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Ngoepe aims to spark South Africa in Classic

Ngoepe aims to spark South Africa in Classic

Ngoepe aims to spark South Africa in Classic
A ballpark is a ballpark, regardless of whether it's a Major League stadium or a fence-less park with a few metal bleachers and a small wooden clubhouse in Gauteng, South Africa.

And if there's anyone who should know the ins and outs of a ballpark, it's 22-year-old South African infielder Gift Ngoepe. He grew up in one -- in that small wooden clubhouse, in fact.

Ngoepe's mother, Maureen, worked as a clubhouse manager for the local team, the Randburg Mets. She lived -- with Gift -- in a small room in the corner of the clubhouse.

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Wednesday night, half a world away at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., Ngoepe will spend yet another night at the ballpark, when he leads the South African national team against Israel in the first qualifier for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

"It's one of those things that you dream about one day -- to play for my national team," said Ngoepe, who just finished his season playing infield for the Bradenton Marauders, Pittsburgh's Class A affiliate in the Florida State League. "It would be more than winning a few games in a tournament. It would be winning games for my country."

But Ngoepe has already won for his country regardless of whether he can help earn a few victories in this month's qualifying tournament. He was the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract, and he did so for a country that was ravaged by apartheid when he was young.

"I think it's important that he's in a position now where he's the first indigenous black man in the nation to find his way to America and is making his way in our national pastime," South African manager Rick Magnante said. "People are aware of him, they're proud of him, and they're wishing him the best."

The story of Ngoepe's love affair with baseball is nothing short of remarkable.

He got his name when his mother was six months pregnant, crying in a church because Gift's father had left her. A lady who Maureen Ngoepe had never met and would never meet again told her everything would be OK and her child would be a "gift from God."

Naturally, she named him Mpho Gift Ngoepe -- his first name meaning "gift" in his native Sotho.

Growing up, Ngoepe also played cricket and soccer, the two most prominent sports in South Africa. But the lure of baseball drew him in. He was, after all, living at a baseball diamond.

"I tell people I play baseball, and it's going to be tough. They've never heard of any of the teams," Ngoepe said. "It's slowly growing, though."

Perhaps nothing would be bigger for baseball in South Africa than Ngoepe making a name for himself in American baseball.

It's likely Ngoepe will have plenty to do with how the South Africans fare in a group that also features France and Spain. At age 18, he led the club in hitting at the 2009 Classic. Ngoepe tripled twice against Mexico in a game the South Africans lost, 14-3.

Now, Ngoepe is the only player on the South African squad that plays in high Class A ball, and he'll be headed for the Arizona Fall League this October to play for the Scottsdale Scorpions.

"He's a catalytic guy, and he plays with tremendous energy," said Magnante, who compared Ngoepe's skill set with the Mariners' Chone Figgins. "He plays with a great passion and love for the game. We're appreciative that we have him on our team."

But no one is more appreciative of where he is than Ngoepe. Now, he's looking to make a run in the qualifying tournament that he thinks would be huge for the development of baseball in his home country.

"If we win this qualifier, it's going to be a big deal," Ngoepe said. "They'll be able to watch the games over there on their TVs and radios, and there's going to be a big publicity over there for the people. It would say, 'Hey, baseball is in South Africa.'"

For Ngoepe's country, that would be, indeed, quite a gift.

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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