Friday, March 13, 2009

Mpho Ngoepe - South Africa's Gift To Pittsburgh

19-year old Mpho Gift Ngoepe (pronounced "n-WEEP-ay") is a wisp of a kid at 5'10", 175 pounds, and is said to be the first indigenous African to be inked to an American baseball contract.

And it was your Pittsburgh Pirate Baseball Club that got him to sign on the dotted line. Never let it be said that the new suits leave any scouting stone unturned.

Ngoepe is from Randburg, South Africa, a suburb of Johannesburg, and is a graduate of Rand Park High. He's a Sotho tribesman who grew up on baseball fields of his local club, which operate teams from pee-wees to a senior division, playing in regular leagues and tournaments.

He was a 2-year old when his mother Hope took a job with the Randsburg Mets as a caretaker for the fields and clubhouse. She moved Gift and a sibling into a room in the clubhouse, so he literally grew up with a baseball field as his personal playground.

Ngoepe played on his first national team as a 10-year old and spent most of his teen years playing against South African men rather than in youth leagues.

He's also a longtime A's fan, thanks to PlayStation; he loves Jason Giambi's video dingers.

He hopes become the first player from South Africa to reach the majors. Ngoepe's got some competition now; five of his countrymen have also signed minor league contracts.

They're pitchers Alessio Angelucci (San Diego), Justin Erasmus (Boston), Dylan Lindsay (Kansas City), and Hein Robb (Minnesota), along with shortstop Anthony Phillips (Seattle). He joined several of them on this year's South African WBC club.

Ngoepe spent the last two summers at the European Baseball Academy, a MLB training school for talented kids from non-traditional baseball countries. He was tutored last season by ex-Red shortstop Barry Larkins, who Ngoepe credits for much of his development.

He first came to MLB attention during a 2007 tournament in Durban, South Africa, and the Pirates brought him into the fold last year after watching him play in a tourney in Pisa, Italy, staged by the Baseball Academy.

The switch-hitting shortstop is a slap hitter along the lines of Juan Pierre, and has the speed to pull it off; besides getting down the line in a hurry, he's an excellent base-stealer.

Defensively, the Pirates compare him to a draftable high school or JC prospect, meaning he has the potential but is still a project. The word "raw" is tossed around so much regarding Ngoepe that one could easily use it to replace "Gift" as his middle name.

He's primarily a shortstop, but played second in the WBC so that he and Phillips could be on the field at the same time. Ngoepe also manned the OF as the youngest player (he was 17) on the South African team that competed in the 2007 Baseball World Cup.

MLB Network talking head Jose Mota went a little further during the Mexico-South Africa game recently televised, saying Ngoepe's style of play resembles that of Angels' utility man Chone Figgins. We're not sure about all that, but he is projected as a utility-type player in the organization.

Ngoepe didn't have much chance to show his skills in the WBC as South Africa went two and out. But he batted 2-for-5, with both hits being triples, and turned a DP. Now he's back in Pirate City, and he's slated to start his career as a GCL Bradenton Pirate in the rookie league.

It's a big jump from South Africa to South Florida. But Ngoepe's got the faith of a nation behind him. Guess who's smilin' face is gracing the cover of the latest South African edition of Sports Illustrated under the tag "Baseball's Great Gift?"

Yep, it's Mpho. Let's hope we see him on the SI's US cover someday.

* Hey, the Bucs played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde today, and thanks to a hot start by Zach Duke and a hot finish by Jeff Salazar, prevailed over the Phillies 6-5.

Duke went 3-2/3 innings, shutting out the Brotherly Lovers on a hit and a walk. He struck out two, and didn't give up a fly ball during his stint. His ERA is now 1.86 for the spring. Dan McCutchen wasn't so fortunate. After a 1-2-3 fourth, he got clocked, giving up five runs and only retiring one batter in the fifth.

But the bullpen was rock steady again, with Dave Davidson, Jeff Sues, Evan Meek, Brian Slocum, and minor-leaguer Jeremy Powell shutting down the Phils the rest of the way.

The heroics came in the ninth, when an unlikely trio of Buccos teamed up for the win. Brian Bixler singled, Anderson Machado walked, and Salazar launched a three run shot, jumping on the first pitch. Bixler, who's hitting .391 in camp, was 3-for-4, as was Steve Pearce, back from a calf pull, who's put together a .385 average.

Salazar is batting just .208, but has two long balls and leads the club with 10 RBI.

The first big cuts are coming next week, and they'll cause a little more deep thinking by the powers that be than they did last season, when the roster was pretty much set in stone. A small step, but it does show that the suits have made some progress in getting the team back on track.

The Pirates are back at McKechnie Field tomorrow for a 1:05 p.m. game against the Yankees. Ross Ohlendorf will get the start for the Bucs, his first outing against his his former teammates. Denny Bautista, Chris Bootcheck, Sean Burnett, Jesse Chavez, Craig Hansen and Donnie Veal are also scheduled to pitch.

The Evil Empire is bringing a split squad to Bradenton, with RHP Phil Hughes taking the hill for the NY nine.

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