MLB’s Gift shows the power of development


Jason Holowaty

When the Chicago Cubs’ Jon Lester took the mound on the evening of 26 April in Pittsburgh, he had pretty much seen it all.  He’d won three World Series titles with two famous – and famously “cursed” – franchises.  He’d overcome his own personal battles to become an All-Star and had squared off against the world’s best ballplayers, from legendary sluggers to journeymen just looking to make their mark in the pros. 

But in the fourth inning that night, after the Pirates pulled an early double switch, Lester saw something he had never seen before.  In truth, no one had ever seen this situation in a Major League game.  For the first time, after more than 210,000 Major League Baseball games, a player from Africa stood at the plate.

Gift Ngoepe’s story is a miraculous one.  As some wise old baseball folks say, “Check out his story and you’ll have a new favourite baseball player.”  His journey from an amateur baseball club in Johannesburg -- where his mother raised him and his brothers on mattresses in the clubhouse storage room -- through the minor league backwaters of American professional baseball and finally to the field at PNC Park is the stuff of movies.  To rise from such humble beginnings to baseball’s grandest stage shows an incredible amount of perseverance, strength, will and desire and, perhaps most of all, talent.  Gift Ngoepe is a baseball pioneer who deserves to be celebrated.

But the question many are left asking is, “How did he get here?”

Major League firsts

Major League Baseball is rightly known as an international league, and each year its teams’ rosters feature players from a wide array of nations.  But by and large, these players come from countries where baseball is considered a major national sport (the top four nations represented on 2017 MLB Opening Day rosters were the United States, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba).  Even “small” baseball nations which produce consistent major league talent have relatively large playing bases.  For instance, Canada is rightly lauded as an outsized performer in producing big league players, yet the nation’s 200,000 baseball players are more than the playing populations of all European and African nations combined (which are estimated at around 150,000 and 30,000 respectively).

Despite the numbers, the past few years have seen a remarkable number of Major League firsts from Europe and Africa.  The first African player (Gift Ngoepe in 2017).  The first Eastern European Major Leaguer (Dovydas Neverauskas, who made his debut for the Pirates two nights before Gift).  The first German player (Donald Lutz, 2013).  The first Italian big leaguer (Alex Liddi, 2011).  And Max Kepler, the first potential Major League star from Europe who had a breakout rookie year in 2016.  Where did these players come from?  How did they emerge from nations with playing populations numbering in the low thousands to reach the Major Leagues? 

The answer is complicated and gets into the tricky realm of talent development.  Of course, in each case, these players have possessed exceptional physical gifts that allow them to compete and succeed at an extremely high level.  Liddi and Lutz are big, strong athletes who wouldn’t look out of place on a rugby or American football pitch.  Kepler was a promising tennis and football player in Germany before dedicating himself to baseball.  Neverauskas is 6’3” with long arms and the coordination to hurl a baseball 97 mph. 

These players also had strong personal support networks around them, whether from family or extended communities.  In Gift’s case, he had a beloved mother who passed away in 2013 but who had never stopped encouraging him to pursue his dream, and a tight-knit baseball family around him in South Africa. 

But baseball is littered with talented, well-supported athletes who never made it past the minor leagues.  Surely other factors must have worked in favour of Ngoepe and Kepler and Liddi, especially when they faced such long odds.

Development systems​

A significant part of the answer, I believe, lies in the development systems that helped nurture their talent.

From 2002 to 2015 I oversaw Major League Baseball’s development programmes in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.  In this role I was able to work with the region’s future Major Leaguers and gained insight into the work done behind the scenes which drove their development.  From this experience I saw a simple and slightly obvious concept come into clear focus: talent needs the right environment to thrive in, even more so in places where the talent pool is small. 

The primary way that nations in Europe and Africa have succeeded in developing baseball talent has been through academy systems.  The size, shape and scope of these programmes varies from country to country, but the underlying concept is the same.  When a talented athlete commits to playing baseball in the region, the academies try to give them every opportunity to develop that talent as far as they can. 

With the exception of Neverauskas, the lone pitcher in the group, all of the recent pioneering Major Leaguers from Europe and Africa attended local, intensive baseball training programmes during their formative years.  For Kepler, this meant moving from his home town of Berlin to the Regensburg Academy in Bavaria, where he trained every day while attending a local high school.  For Gift, this meant having access to regular High Performance Centres where he could train each week with top local players and coaches.  It is no coincidence that the nations which produce the most professional players in Europe (Holland, Italy and Germany) also boast some of the region’s strongest academy systems. 

These nations have also benefited from the support of Major League Baseball to ensure that their academies offer the best possible training.  Central to this has been building top-notch training programmes that focus not just on baseball skills but, perhaps more importantly, on developing the players as athletes.  Over the years, a multitude of professional strength and conditioning coaches from MLB clubs have been brought over on assignment to work with academy players and coaches in the off-season.  Under the expert guidance of Jeff Krushell, this emphasis has noticeably improved the calibre of baseball athletes emerging from Europe and Africa.

Another element that has been crucial in this system is exposing players to higher levels of instruction, competition and evaluation.  A primary disadvantage for players in Europe and Africa is that the calibre of baseball they see in their home nations is not as high as it is in places like the US and Japan.  In their local leagues, batters rarely face pitchers throwing 90 mph and pitchers seldom see hitters who can punish poor pitches.  So ways must be found to provide players with windows into the game at higher levels, where the game speeds up and expectations are increased. 

This explains the importance of programmes such as the MLB European and African Elite Camps -- which put players into “spring training”-style environments with professional coaches -- as well as the various high-level tournaments run by MLB, the European Confederation, Little League and other organisations.  Like every future Major Leaguer from the region since 2005, Gift attended the MLB European Elite Camp as a teenager.  It was there that he was scouted and eventually signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 and where he came under the tutelage of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, who became an important mentor.

It was also to the MLB African Elite Camp that Gift returned as an instructor in 2014 and 2015, where he was able to coach his younger brother, Victor, who has now signed with the Pirates as well.

Starting out

However, once a player is signed to a professional contract, in a sense their journey has just begun.  The support network that the players benefited from in youth baseball must continue into their professional careers.  The Pirates are noted for their patience in developing young players, and it is not a coincidence that Ngoepe and Neverauskas both made history coming through their system.  Gift spent eight years in the Pirates’ minor league system, much longer than most players, which gave him the time and space to develop into the player he is now.  Kepler, likewise, methodically worked his way through the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system where he eventually became their Minor League Player of the Year in 2015. 

Talent is a complicated concept and there is no sure way to maximise it.  But the experiences of Ngoepe, Liddi, Lutz and Kepler show that, as much as possessing exceptional ability, having a strong development system in place during an athlete’s formative years is crucial to their eventual success.  Even in places where talent pools are particularly shallow, an academy system that focuses on developing athletes and challenges them through the highest levels of play can make all the difference.  It’s easy to envision Gift’s story taking a different route, far from a Major League stadium, without the development systems that helped nurture his exceptional talent.

And what happened during Gift’s first Major League at-bat against a veteran ace?  Well, of course, he got a hit.  Just like he had been practicing for all those years.

tagged under: baseball, mlb, academy, international, player development, talent

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About Jason Holowaty

Jason Holowaty

Jason Holowaty is an independent sports consultant working with BaseballSoftballUK on their business development strategies.  Originally from the United States, Jason has lived in the UK since 2002 and has played for a number of British baseball clubs, as well as for the Great Britain National Team.  Before working with BSUK, Jason spent 15 years with Major League Baseball running the organisation’s development programmes and strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

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