PITTSBURGH — He had to tell himself not to cry, and that was before South Africa native Gift Ngoepe became the first player from that country — and the African continent as a whole — to play in a major league game.
Afterward, Ngoepe was asked what he was thinking as he was standing on first base following his fourth-inning single off Jon Lester.
“I thought about where I’ve come from, making the journey from South Africa to pursue my dream of playing in the major leagues someday,” Ngoepe said. “I thought about the struggles of being in the minor leagues for 8½ years and then to finally get up here and get a hit in my first at-bat. The whole thing was just awesome. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. It was awesome.”
There was a buzz in the Pirates’ dugout and throughout the stadium as manager Clint Hurdle pulled an unusually early double switch, bringing Ngoepe off the bench to play second base in the top of the fourth inning.
“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.”
Hurdle offered his take.
“Jordy [Mercer] just kept telling everybody, ‘He’s representing 1.62 billion people. He’s one of them, 1.62 billion,'” Hurdle said. “Everybody was pulling for him.”
To make room for Ngoepe on the roster, the Pirates optioned reliever Dovydas Neverauskas to Triple-A Indianapolis. On Tuesday, Neverauskas became just the second Lithuanian to appear in an MLB game.
“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 prior to his debut. “Dovydas 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.”
Two innings after his first big league hit, Ngoepe earned his first walk; later, he helped turn a game-ending double play.
The rookie infielder was the toast of the locker room after the win as he searched for words to describe his historic night.
“It was just awesome,” Ngoepe said. “I don’t know what other word to use. It was just awesome.”