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International players opening up opportunities

Pirates' Ngoepe, Neverauskas helping to widen scouting markets
April 27, 2017

PITTSBURGH -- Commissioner Rob Manfred sat in the interview room at PNC Park on Tuesday and vocalized Major League Baseball's desire for greater international interest and diversity. How can baseball draw the best athletes from around the world?Start with players like Pirates reliever Dovydas Neverauskas and infielder Mpho' Ngoepe."When you

PITTSBURGH -- Commissioner Rob Manfred sat in the interview room at PNC Park on Tuesday and vocalized Major League Baseball's desire for greater international interest and diversity. How can baseball draw the best athletes from around the world?
Start with players like Pirates reliever Dovydas Neverauskas and infielder Mpho' Ngoepe.
"When you have one of your athletes playing," Manfred said, "that's the best way to grow the game in that foreign country."
The Pirates did their part this week, briefly promoting Neverauskas -- the first native Lithuanian to reach the Major Leagues -- and sending him back to Triple-A Indianapolis to make room for Ngoepe, the first African-born big leaguer.
It was a testament to the perseverance of Neverauskas and Ngoepe and a point of organizational pride for Pittsburgh. The Bucs invested years ago in parts of the world that many simply didn't consider realistic markets to find talent -- India, South Africa, Lithuania and the Netherlands, for instance.
Former Pirates scout Tom Randolph signed Ngoepe out of South Africa in September 2008 and Neverauskas out of Lithuania in July '09. Both made history this week.
"I've been exchanging a lot of electronic high-fives with a lot of people in international baseball. We're all excited to see these new frontiers," said Tom Gillespie, the Pirates' scouting supervisor in Europe. "There's a handful of teams that went out of their way over the last 10 years to go into these new markets."
What is the impact moving forward? Ask Neverauskas. Ask Ngoepe. And ask Gillespie, one of many scouts scouring the globe for untapped potential. Speaking by phone from Eastern Europe, Gillespie said some European players were "shocked" to learn of Neverauskas' ascent.

"I'm looking for another kid like Dovydas right now," Gillespie said. "They see a Lithuanian in the big leagues and it makes the dream a little closer."
Before the All-Star Futures Game this past summer, Neverauskas told his story. He grew up playing on gravel-filled fields in Vilnius, Lithuania. Baseball is far less popular there than basketball, soccer or hockey. His father, Virmidas, has spent decades trying to change that.
But Neverauskas' two-inning appearance in Monday night's 14-3 loss might be the greatest promotional tool ever given to Virmidas.
"Better opportunities," Neverauskas said. "Just to see that baseball can be played in Lithuania, somebody can follow in my footsteps."
Ngoepe's accomplishment is perhaps even more remarkable. Until the 27-year-old took the field in the fourth inning Wednesday night, there had never been a big leaguer from the continent with a population of more than 1.2 billion.
Raised by his single mother in a South African baseball clubhouse, Mpho' Gift Ngoepe overcame tremendous odds to reach Pittsburgh. When he finally made it, he singled in his first at-bat.
"That's special," Bucs shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "That's really, really special."
Ngoepe's story captured fans' attention locally and globally. It was a trending "Moment" on Twitter. His debut was discussed by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Media from South Africa -- a country known more for soccer, rugby and cricket -- developed a sudden interest in the Pirates.
"It means a lot to people back home," Ngoepe said. "I've been getting messages all day from friends and family, people that always supported me back home, people that play baseball."
What might Ngoepe tell young baseball players back home? What does it mean that Neverauskas and Ngoepe made history this week? The answers are one and the same.
"It doesn't matter where you're from, whether it's a big country, in the USA, or in Lithuania or South Africa," Ngoepe said. "If you want what you want in life, you can go get it no matter what your background is."

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.