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A Gift From Africa
GARY SMITH
August 10, 2009
Word came down from above: Make the kid feel at home. Sure, said the clubbie ... but the clubbie always said sure. He bled Bucco black-and-gold, Pat Hagerty's superiors raved in reviews of his work as the Pirates' minor league clubhouse and equipment manager. He was master of a million chores, the guy who kept the radar guns juiced, the resin bags dry, the coaches' coffee hot, the lint out of the players' jocks and the alligators out of the pond at the team's complex in Bradenton, Fla. • But then he paused and pondered: How the hell does a white-haired 48-year-old Irish Catholic clubbie from Steubenville, Ohio, make an 18-year-old Sotho tribesman from Africa feel at home?
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August 10, 2009

A Gift From Africa

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The switch-hitting Sotho second baseman began folding towels.

All of his 200 towels were folded wrong, so the clubbie and his lieutenants began giving Gift a raft of crap—about giraffes and lions and South African towel-folding—and Gift sailed the raft right back at them, and their delight in each other was sealed. Pat had no idea why a tribesman from 8,000 miles away seemed more at home in a baseball clubhouse than any other Pirate who'd ever passed through, be it the 170-plus at spring training each year or the youngest prospects who stuck around to play for the Bucs' Gulf Coast League team. No clue why Gift was the first player in the clubhouse each day, chirping good morning; the one dozing off in a chair in Pat's office every afternoon; and the one staying late at night, talking, singing and dancing a blue streak, folding towels and distributing the laundered jerseys, pants, jocks, socks, T-shirts and shorts onto the hooks at each player's locker. But Pat never probed.

He'd never seen a ballplayer with less sense of entitlement or more joie de vivre, but the clubbie couldn't violate his bedrock rules: Never ask too many questions. Never get too attached. Sure, Gift would most likely return the next spring and summer to play for Class A Bradenton, but Pat had seen too many good kids sobbing on their dream's last day, had removed too many nameplates from their lockers and replaced them with new ones 15 minutes later. He'd go as far as he could, slip Gift a zillion bags of sunflower seeds or bubble gum to occupy his hyperactive jaws, help set up his bank account, walk him through the Pirates' media guide to identify the honchos and Buccos he needed to know, console him after a bad day ... and teach him American Baseball Culture 101.

The kid hadn't experienced the Tao of the Red Ass, the acidic coaching that every American, Latin American and even Asian ballplayer experienced at some stage of his development, eating away the exuberance and the flair and producing, far more often than not, the cool, contained, standardized specimens who arrived at this level. Baseball coaches in Gift's land couldn't afford to chew on players; the sport was too marginal there and the players too prone to telling such a coach to bugger off. Gift's coaches had been his pals, delighting when he sang, whistled, danced, filibustered or wore every color of the rainbow on the field. Nothing at all like these organizational men tsk-tsk-ing as they walked with him off the diamond—My word, he yelped, three of them!—admonishing him to lose the blue-and-red glove.

But Gift was irrepressible. He replaced the blue-and-red glove with a solid blue one whose long dangling strings he loved to watch snapping the air with every flick of his wrist. "It's very blue" was all that the Bradenton manager, Tom Prince, would say. Gift giggled and plunged his index finger into teammates' ears as he passed them in the rec room, took flying leaps onto their backs, knocked on their dorm doors and bolted. He hugged every cleaning lady. He balanced mountains of chocolate-chip cookies on two plates on his way to a cafeteria table, and when every passing teammate shook his head in disbelief, he bounced up for heaping plate number three. His alarm clock blaring 6:30 a.m. hip-hop sent his roomie, A.J. Fagan, packing. When players called Gift's white wool beanie with the red, green and yellow stripes and the white bubble at the crown—all the rage in the townships of South Africa—a condom, he'd just chirp, "It's a great day, buddy!"

He played cricket in the clubhouse, using the dustbin for a wicket, when Pat wasn't looking. He sprayed sunflower seeds across the clubhouse carpet, dropped his head like a guilty son when Pat upbraided him, dropped to his knees and cleaned them up. He plugged his cellphone into the laundry-room speakers to play his music instead of the clubhouse attendants' C&W, and he raided their pantry at night when his stomach growled. But no one minded. He'd earned those bennies by sweeping the clubhouse, taking out the trash, doing the laundry.

One night Pat found him curled up like a baby, sound asleep, inside a laundry cart. He could've rolled Gift to his room, poured him into bed and tucked him in ... but the kid looked as if he were already home.

He was, as a matter of fact. Mpho Gift Ngoepe was the first player in baseball history who'd lived almost his entire life in a baseball clubhouse ... and no one here knew how dearly he clung to this one.

The joy that he radiated was genuine, but it was camouflage too. Some days he doubted this whole crazy notion of playing baseball in America, the homesickness so sharp that he ached to scoop up the clothes that he'd dumped on his dorm-room floor and left there for a month, wrestle them into his bag and flee back to his mother and the clubhouse where he'd lived for the last 16 years....

But what was home, anyway? Was it the "native reserve" to which the Sotho were restricted in northern South Africa when the white government sectioned off tribes in 1913? Or the "homeland" that the Sotho were "given" nearly 50 years later so South Africa could wash its hands of the tribesmen's misery, lack of education and claims to full citizenship? Was it the thatch-roofed mud hut in Limpopo where Gift, whose father was not around, spent his first two years, living with his mother's parents? Or the tiny room inside a baseball clubhouse where he'd ended up?

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