome, friendly, and has a made-for-TV backstory. Ngoepe’s mother was a clubhouse attendant for a South African minor league team, so Gift literally grew up at the ballpark.

“He is revered in South Africa. No matter where you go, he is the man down there,” said Iorg. “The way he speaks, the way he carries himself. As giving as he is, he is he has just done a great job.”

Ng hopes Ngoepe will one day be as influential as the NBA superstar Yao Ming, who has done more to promote basketball in China than any other player. “I hope I am that guy. A guy that can open doors for many others behind me,” Ngoepe said. But first, he has to make it back to the majors. “The more time I spend in the big leagues, the more inspiring it becomes for kids. Hopefully I can stay for a long time and help inspire some kids. That’s my main goal. Show them that if I can do it, they can do it.”

He has already inspired at least one kid to follow in his footsteps. In January 2016, the Pirates signed the latest African player to a minor league contract: Gift’s little brother, Victor Ngoepe.

Editor’s note, Sept. 21, 2017: This article has been updated to include the latest participation statistics from the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program. 

Top image: Brett Hemmings/Getty Images

Greg Presto is a video and print journalist based in Nairobi focusing on sports, fitness, and business. He was previously a video producer and reporter for USA Today Sports.

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