PITTSBURGH — Gift Ngoepe was aware of the significance of the moment when he put on his Pittsburgh Pirates uniform for the first time in the regular season.
The Pirates recalled Ngoepe, an infielder, from Class AAA Indianapolis on Wednesday, making him the first player from Africa to reach the major leagues, according to the team.
“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 said before the Pirates played the Chicago Cubs. “I’ve gotten plenty from people back home who are so excited.” He noted that baseball in Africa was “still very much in the development stages” and said he hoped that an African reaching the major leagues would spur more interest.
The Pirates optioned the right-handed reliever Dovydas Neverauskas to Indianapolis. Neverauskas made history himself two days earlier, becoming the first person born and raised in Lithuania to make the major leagues, according to MLB.com. Neverauskas pitched two innings in a 14-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Monday.
Ngoepe, 27, was born in Pietersburg, South Africa, and attended high school in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Ngoepe signed with Pittsburgh in 2008 and was batting .241 in Class AAA when he was promoted.
In his first at-bat on Wednesday, Ngoepe singled off Cubs starter Jon Lester.
“It’s a great win for the organization and a great accomplishment by Gift,” Clint Hurdle, the Pirates’ manager, said of Ngoepe’s promotion. “I first saw him 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.”
Ngoepe is considered the best defensive prospect in the organization. Pittsburgh is struggling defensively this season. Entering Wednesday, the Pirates were tied for the most errors in the majors, with 19.
“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 of the Pirates’ calling up both him and Neverauskas. Baseball is not a popular sport in Europe or in Africa, he said, “but if you work hard enough and dream a little bit, anything is possible.”