The Pittsburgh Pirates made history Wednesday when they promoted Mpho Gift Ngoepe to their major league squad. The 27-year-old infielder becomes the first African-born player in MLB history.
There are about 1.2 billion people in the 57 countries of Africa. #Pirates Gift Ngoepe is the first in the big leagues.
— Joe Block (@joe_block) April 26, 2017
"It hasn't hit me yet. When Clint calls on me (to get in the game)…that's when I'll probably burst into tears."
-Gift on being in the bigs pic.twitter.com/1Mgn8zP7BN
— Pirates (@Pirates) April 26, 2017
“It means a lot to people back home,” he added. “I’ve been getting messages all day from my friends and family, people that always supported me back home, people that play baseball. So I’ve had a tremendous crowd that’s been cheering me on and being very happy for me.
“It means that it doesn’t matter where you come from, no matter where you are or who you are, you can still make it.”
Save that ball! pic.twitter.com/eLW0Osfegy
— MLB (@MLB) April 27, 2017
Ngoepe, who was born in South Africa, was raised by a mother who worked for an amateur baseball team in the Johannesburg area and who died in 2013 of pneumonia. He was spotted by a Pirates scout at an MLB academy in Italy, and the organization signed him in 2008.
Ngoepe’s rise to the majors has been slow, as he has had to make cultural adjustments along with improvements to his game. Widely viewed as the organization’s most talented defensive player, he changed in 2015 from being a switch-hitter to only batting from his natural right side, and he showed a better approach at the plate in the spring.
“It was a long journey,” Ngoepe said (via MLB.com). “I kept with it. There were a few times I wanted to stop. It’s the people that are behind you that keeps you going every single day. That kind of kept my fight. My ninth year, and I made it to the big leagues.”
“It’s a fabulous organizational win for everybody,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “I would love for him to have $1 for everybody who’s looked at him and said he’ll never make it. … He’s just continued to press on and play and probably many times believed when not a whole lot of other people did.”
Ngoepe goes by “Gift,” which is what his first name means in his native language, Sotho. Last year, the Pirates signed his younger brother, Victor, and assigned him to their Gulf Coast League squad.
To make room for Ngoepe, the Pirates sent pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas back to Class AAA. Neverauskas’s own promotion Monday made him the first Lithuanian-born MLB player. Ngoepe might have reached the majors last September, when rosters expanded, but he was suspended in August for his role in a bar brawl in Toledo that also involved Neverauskas.