Gift Ngoepe: We live for this kind of moment

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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 the infielder from Triple-A Indianapolis on Wednesday, making him the first player from Africa to reach Major League Baseball, according to the team.

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Gift Ngoepe (centre) of the Pittsburgh Pirates turns the game-ending double play against Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs. Photo: Justin K. Aller, AFPGift Ngoepe of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes his Major League Baseball debut in the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs. Photo: Justin K. Aller, AFPGift Ngoepe records his first Major League Baseball single for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth inning against the Chicago Cubs. Photo: Justin K. Aller, AFP

“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. Baseball is still very much in the development stages (in Africa), and hopefully this gets more people interested.”

The Pirates optioned right-handed reliever Dovydos Neverauskas to Indianapolis.

The 27-year-old Ngoepe was born in Polokwane, South Africa, and attended high school in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Ngoepe signed with Pittsburgh in 2008, and was batting .241 in Triple-A when he was promoted.

Ngoepe was not in the starting line-up on Wednesday, but marked his debut by getting a hit in his first at-bat. The 27-year-old South African entered the game against the visiting Chicago Cubs in the fourth inning.

When Ngoepe took to the field to play second base, Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli and third baseman Josh Harrison each took turns holding their hands up to his chest as if to monitor the rookie’s heartbeat.

“I was holding it back,” Ngoepe told the Pirates website after the match. “I was like, ‘You know what, you’re in the big leagues. You’ve got to be a big guy.’ … We live for this kind of moment.”

In the bottom half of the fourth, Ngoepe hit a single up the middle off Cubs left-hander Jon Lester.

His first trip to the bases was short-lived, however, as two batters later, Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer hit into an inning-ending double play.

Ngoepe finished the game 1-for-2 with a single, walk and strikeout, and the Pirates prevailed 6-5.

“I’ve dreamt about this over and over and over,” Ngoepe said. “And it lived up to every aspect of the dream that I had as a kid.

“(First-base coach Kimera Bartee) said, ‘You’re going to make me cry.’ I’m like, ‘You’re going to make me cry.’ I had a couple tears rolling down a little bit, but I kept it together. I’m like, ‘No, I can’t do this right now.’ All the emotions crashed into one for me right there.”

Mercer also couldn’t hide his excitement.

“Jordy just kept telling everybody, ‘He’s representing 1.62 billion people!’” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recalled. “There’s one of him. One-point-six-two billion!”

The estimated population is actually around 1.216 billion, but the Pirates website reports that Mercer got the 1.62 billion figure from Ngoepe, as he wanted to know exactly what his South African teammate had achieved.

“I couldn’t get over it,” Mercer said. “He’s like the 18 000th person to ever put on a big league uniform, ever, which is cool, too. But he’s one of 1.62 billion. That’s incredible.”

AP, Reuters, Staff Writer

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