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The Pittsburgh Pirates have made history twice this week. On Monday, they promoted Dovydas Neverauskas to the big leagues, making him the first Lithuanian-born player in MLB history. On Wednesday, the Pirates called up Gift Ngoepe to the big leagues, making him the first African-born player in league history.
Ngoepe entered the game in the fourth inning of Pittsburgh’s 6-5 victory over Chicago as part of a double-switch for starter Tyler Glasnow. The rookie led off in the bottom half of the frame and worked a 3-1 count on the Cubs’ Jon Lester before lacing a ground ball up the middle in his first at-bat.
“I told myself not to cry because I’m in the big leagues and I’m a big guy now,” Ngoepe told The Associated Press. “(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest.”
Here’s the plot twist, though: The Pirates sent Neverauskas back down to the minor leagues to make room for Ngoepe on the 25-man roster. Still, the Pirates have had the most global roster the game has ever seen this week.
Ngoepe might be a more of an improbable story, since he’s the first player from his entire continent to play in MLB. The numbers are daunting. Consider this from Pirates broadcaster Joe Block:
Ngoepe’s promotion comes after spending nine years in the minor leagues. Ngoepe is a 27-year-old middle infielder, capable of playing either second base or shortstop. The Pirates signed him in 2008 after discovering him at an MLB academy in Italy. He was born and raised in South Africa, where — would you believe it — he grew up around baseball.
His mother, Maureen, worked for the Randburg Mets, a South African amateur team. She cooked, cleaned and sold tickets for the team in exchange for living with her two sons in a small room inside the clubhouse. Gift’s younger brother, Victor, is now in the Pirates organization too.
Gift’s climb through the minors was slow. He had to adjust to life in the U.S. and compete against players who grew up in much more competitive leagues. He’s still not much of a hitter (.232/.322/.347) but he’s great on defense. He told reporters on Wednesday, including Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“Everything is breathtaking right now. It doesn’t matter where you come from. No matter where you are, who you are, you can still make it.
“It was a long road,” Ngoepe admitted. “There were a few times I wanted to stop. … I cannot describe the feeling right now. It hasn’t hit me yet, I guess. When Clint calls me onto the field … I think that’s when everything will come together. I’ll probably burst into tears.”
After his long and improbable journey, it’s completely understandable.
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