Ngoepe inspired by his late mother

We forget sometimes that athletes are people, too. They’re not just statistics on a page. They have families and lives away from the playing field, and just like the rest of us, the good and bad things going on in their lives can have a direct influence on their job performance.

Imagine being 8,000 miles away from your mother, who’s in and out of the hospital with an unusual illness. And there’s nothing you can do about it except check phone messages as soon as you wake up each day or as soon as you finish work to see how she’s doing, if she’s better or worse.

Curve infielder Gift Ngoepe dealt with those emotions in 2013 as his mother, Maureen, battled poor health in his home country of South Africa.

“Knowing that she was in a difficult position at that time and I couldn’t do anything about it, it was hard for me because I know that I should be there looking after her, but yet I’ve got to be taking care of my career,” Ngoepe said.

He did his best when it came to baseball, trying to adjust and succeed as a first-year Double-A player, but clearly his mother weighed heavily on his mind.

“It did impact me a lot,” Ngoepe said. “I was very close with my mom, and she was the only parent in my life that did everything for me and gave me everything that I am today. She brought me up to be the man that I am today.”

That man had to face a difficult decision last summer.

Ngoepe was having a tough time with the Curve, hitting only .177 in late June, and he figured that walking away from baseball at that point would be a risk. But he knew in his heart that he needed to be with his mother.

“Eventually I had to say [to the Pirates], you know what guys, I can’t take it anymore and I have to go home and look out for my mom as much as I can,” Ngoepe said. “If my career’s over, it’s over. Family comes first. That’s the biggest thing in my life is my family. They mean the whole world to me.”

Gift also meant the world to his mother.

His birth name is Mpho, which in English translates to Gift, and the story of how he got it has become legendary in baseball circles.

As he told the Mirror last year, “My mom was pregnant with me in the ’90s, and she went to a big church program that we have every September. She was just walking trying to get to a spot, and some lady, like a prophet lady, came up to her and said, ‘Hey, I want you to name this unborn child Mpho.’ So that’s how I got my name.”

The lady was a total stranger, but she wanted Ngoepe’s mother to know that her child was a gift from God.

Gift has been an inspiration not only to his mother and two brothers, but also to an entire nation as he’s trying to become the first South African player to reach the major leagues.

Sadly, Maureen Ngoepe died last July from pneumonia complications, but not before her son was able to make it back home to South Africa to spend time with her.

“She’s always going to be in our hearts every day,” Gift said. “There’s not a moment that goes by that I don’t think about her. But everybody keeps strong.

“As she would say, keep strong, keep fighting no matter what, don’t quit on anything. That’s not the type of people that she raised. So we’re going to do our best to carry on with our lives.”

For Gift, that meant returning to baseball. He missed a little more than a month last season, and when he was ready to return, the Pirates chose to send him to high-A Bradenton instead of back to Altoona.

Gift needed a strong showing with the Marauders to prove he deserved another chance in Double-A, and he did exactly what he needed to, hitting .292 over the final 28 games of the season. That made it easy for the Pirates to promote him back to the Curve this year.

“My time back home, I had to think about a lot of things and kind of fix it and say, ‘What do I have to do to perform at that level?'” Ngoepe said. “I wrapped my mind around it, and I’ve been working hard with the coaches.”

One thing he needed to do was not think so much at the plate.

He had such a tough time last season with the Curve that he found himself getting inside his own head, which only made matters worse.

“The numbers did have an effect on me,” he said. “When you look at it and you’re hitting .150 or .100-something, you’re like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And you start thinking so much.

“Sometimes in baseball what we do wrong is we think a lot. It’s not about thinking. You’ve got to take it easy, take a deep breath and relax and think about the positive, what you did right. Was the swing good? You just missed it, but was the swing good? You keep those positive thoughts in your mind and not let the numbers affect you, you can do a lot better.”

So far this season he has done a lot better. A seven-game hitting streak from April 8-14 gave him a .303 batting average, just the kind of start he needed after last year. He’s gone hitless his past four games, dropping the average to .238, but that’s still significantly better than the .115 average he buried himself under the first month of last season.

Even when he doesn’t get hits, his approach at the plate still has been very good. He has a solid .407 on-base percentage, thanks in large part to 12 walks, and typically works deep in the count.

“He’s definitely putting together better at-bats this time around,” Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. “It’s good for me to see that, and I think he’s going to be more confident.”

Ngoepe said his plan at the plate this season is to look for his pitch rather than chase pitchers’ pitches on the corners. He struggled hitting the fastball a year ago but has improved in that regard, as well.

“I’m seeing the ball a little bit deeper,” he said. “I was out front a lot last year and missing a lot of fastballs. That kind of damages you because you can’t miss a fastball; you’re not going to hit anything else.”

Ngoepe is still a work in progress offensively, but he remains a very good defensive player, perhaps even better after moving from shortstop to second base.

If he continues to improve at the plate, the 24-year-old very well could make it to the majors someday, cementing his legacy in his home country.

What a tremendous gift that would be to his mother and the Ngoepe family name.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.