Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe reacts after recording his first major league hit against the Chicago Cubs. Photograph: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports
Gift Ngoepe debuts in Pittsburgh’s win over Cubs. South African ends game with a hit, a walk and a strikeout
The name of Gift Ngoepe was recorded in the annals of baseball history on Wednesday night when the 27-year-old debuted for the Pittsburgh Pirates to become the first player from Africa to feature in a Major League Baseball game.
The South African, who had been recalled from Triple A Indianapolis earlier in the day, got his major league career off to an encouraging start, singling in his first at-bat in the Pirates’ eventual 6-5 win over the Chicago Cubs.
Ngoepe was not in the starting lineup on Wednesday but entered the game at second base in the top of the fourth inning. Soon after he picked up his first major league hit off Cubs’ pitcher Jon Lester.
“I told myself not to cry because I’m in the big leagues and I’m a big guy,” Ngoepe said. “[Francisco] Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heartbeat through my chest. It was emotional, and I had to fight back the tears.
“It’s a dream come true for me because it’s been my dream since I was a 10-year-old boy, but it also means so much to the people of South Africa and baseball in Africa.”
Ngoepe was born in Polokwane, formerly known as Pietersburg, in the northern South African province of Limpopo, and attended high school in the suburbs of Johannesburg before being noticed by the Pirates at an MLB academy in Italy.
He signed for Pittsburgh in 2008 and played for the Pirates’ affiliate Gulf Coast League team the following year, but has had to work long and hard to win a chance to play on the biggest stage.
The infielder was added to the 40-man roster in November 2015 and was batting .241 in Triple A when he finally got his chance after eight-and-a-half years in the US.
“I’ve gotten plenty from people back home who are so excited. Baseball is still very much in the development stages [in Africa] and hopefully this gets more people interested,” he said.
“It’s a great win for the organisation and great accomplishment by Gift,” the Pirates manager, Clint Hurdle, said. “I first saw him [Ngoepe] six-and-a-half years ago in instructional league and he’s completely changed.
“I’m sure a lot of people have told him over the years that he would never make the major leagues: professional scouts, people in uniform, people out of uniform. But he didn’t listen, and persevered until he got here.”
As part of the deal that brought Ngoepe back to Pittsburgh, the Pirates optioned relief pitcher Dovydos Neverauskas to Indianapolis.
Neverauskas himself made history earlier in the week when he became the first Lithuanian-born and raised player to pitch in the majors in Monday’s defeat to the Cubs.
“It shows that you don’t have to be from a big country like the United States to reach your dream of making it to the major leagues,” Ngoepe said. “Dovydos is from Europe. I’m from Africa. Baseball is not a popular sport [on either continent], but if you work hard enough and dream a little bit, anything is possible.”
- Associated Press contributed to this report
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