CINCINNATI, OHIO - It is what every aspiring baseball player strives for: a Major League appearance.
“This is what you’ve been working hard for all the years,” 27-year-old South African Gift Ngoepe said. “This is what you dreamed of since you were a little kid.”
Ngoepe’s dream came true April 26 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
At the top of the fourth inning at PNC Park, Ngoepe got the call to take the field, playing second base. He had just been added to the Pirates roster, promoted from their minor league affiliate Indianapolis Indians.
Watch: First Players from Africa, Lithuania Mark New Era for Major League Baseball
“My heartbeat was very hard,” he said in an interview with VOA.
Game day footage shows teammates Josh Harrison and Francisco Cervelli placing their hands over his heart as he took his position on the field.
“And I felt like it was beating a little bit out of my chest,” he said.
Facing All-Star pitcher
Ngoepe said the intensity increased at the bottom of the inning when he was the leadoff hitter facing All-Star pitcher John Lester of the Chicago Cubs.
But Ngoepe did more than just step up to the plate.
With a 3-1 count (three balls, one strike), his bat connected with the ball, driving it into the outfield for a single. With a recorded hit for his first at-bat, Ngoepe entered the history books as the first Major League Baseball player from the African continent.
“It feels great to be a part of history with the Pirates,” Ngoepe said, reflecting on another moment in his remarkable journey in a sport he was born into. His mother, Maureen, worked for the South African Randberg Mets baseball club, and their family lived in a small apartment near the field.
“I rolled out of bed and I was on first base,” he said. “I started playing baseball at the age of 3. I was throwing the ball against the wall. And the coach came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a pretty good arm, why don’t you think about joining the team?’”
Ngoepe moved through the ranks of a sport unfamiliar to many in South Africa.
“Baseball’s not very popular,” he said, “because we compete against three other sports, cricket, rugby and soccer, so the youth development for baseball is not going to be as strong.”
He developed enough to catch the attention of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who offered Ngoepe a contract at the age of 18. It brought him into the organization’s minor league system, where he formed a friendship with teammate Josh Bell.
“Having the courage to make that first step, to say, ‘Hey, I’m coming over to the states. I’m going to try to learn this game the best I can,’ it’s incredible,” Bell told VOA.
While Ngoepe is the first from the continent of Africa, he is in good company this season. Another minor league teammate, Indianapolis Indians relief pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas, was called up April 24 to join the Pirates in the bullpen at PNC Park, where they faced the Chicago Cubs.
“I got there during the game, and I got to pitch in the game at the same time,” Neverauskas said. “I didn’t have time to think once I got to the field.”
By the time he reached the mound, the Pirates were already losing and never recovered. But Neverauskas pitched two solid innings. He is the first Lithuanian player to appear in a Major League Baseball game.
Born in Vilnius, where his family still lives, Neverauskas learned the game from his father, Virmidas, who played for Lithuania’s first baseball club formed in the 1980s. The elder Neverauskas now coaches the country’s youth national teams, where Dovydas sees the next generation of talent coming up behind him, reinforcing the importance of his career.
“Because if I do good,” he said, “maybe the team will see that there’s potential in Lithuania, and maybe will send more people to look for players.”
Waiting on another chance
But Dovydas Neverauskas pitched one game for the Pirates and is now back with the Indianapolis Indians, waiting for another chance.
“It’s tough knowing that as you play today, there’s another player in every organization trying to take your spot,” said Bell, Neverauskas’s teammate. “I guess it makes it a little bit easier for us to just focus on winning, and focus on the now. And I feel like Gift is a perfect example of that.”
Bell added that he isn’t just a teammate and friend, he’s also a fan.
“I’m sure he’s got shirts being made. I know the moment I have an opportunity to put on a ‘Gift from Africa’ shirt I’m going to buy one for me and my family,” he said.
The Pittsburgh Pirates “gift from Africa” remains with the team, for now, and continues to perform well, both on the field and at the plate, exceeding even his own expectations.
“It’s been unbelievable for me,” Ngoepe said, coming off a stretch of games where he continued to get on base and help the Pirates score runs. “The story just keeps on growing bigger.”
While Gift looks to write the next chapter, another Ngoepe hopes to have his own storybook career. Nineteen-year-old Victor is following in his older brother’s footsteps, also securing a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and playing on a minor league team in Florida where he waits for his own chance to prove himself on baseball’s biggest stage.