Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester has pitched a no-hitter and won three World Series. But earlier this year he gave up a hit to a one-of-a-kind player. Gift Ngoepe, a Polokwane-born infielder, was making his debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates as the first African-born player in the US Major Leagues.
As Ngoepe was stepping up to the plate, his first thought went to his mother. Maureen Ngoepe died in 2013.
He wrote his thoughts on his blog, later: “This is it, Mom. We did it. We have made history!”
In the locker room after the game – that Pittsburgh won – Ngoepe told journalists, “Everything is breathtaking right now. This just shows it doesn’t matter where you come from. No matter where you are, who you are, you can still make it.”
Work makes dreams real
Mpho Gift Ngoepe was born in Limpopo. But from the age of two he lived with his mother in a room at the clubhouse of the Randburg Mets baseball team in Johannesburg. His mother ran the tuckshop, cooked for players and cleaned. It was here that he discovered his love of the American sport.
Years later, he was playing for the Randburg Mets. His teammates recognised his potential. They raised money to send him to a Major League academy in Italy in 2007, and helped him get sponsorship for tours to Cuba and Mexico.
He was spotted by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and signed to a Minor League contract. Over eight years he has become the team’s most talented defensive player.
It wasn’t always easy. At times he just wanted to give up and go home.
“My mom encouraged me to stay,” Ngoepe wrote on the Players Tribune blog. “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.”