TORONTO – Gift Ngoepe can pinpoint the exact moment he decided to abandon cricket completely on the way to launching his baseball career.
The South African infielder was in the middle of a three-day test match against Krugersdorp High School in Johannesburg when he had a legendarily uneventful day on the cricket pitch.
“We played against Krugersdrop High and I spent the whole day in the field, didn’t get a ball, didn’t get to bowl. I was by the boundaries and didn’t get one ball,” he recalls. “I didn’t even get to hit because the team didn’t make enough runs that day. So basically I wasted my whole Saturday doing nothing on the cricket field. That’s when I was like ‘You know what? I’ve got to quit because I don’t get to do a whole lot in this game.”
Although Ngoepe famously spent his formative years in the clubhouse of Randburg Mets baseball team on his way to becoming the first African-born player in the majors – up until that fateful Saturday, cricket had been a big part of his life. In South Africa, the sport is absolutely massive, and their national team – The Proteas – wildly successful. They currently rank second in the world in both test cricket (multi-day games) and one-day internationals (single day matches).
The athletic Ngoepe had been a strong cricketer who played since he was in Grade 1 and was proficient as both a batsman and a bowler – with a preference for batting. His self-scouting report is as follows:
“If I see myself as a cricket player right now I’d say I’m a batsman. I can bowl, but I’m a little rusty. I did bowl like two years ago, one of my friends asked me to come out and I bowled a couple, and my whole side hurt from bowling.”
Although nothing became of his foray into one of his country’s traditional sports, it did affect the course of his baseball journey. His first spot in professional baseball came with the Gulf Coast League Pirates in 2009, where he encountered Rinku Singh, another baseball pioneer.
Singh – an Indian southpaw and one of the subjects of the movie ‘Million Dollar Arm‘ – and Ngoepe bonded over cricket and ended up playing it around the Pirates’ clubhouse.
“The garbage can was the wickets and the baseball bat was the cricket bat and we just used a baseball for the cricket ball,” Ngoepe says. “We just fooled around with it in the clubhouse.”
The stakes were raised when Singh decided to spring for some more legitimate gear.
“Rinku got a cricket bat somehow from one of his Indian friends that lived up the road and he brought the bat and just started whacking balls in the locker room and I was like ‘Dude take it easy, you’re going to break something’ but he was just loving it.”
Although he doesn’t get up to much after-hours clubhouse cricket these days, playing with Singh – whose fascinating career path has recently taken him to WWE wrestling – is one of Ngoepe’s treasured memories from his early days with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 28-year-old’s experience with cricket isn’t just fodder for fond recollections, though, it plays a role in the player he is today. In baseball, Ngoepe’s trademark is his defence, which he developed in part by learning to play everything bare-handed on the cricket pitch.
“My hand-eye coordination is good so when I played cricket that wasn’t too tough for me, ” he says. “Practicing cricket helped me with baseball because when I put a glove on it was a little bit easier for me. I was used to working with my hands on the cricket field. My skills in both sports transitioned from one to the other and helped me better at both.”
With Troy Tulowitzki out for the forseeable future, Toronto Blue Jays fans may see more of Ngoepe than they bargained for – especially in the field. The first time he has to barehand a slow-rolling grounder and make a bang-bang play at first they might be thankful he got his reps in on the cricket pitch.
He certainly will be – even if it cost him a boring Saturday or two.
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