Last night, the Pirates’ Gift Ngoepe became the first African-born player to appear in a major-league game. He came in to play second in the top of the fourth and hit a single off Jon Lester in his very first at-bat in the bottom of the inning. Later, he walked and helped turn the game-ending double play in the Pirates’ 6-5 victory.
Although baseball isn’t big in South Africa, where Ngoepe is from, he grew up practically on a baseball field (this entire SI profile on him is worth a read). He lived with his mother and little brother, also signed by the Pirates, in the clubhouse of an amateur team, where she worked odd jobs. As a teenager, he attended Major League Baseball’s annual three-week European Academy in Italy, where he was mentored by Barry Larkin, and eventually discovered and signed by the Pirates.
Now 27, Ngoepe has been in the Pirates’ organization for almost nine years, working his way up through the minors as one of the team’s top defensive prospects. This morning, Deadspin caught up with him after his big night.
Has it been a totally exhausting, whirlwind 24 hours?
Yeah, you could say that. I was beat last night. I couldn’t even take any more phone calls.
Was everyone calling last night—friends and family and reporters?
I had mostly text messages from my friends and family back home. As soon as I got to my hotel everyone was like, “Can I call you? Can I call you?” And I was just like, “Oh boy.” Yeah, I had a couple phone calls and eventually I had to switch my phone off and go to sleep. And I woke up to more phone calls from interviews.
Did you go out and celebrate last night after the game?
No, I had a friend of mine from Texas that I played baseball with, Zack Dodson, he flew up from Texas the same day I told him. He came to PNC to come watch. And then he called the house guy that I stayed with in Altoona, the guy that rented his house to us, John Prosperi, cause we became close. He’s like the head guy for the Altoona Curve, looking after the guys. He came up too, so we all went out to get some food together. And then we just came back. We didn’t celebrate too hard.
Did people out in the street recognize you?
There was one little girl who did when I was trying to walk through. But all the other people kept to themselves. I don’t know if they recognized me. I was trying to act normal.
What was your first exposure to MLB baseball back in South Africa?
I haven’t had that question yet! I’ve got everything memorized, guys, it’s flying off my tongue. Now you just threw me a curveball. I wasn’t ready for that.
Well, did you root for any MLB teams growing up?
So basically, this is how it all started: Me and my best friend at the time, he liked the Yankees for some reason and I knew there were huge rivalries with Boston so I took the Boston team, so me and him and had a little bit of a battle going on. That’s how Boston became my team to support. Baseball would come on Sunday night and he would record it on his TV, when I guess the recording devices started coming out, so on Monday after school we would go watch the game. That’s how we watched baseball. And then if we were trying to watch the World Series we’d have to stay up late, especially on weekends, that’s the only time that we could watch.
I know you’ve been in the Pirates organization for 8.5 years but you’re usually off playing when they’re playing, so had you been to a Pirates game at PNC Park before?
Yeah, I had to come here one time to go see the doctor and they had a game that same day that I was arriving, so I was able to come watch.
But I imagine it’s a little different being down on the field.
It’s a lot different. I got lost a couple times in the clubhouse and people were like, “You look like a lost lamb right now.” And I’m like, “Totally correct. Because I don’t know where anything is and I’m trying to figure it out without having to... you know, you guys got your own thing going on so I’m trying to figure this out right now. I’m limited on time cause I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that.” It just felt like everything was happening at one time and I’m like, just take a deep breath, Gift, and say, okay.
Did you know you were going to play last night?
No, I knew that I might come off the bench because it’s a National League game... The pitcher and the pitch counts and how he’s doing and all that other stuff. I might hit for the pitcher. So I knew I had a possibility that I might come in at some point in the game. I didn’t know it was going to be that early.
Were you nervous for your first at-bat?
I was nervous, I was nervous. I was just thinking, “It’s okay. Just go out there and play.” I was basically sort of talking to myself about how I’d be and being as positive as I can and stay as calm as I can be so I can have a chance to put up a quality AB against Jon Lester.
What did guys say to you, either right before you went out or when you came back? What sort of stuff were they saying in the dugout?
Basically in the dugout they told me that I was going into the game and I was like, okay Gift, the time as come. I went out to the [field] and [Francisco] Cervelli was like, “Come here.” And I’m like, “Okay.” I’m like, “I just got on the field.” And he just put his hand on my chest and listened to my heartbeat and I felt my heartbeat beating against his hand. And I’m like, oh this is not good. I’ve had this feeling before and it’s not good when I do this. I’ve got to calm down. And Cervelli told Jay Hay, “Hey you gotta listen to this. This is what we live for.” And then Jay Hay felt my heartbeat too and was like, “Hey, we’ve all been there. Just relax and do your thing.” And that kind of calmed me down.
What was hearing all the people in the stadium like?
I heard the fans yelling when they called my name to hit and I was like, “Oh boy, yeah, okay, thanks.” There’s like 30,000 people watching right now. No worries. And that’s not even counting the people that are streaming it. Or ESPN might be showing it across the whole world or something. I don’t even know what’s going on. I just tried to keep everything simple at that point.
There was probably more than 30,000 people watching.
Oh thanks, no worries.
In the offseason do you live here or go back to South Africa?
I live a little bit in America and then I go home for like two or three months.
When you go home, what do people ask you about playing baseball in America?
The first thing they ask me is, “How many home runs did you hit?” That’s like the basic normal questions. And then they’re like “Oh you play pro baseball!” And then want to know where I am and then I tell them I’m not in the majors yet and they’re like, “Oh, okay. Well...” I’m like, “Well, I’m almost there! It counts!” A lot of people ask me, “How’s McCutchen? How is he in the clubhouse?” and, “Jay Hay seems so cool, is he as cool as I predicted?” and I’m like, “Yeah, those guys are awesome. That’s why they’re in the big leagues.”
What are some of the differences between how the game is played here versus in Africa. I know the game that you grew up around was really informal, but are there in-game differences?
The play is very different. I mean, the unwritten rules of baseball in America did not apply in South Africa. And so, a lot of things can go in many ways. You can be beating a team 6-0 and then you find yourself losing the game 10-8 at the end of the day. There’s so many things that can happen. People try to squeeze in a run here, double steal, any way to score as many runs as possible. There’s a lot of errors that happen in the game. You’re expecting like four or five errors each game.
When you first moved here, was it harder to adjust to the way they play baseball or was it harder to adjust to living in America?
It was a little bit harder, I guess, living in America. The people are a little bit different, they didn’t quite understand me because I spoke with slang that I had from South Africa. And my English was very fast, when it came out of my mouth. Like I had to break it down. And I wouldn’t finish a word, that’s just how we spoke in South Africa. They would be like, “What did you just say?” And I would be like, “This is what I just said.” And they’d be like, “You just said all that in a few seconds?” Like, yeah, this is how I speak.
The baseball side of it was just, coming from South Africa where we play one game a week, now I’m playing six or seven games a week, my first year.
What are some things the Pirates coaches have worked on with you over the years? You’re generally known for your defense but there was that hit last night—have you been working on your swing?
I started focusing more on my offense the last couple of years. And the hitting coach, [Jeff] Branson, pulled me aside in spring training this year and was like, “Well, your way didn’t work.” I was like, “Well, thanks, that’s really positive right there. That’s what I was looking for this year!” He wanted me to simplify everything. Getting me in a good hitting position early. I had a lot of movement when I was trying to get ready hit the ball. And sometimes I wouldn’t be ready for this kind of pitch or that kind of pitch. They wanted me to be ready to hit all the pitches that came in the zone, in the location that I wanted that ball to be. So they just simplified everything and made my approach more simple and effective.
What do you miss about South Africa?
I just miss the people. In South Africa, we’re more like a family. We call it a braai, but you call it a barbecue. And we just braai anytime. It’s just like, you can call a friend and be like, “Hey, Hannah, we’re having a braai right now, come on over.” And you’d be coming on over at this very moment. For no current reason. We’re just having a braai.
It’s a lot more regimented here.
Yeah everything is planned out. If it’s not in my plans, we’re not doing it, basically.
A lot has been made about you being the first ever African in the majors. Is that something you thought about or you just focus on your own career?
I just focus on my own career but at the same time, knowing that I do have this... the first Africa kid to make it to the big leagues, it’s always in my sights. That pushed me and sometimes it pressed me down. It just depended on how you viewed it. You either viewed it in a positive way in order to encourage you to get stronger and keep you going. Or, you felt the pressure just beating down on your shoulders.