By Alex Kurtz, Sports Editor
“He’s representing 1.62 billion people. He’s one of them, 1.62 billion,” Pirates infielder Jordy Mercer said.
Holding back tears, Gift Ngoepe, an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, quietly made history last night as he became the first African-born player to play a game in the MLB.
Ngoepe, a minor-leager for the past nine seasons and a South African native, was called up Wednesday after the Pirates optioned reliever Dovydas Neverauskas to Triple-A Indianapolis.
Neverauskas, who is from Lithuania, became the second Luthuanian to appear in an MLB game on Tuesday.
In the Pirates’ 6-5 win over the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs, Ngoepe finished the game with a hit and a walk
His hit came in his first at bat of the game and his MLB career, where he hit a ground-ball single up the middle off of Cubs ace Jon Lester.
“I thought about where I’ve come from, making the jour- ney from South Africa to pursue my dream of playing in the major leagues someday. I thought about the struggles of being in the minor leagues for eight and a half years and then to finally get up here and get a hit in my first at-bat. The whole thing was just awesome. That is the only word I can think of to describe it. It was awesome,” Ngoepe said in an interview with ESPN after the game.
The energy in the dugout and stadium increased dramati- cally when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle pulled an unusually early double switch, and Ngoepy was brought in to play second base.
After his first hit in the big leagues, Ngoepe earned his first career walk and he was part of the last play of the game as he helped turn the game-ending double play for the Pirates.
“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. Dovydas is from Europe. I’m from Africa. Baseball is not a popular sport, but if you work hard enough and dream a little bit, anything is possible,” Ngoepe said prior to the game.
Now that the first African-born player has played, fans are look- ing out for who will be the second. Currently, that spot looks like it will be taken from Seattle Mariners’ prospect Dylan Unsworth, who is also from South Africa.
Unsworth, a pitcher, currently plays for Double-A Arkansas, and has been in the team’s minor league system for eight years.
Normally that is a long-time for a player to be in the system, but Unsworth, 24, is using the time to grow as he had much less experience than players growing up in the Americas and in Japan.
“You get better in baseball by playing it daily. Baseball is a game you play every single day. In South Africa, you’re only playing on Saturday, and that’s it. You train Tuesday and train Thursday and then you play Saturday, and that’s the only baseball you have,” Unsworth said in an interview with ESPN.
Unsworth does not throw hard. His fastball sits around 87-89 mph, but his control is incredible. In his first pro season, he walked only one batter in 50 and 1/3 in- nings pitched.
This Spring, Unsworth returned to action for the Arizona Fall League, where he finished with 4-1 record and a 3.00 ERA.
With a African-born player now in the MLB and one rising through the ranks, the door is open for a new wave of talent.