Ngoepe’s MLB debut couldn’t be scripted any better

Cape Town - In the wee hours on the morning of Freedom Day, April 27, a South African made Major League Baseball (MLB) history.

In a moment that most South Africans would not have been aware of at the time, Mpho "Gift" Ngoepe, 27, made his MLB debut, playing second base when he ran on in the fourth innings for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

After an eight-and-a-half-year wait since signing with the 'Bucs' back in 2008, Ngoepe finally pulled on his No 61 jersey in the big leagues as the world looked on.

Raised in Randburg, there weren't too many places where a boy could fall in love with baseball, but growing up in a ballpark clubhouse was the best possible start.

Ngoepe along with his mother, Maureen, and younger brother, Victor, resided in a tiny room attached to the clubhouse of the Randburg Mets - one of only a couple Gauteng baseball clubs - where Maureen worked as an attendant.

It was that connection to baseball that saw Ngoepe fall in love with the sport and so began his journey to fulfil a dream of playing in the big leagues, just like his Hall of Fame icon, Barry Larkin.

"It was a little difficult to get sponsors to take us on trips so we could get more exposure while we were youngsters," Ngoepe told Sport24.

"It was really hard. We had to compete against three other sports (rugby, soccer and cricket) and baseball could not grow in the youth department ... it became difficult to get better competition."

In 2008, Ngoepe was invited to a MLB academy in Italy where he was spotted by a Pirates scout.

Just like that, Ngoepe had his big break and he became the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract. He was 18-years-old. 

He represented South Africa at the 2009 World Baseball Classic where he impressed by hitting consecutive triples off Mexico's Elmer Dessens in a 14-3 loss.

Based in America and still struggling to make it to the top, Ngoepe's journey was rocked by tragedy when his mother was diagnosed with double pneumonia and passed away in 2013.

Ngoepe, who returned to South Africa immediately after hearing the news, had to take guardianship of his then 15-year-old brother, Victor.

Victor accompanied his older brother back to the United States, where he is currently also pursuing a career in baseball. 

Losing his mother left Ngoepe more determined than ever to put in the hard yards, and he worked his way through the system.

Last week Wednesday at PNC Park against the reigning MLB champions, the Chicago Cubs, when Ngoepe finally made his debut on a day that not only meant a lot to him, but also to many South Africans, he had spent nine seasons in the minors. 

It was fitting for Ngoepe that his debut came on a day that is so significant for South Africans. 

"South Africa has come a long way as a country," he said.

"I know we still battle with racial issues, but we've come a long way with Freedom Day and everything that has happened and knowing that Nelson Mandela opened doors for people and united us as a country.

"To have it (my debut) on that day ... it couldn’t be scripted any better than that."

Having walked out in front of a packed Pittsburgh crowd, Ngoepe stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the fourth and recorded a single up the middle off Cubs pitcher Jon Lester in the first at-bat of his career.

Ngoepe finished his whirlwind debut with a single in the fourth, a walk in the sixth and was struck out in the eighth as the Pirates clinched a 6-5 victory over the Cubs.

Despite baseball not being popular in the country, Ngoepe's debut made its rounds in social media as South Africans took pride in one of their own making it on the biggest stage.

Ngoepe was delighted with the recognition he and the game fought so hard for received from back home.

"It feels great that they are acknowledging baseball - it's a great sport," said Ngoepe.

"I decided to pursue it as a dream from a very young age and I hope it grows in South Africa."

Now as a professional Major League Baseball player, Ngoepe won't have much time to visit, but he emphasised that the country will always remain close to his heart as he often misses having a braai with his family and friends.

After tasting the sweet success of the Majors, Ngoepe is not going to give up on his ultimate dream.

"My goal is to stay in the big leagues, as long as I can and hopefully I can retire and they can retire my number as well," he said.

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