Player Profile: Michael Lebepe’s Story

Michael Lebepe rounding the base at an Alexandra Baseball game in South Africa

Why was Africa On Deck started? Because of People Like Michael

Michael is the most famous baseball player in Alexandra. Ask any player in the club who their favorite baseball player of all time is, and they will answer Michael Lebepe. Aside from the one child who said Derek Cheetah, which of course means Derek Jeter, everyone else agrees that Michael is the one.

Tucked between the sprawling city of Johannesburg and the glitzy corporate offices of Sandton, one of South Africa’s richest suburbs, lies Alexandra. If you have even a passing interest in South African history, you will have heard of Soweto on the other side of town, the much larger township known for the Soweto Uprising in 1976 and as the home of not one but two Nobel Peace Prize winners – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Life in Alexandra

Alexandra is less well-known than Soweto, even though in a way it has more history. It was the place where Mandela first settled when he arrived in Joburg in the 1940s. And it is also the place where Trevor Noah scraped by selling counterfeit CDs before he improbably ascended to the lofty perch as host of the Daily Show. The words you’ll hear most often in a conversation about Alexandra are notorious and crime-ridden.

Street scene in Alexandra, South Africa
Street scene in Alexandra, 2011. Note the kids playing catch on the street.

Michael’s life is not much different from any other child growing up in the township of Alexandra. He lives with his Mom, who works long hours to care for her extended family. At night, he shares his bed with a nephew who Michael says moves around a lot and keeps him up. He eats one meal a day of spinach and Pap ( a South African dish similar to grits) each night. He speaks four languages: English, Sepedi, Zulu and Xhosa.

A Passion for Baseball

What makes Michael stand out from other children in Alexandra is his passion for baseball. He started playing when he was 11 years old, and he quickly became an all around player. He was fast. If he was on base, he would steal. If he was in the outfield, he could track down a ball. And, he was a left handed pitcher.

Michael Lebepe rounding the base at an Alexandra Baseball game in South Africa
Michael Lebepe in his Alexandra Badgers uniform running the bases during a Gauteng Baseball match.

 

In 2013, Michael was selected as a South African National Player. It was the very first time this honor went to a player from the Alexandra Baseball Club – a club that like many residents of the township itself wages a daily struggle for its survival due to the lack of funds.

Neither the club nor Michael’s family could finance his participation on the South African National Team as it competed in the World Championships. Unfortunately for Michael, there would be no overseas travel to showcase his talent. But even so, Alexandra was proud of its baseball superstar, who ket accumulating one baseball award after another:  Best Batter, Most Stolen Bases, Player of the Year.

You Graduate High School. What Comes Next in a Township?

But real life was less kind. When Michael matriculated from high school, he learned what so many other Alexandra residents come to know when their schooling ends: It is extremely difficult to find a job when you have nothing. No money, no work clothes, no food. Even when you have people helping you to take you to interviews or help print a CV, the repeated rejection is discouraging. It is easy to give up, to become depressed, to believe that you have no future. Michael struggled to find a footing and his friends and family were worried.

Michael Lebepe with visitor from the United States Ben Thieme in Alexandra
One of my favorite pictures of Michael where he asked my son Ben for an autograph in 2013. It is Michael who should have given autographs as a South African National Team player that year. That’s how humble and kind he is.

Not surprisingly, it was baseball that in some way saved him. This is, and always has been, the goal of the Alexandra Baseball organization: To give underprivileged kids in an impoverished township a home away from home, a place where there is friendship and learning and team spirit, a place where they can find hope for the future. Michael is still struggling, but he has come back to his baseball family. We all wish him the best as he once again is trying everything he can to secure a paying job.

It is because of people like Michael that Africa On Deck was started. We need a bigger family to help all of the Michael’s coming up in Alexandra Baseball. It’s not, and has never been, only about baseball.

Why We Support Alexandra Baseball With Africa On Deck

Group photo of Alexandra Baseball Club, South Africa

The Irwin family – Natalie, Andy, Peter, and John – have been instrumental in the operations of the Alexandra Baseball club ever since they heard about it in 2012 and took over the reins from Sine Thieme when she and her family relocated to the United States in early 2013. Below, Natalie talks about how hard it was for herself and her family when it was their turn to leave South Africa and the players of Alexandra Baseball.

Why Are We Doing This?

by Natalie Irwin

Why are we doing this? Well, because saying goodbye to Alexandra Baseball was our hardest goodbye leaving South Africa. Hindsight is 20/20.

We wish we had realized sooner…

  1. How hard life is in a township. In 2017, it is difficult to wrap your head around that people can live without electricity and running water. Only one player’s family in the entire Alexandra Baseball Club had a car. Most of our players sleep in the same bed with a brother, sister, nephew…or ona mat on the floor. Right now it is winter in South Africa and it is cold. Most of our players only have paraffin to heat at night and that is very dangerous.
  2. How fragile Alexandra Baseball really was. This is not your normal Little League in the United States. The players struggle with having enough to eat. It is hard to play a baseball game when you are hungry. Through donations from the US over the years we have been able to give players 1 pair of baseball pants, 1 pair of cleats, a pair of socks but no one has their own helmet or bat or monogrammed baseball bag or glove. And then what happens when your players grow?
  3. How important it was to help all of baseball in Johannesburg. As Alexandra Baseball got better at baseball, it helped the competition in Gauteng (the province where Johannesburg is located). It was amazing to see the relationships that developed over the years and how we were able to help new clubs like Palm Ridge enter the league. But, all of the clubs have similar needs. They all need baseballs, baseball pants, bats…the basics.
  4. How difficult school is and finding a job. This might be our biggest regret. Our players often made uninformed subject choices like taking math(s) literacy instead of math(s) that then limits them getting into university. Finding a job can be impossible when you have nothing to wear to the interview, have no money and no transportation to the interview, you have to go to an internet cafe to use a computer. The obstacles are endless. The youth unemployment rate in South Africa is shocking. So, as Africa On Deck gets off the ground we will share with you the best story about baseball that’s not about baseball. And you will see why it was so hard to say good-bye.
Natalie Irwin posing with Alexandra Badgers baseball players in Alexandra, South Africa
Natalie Irwin posing with Alexandra Badgers baseball players in Alexandra, South Africa
Group photo of Alexandra Baseball Club, South Africa
Peter (left), John (third from left), and Andy Irwin (far right) posing with Alexandra Badgers baseball team in Alexandra, South Africa