Rosters across Major League Baseball have steadily had a more international influence in recent years, but Africa has been one section of the globe that has somehow not produced a player.
That all changed Wednesday at PNC Park, when South African Gift Ngoepe made his debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Born in Randburg, an area located in the northwest of Johannesburg, the 27-year-old middle infielder had spent more than eight years in the minors before being called up to the big leagues from Triple-A Indianapolis.
Ngoepe, who began playing baseball when he was 12 years old, found himself near tears as he jogged to second base for the first time in the fourth inning.
“I was holding it back,” Ngoepe told reporters. “I was like, ‘you’re in the big leagues; you’ve got to be a big guy.’”
The emotion was not limited to just Ngoepe, as he received plenty of support from his teammates and coaches who recognized the historic moment. Veteran catcher Francisco Cervelli gave Ngoepe a big hug and told him “this is what we live for.”
Not only did Ngoepe make history, but he did so in style, ripping a single to center off reigning National League Cy Young winner Jon Lester in his first plate appearance in the Pirates’ 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs. After rounding the bag, he was greeted with hug from first-base coach Kimera Bartee. Ngoepe’s teammates shouted, “For the Motherland!” after the ball was sent to the dugout for Ngoepe to keep as a memento.
"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."
South Africa has had success in cricket, but baseball is a sport that has largely gone ignored. At the 2017 World Baseball Classic, countries like Italy, Israel and Australia fielded teams but not South Africa, a country of nearly 55 million.
For Ngoepe, baseball was not just a childhood activity but a fixture in his life.
Ngoepe’s mother, Maureen, worked as an attendant at a baseball clubhouse, which also served as the family’s home. His younger brother, Victor, also plays in the Pirates organization.
"The clubhouse was my house and the field was my backyard," Ngoepe told a South African news outlet.
The Pirates might be becoming a little more international than even the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have usually been at the forefront of international signings with the first prominent Mexican player, Fernando Valenzuela, the first notable Japanese player, Hideo Nomo, and the first South Korean, Chan Ho Park. Along with Ngoepe, Pirates pitcher Dovydas Neverauskus on Monday became the first Lithuanian player to compete in the majors.