It was 2:49 a.m. in South Africa on Thursday morning when Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe hit a single back up the middle off Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester. With that, Ngoepe had his first Major League Baseball hit – even as he became the first African-born player to make the major leagues.
That hit in the fourth inning was a long time in coming. Ngoepe played nine seasons in the minor leagues before he was called up to the Pittsburgh team on Wednesday morning. Ngoepe’s moment was celebrated by teammates, coaches, members of the opposing Chicago team and the entire sports world.
For his part, the 27-year-old Ngoepe admitted to being a little emotional. “I told myself not to cry because I’m in the big leagues and I’m a big guy now,” Ngoepe said during media interviews.
Team manager Clint Hurdle said he was feeling it too, when asked what it was like when he told Ngoepe he was going into the game. “I can’t replay it,” he said. “You just had to be there.”
And Ngoepe was.
“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.”
Ngoepe – his given name is Mpho in Sotho – was born in Pietersburg and grew up in Randburg. He signed on in 2009 after baseball talent scouts saw him playing in Italy. His younger brother Victor also plays in the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system.
Local sportswriter Bill Brink, covering his hometown team, said Ngoepe has long been seen as the best defensive player on the Pittsburgh club. His bat was always what remained the question mark.
Until Wednesday night, in the fourth inning, when Ngoepe made history.
Image: MLB/Pittsburgh Pirates