Having a ball: SA-born and bred Gift Ngoepe in action for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Chicago White Sox in April 2018. Picture: DAN HAMILTON/USA TODAY
Having a ball: SA-born and bred Gift Ngoepe in action for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Chicago White Sox in April 2018. Picture: DAN HAMILTON/USA TODAY

After a successful season in the Australian Baseball League, SA’s Gift Ngoepe has earned himself a recall to the roster of one of the biggest US Major League teams.

Ngoepe, who became the first African to play in Major League Baseball in 2017, has signed a contract with the Phillies from Philadelphia that should result in him playing in the Major League again in the new season.

Ngoepe has struggled with the bat during his time in the majors, but is regarded as one of the most talented defenders and fielders in the sport. He will give the Phillies depth at short stop and as well as a second baseman.

After he left the Toronto Blue Jays in 2018, Ngoepe played in the minor leagues until he signed a contract with the Sydney Blue Sox in the Australian Baseball League for the 2018/2019 season. There he found rich form with the bat and on Sunday hit a double against Auckland that helped the Blue Sox reach the playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Ngoepe has walked a hard path to the pinnacle of the sport he first fell in love with as a child in Johannesburg. His mother was a domestic worker for the Randburg Mets, and was brought up on the club’s grounds, his entire family living in a small room at the clubhouse.

His story became one of the most talked about in baseball circles when Sports Illustrated magazine wrote a feature on him in 2009, telling the tale of this 18-year-old kid from Africa who had lit up the Pirates City clubhouse with his charm, quick wit and willingness to learn, and who had come from nothing to being on the verge of playing on baseball’s greatest stage.

It was a hard slog to the majors for Ngoepe. He played for eight years in the minors and sometimes thought of giving up and going home, particularly when his mother died at the age of 45 of pneumonia.

But his time eventually came. He was promoted to the Major League and made his debut on April 27 2017. That it was on Freedom Day, commemorating the day when his nation had voted in an election for the first time following the fall of apartheid, was poignant and perfect.

He celebrated with a base hit off Jon Lester, the starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was traded to the Blue Jays at the end of 2017, and after a bright start, struggled with his batting and was let go by the organisation in August.

USA Today says that Ngoepe will “fill an organisational depth role in Philadelphia this season and is unlikely to receive more than a handful of at-bats”, while yardbarker.com says that the Phillies will be more impressed with his glovework than his batting, and he has “yet to show that he can hit enough to command more than spot duty in the majors”.