PITTSBURGH -- Whenever Tom Gillespie meets a new Pirates employee, he tells them to look up the story of Mpho' Ngoepe. Gillespie didn't sign Ngoepe for Pittsburgh, but the Bucs' European scout has known the South African shortstop since he was 17 years old.Learn his story, Gillespie said, "and you'll
PITTSBURGH -- Whenever Tom Gillespie meets a new Pirates employee, he tells them to look up the story of Mpho' Ngoepe. Gillespie didn't sign Ngoepe for Pittsburgh, but the Bucs' European scout has known the South African shortstop since he was 17 years old.
Learn his story, Gillespie said, "and you'll have a new favorite player with the Pirates."
Ngoepe's remarkable story added a historical new chapter on Wednesday, when he became the Majors' first African-born player. The slick-fielding infielder singled, walked and played 5 2/3 innings at second base in his Major League debut only hours after being recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates beat the Cubs, 6-5.
To make room on the active roster, Pittsburgh optioned right-hander Dovydas Neverauskas -- who on Monday became the first native of Lithuania to pitch in a big league game -- to its Triple-A affiliate.
"It doesn't matter where you come from. No matter where you are, who you are, you can still make it," Ngoepe said. "It was a long road. It was a long journey. 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."
When Triple-A manager Andy Barkett informed his club of the move on Tuesday afternoon, Ngoepe said, he walked into the batting cage and announced, "We sent the European [Neverauskas], and now they're looking for the African." The whole team cheered, happy to see the hard-working Ngoepe get the call he spent parts of nine years in the Minors working for.
"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 was born in South Africa and raised in a small room inside the Randburg Mets' clubhouse by his mother, Maureen, who passed away in 2013 after battling double pneumonia. Ngoepe had been thinking about Maureen on Sunday, spending 20 minutes in silence inside his Indianapolis apartment. Not long after he was introduced to baseball by the local club, Ngoepe promised his mother this moment would come.
"I know she's looking down on me," Ngoepe said, "and I know she's happy."
On Wednesday, 8 1/2 years after signing with the Pirates, Ngoepe found his No. 61 jersey in a big league clubhouse.
"What's going to be really rewarding? It's rewarding because they're good human beings," Gillespie said last spring, when Ngoepe's brother, Victor, joined the organization. "It's going to be exceptionally rewarding to see Gift, with all the hard work that he's put in over the years, when he finally steps onto the field at PNC Park."
Ngoepe, 27, was signed by former Pirates scout Tom Randolph in September 2008. The Bucs initially discovered Ngoepe at an MLB academy in Italy, where Ngoepe learned from Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. He picked up switch-hitting, only to drop it a few years ago. Still believing he could make it, Pittsburgh added Ngoepe to the 40-man roster in November 2015.
Considered the best defensive player in the Pirates' system, Ngoepe enjoyed a strong Spring Training offensively and worked to become more versatile in the field. The right-handed hitter batted .429/.500/.500 in 21 games and spent more time at second and third base, making him a more viable utility-infield option.
The Pirates were in need of an extra position player after essentially playing Tuesday with a three-man bench and an eight-man bullpen. Third baseman David Freese was unavailable due to right hamstring soreness. They prioritized defense, and Ngoepe emerged as their best option.
When Ngoepe got the news, the first person he called was Victor, and the 19-year-old "ran around the whole Pirate City [complex] telling everybody I was going to the big leagues," Ngoepe said. The impact of what he has accomplished hadn't quite sunk in when he settled into his locker Wednesday afternoon, his first day as a trailblazing Major Leaguer.
"I cannot describe the feeling right now," Ngoepe said. "I guess when Clint calls me onto the field … I think that's when everything will kind of come together and I'll probably burst into tears."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.