Sport / 5 September 2009, 12:55pm / Kevin Mccallum
Seven months in the United States as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates set-up haven't changed Gift Ngoepe too much.
Well, unless you consider the added muscle, the extra jaunt in that already jaunty step and the fact that he can now bat left-handed, that is.
The self-confidence that accompanied the massive latent talent that enticed the Pirates to sign up Ngoepe is still there; the belief that he will become the first black African to play in Major League Baseball is still strong in the 19-year old. He has returned to South Africa briefly to pick up a visa as he prepares to travel with the national team to take part in the Baseball World Cup in Spain.
His mother had moved to the Randburg Mets clubhouse from Limpopo looking for work when Gift was two and the Mets had given her work and lodging there.
Gift became the favourite of all who visited.
It was from that clubhouse that his mother - named Maureen, but known as Happy to all the Mets - watched as her son graduated through the age groups to the Mets premier side, and then into the South African national team.
It was from there that she fretted he was taking the wrong path for his future. Ngoepe was a good cricketer and footballer, but his first love was baseball. She worried that there was no money in the sport in South Africa. She was right, but Ngoepe had his eyes on a bigger prize.
"It's awesome being home," said Ngoepe, "but being in America means I'm another step towards that dream I had since I was a boy. My mother's happier now that I'm actually there and getting paid to do something that I love. Now that I've got my name in the (match) programmes, she knew that I was on the right road."
Ngoepe has had support from several sources. Gary Burns, a Chicago native who moved to South Africa (and once was coached at rugby by Kitch Christie when the late Springbok coach lived in the US) in 1990, recommended him to the White Sox, having played with Ngoepe.
The Sox wanted him to travel to the United States for a trial, but that never came to pass. Ray Poitevant of the Pirates got his organisation to sign him up after seeing him play at the MLB Academy in Italy. At the Pirates, he will play in the minors and learn, learn and learn some more.
He scored back-to-back triples in the recent World Baseball Classic, even though South Africa lost both their matches, suggesting to those who know these things that he could be a good lead-off hitter. The Pirates have worked on his batting, changing him into a switch hitter and improving his discipline at the plate.
"That was a big change for me, but along with all the things I learnt, it was just another thing to master. When I started, I was a bit rough, so they would shout at me a little bit," laughed Ngoepe.
"I kept leaning forward when I batted, so they gave me some drills and made some big adjustments. When you're facing some quick pitchers, with guys throwing 96mph fast balls, good changeups and curve balls, you have to adapt quickly."
Ngoepe's began his season in the minor leagues with a bang, batting at .381 for the first 15 games, but that slumped and then averaged out at "around .240 or so".
"I've been fielding at short stop, but also a lot at second base. The way I've been accepted (at the Pirates) is incredible. All of the guys have bonded really well, which is important.
"I want to play in the World Series one day. I want to win it for my team, get that big gold ring."