When they announced my name over the P.A. system and told the crowd at PNC Park that Gift Ngoepe would be entering the game — a real Major League Baseball game — as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ second baseman, the first thing I did was say some words to my mom.
She passed away a few years ago. But before that my mom had raised me in a town near Johannesburg, South Africa, called Randburg. We lived in a tiny room inside a clubhouse belonging to the Randburg Mets baseball team. Mom cooked for the players and cleaned the clubhouse, so they allowed us to live there. When she wasn’t busy working, she would watch me run around on the diamond out front and throw pop flies to myself for hours. She told me to never give up on my dream of playing in the major leagues. Everything I have accomplished — everything I am, really — I owe to her. So when I walked out onto the field at PNC after nearly nine years in the minors, and as the first African-born player to appear in a Major League Baseball game, I spoke to her.
“This is it, Mom,” I said. “We did it. We have made history!”
“Everything we’ve been working so hard to achieve, for all those years and years, has finally arrived.”
“The dream I’ve held since I was a young boy, and that you always supported, has finally come true.”
“I did it, Mom. Just like you always told me I would.”
I came into the game in the top of the fourth, and it felt like my heart was pumping out of my chest. Cervelli and J-Hay noticed it, too.
I’m not sure how I kept it together, honestly.
I led off the bottom of the fourth, and prior to my very first at bat as a big league player, walking up to the batter’s box, I was a nervous wreck. I tried my best to get control of my emotions. It was not easy, let me tell you. I had to focus heavily on my breathing, because there was so much adrenaline running through me. I worked hard to control my nerves, but I was in my own head the entire time.
“You gotta calm down, Gift. You gotta calm down. Control your emotions. It’s just another baseball game. Just go out there and do your thing.”
That’s easier said than done, believe me.
When I stepped into the box, I took a very deep breath, and then I looked out at Jon Lester.
“O.K. Gift,” I said to myself, “This is really happening. You are up against Jon Lester. He has three World Series rings. He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. And he’s facing you. He’s facing Gift Ngoepe!”
My plan was to swing at the very first pitch. I was looking for one pitch, in one zone. The idea was to hit the ball back up through the box. When Lester went away with his first pitch for a ball, it meant that I wouldn’t be able to go with my plan, but it also really helped to calm me down. I saw the pitch well.
“Stay focused, Gift. You can do this. Look for your pitch.”
Then another ball.
“Alright Gift, you’re in a 2–0 count now.”
At that point, in my mind, I thought about whether I should try to get the bat head out on the next pitch and see if I could pull the ball to left field. I paused for a second.
“That’s not the approach that got you to this place. Stick with the plan, Gift: line drive back up the middle.”
The next pitch was a fastball right over the plate. I tried to inside out it, and I didn’t barrel it up. I Just fouled it off into the stands, and I was not happy about that.
“This is not good, Gift.”
“This is a terrible AB right now, man. You were 2–0. You should’ve gotten the bat head out and not gotten beat by a fastball. Come on, Gift!”
When Lester took me to 3–1, I started to feel better. I relaxed myself.
“Gift, you’re in a real good hitter’s count right now. Do what you know how to do.”
Then I got my wish.
He threw me a 3–1 fastball over the heart of the plate. I was able to use my hands and hit it back up the middle for a single.
It wasn’t a cheap hit either. It was solid. It was a real hit. A major league hit.
And you better believe I’m smiling as I write that. You should see my smile right now.
Gift Ngoepe, from Randburg, South Africa, is a major league baseball player, and he got a hit in his very first at bat in the big leagues.
Never let anyone tell you that dreams don’t come true.
My mom made that hit happen, that much is certain.
She was watching over me, just as she always has. My mom has always been there for me. And even when she’s not around, I know she’s there spiritually because I feel her presence everywhere I go, and in everything I do.
When we lived together for all those years in that clubhouse — from the time I was two until I left to play baseball in the States at 18 — we developed the most incredible bond. It was me, mom, and my younger brother, Victor.
The room was very small — almost like the size of a big closet here in America — but it was home. The kitchen was in that room. As was the living room. It wasn’t big enough to divide up into separate living spaces. It was all just one room, and we had a mattress on the floor. But it didn’t matter to us. We made it work. We more than made it work, actually: We were so happy together.
We were genuinely happy. We had love.
And we made everything fun. We laughed together, and played games, and we ate dinner together as a family every night.
I wouldn’t change a single thing about it … including, obviously, the fact that I had a baseball diamond as my front yard, my playground.
My mom saw how much I loved spending time on that field, and she believed that it was my destiny to play in the majors. She had my back when I gave up cricket and soccer in favor of baseball, and when the Randburg Mets raised the money to send me to an MLB academy in Italy where I caught the attention of major league scouts. Even when I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be able to make it to where I am today, she never wavered in her belief.
I almost quit baseball in 2009 — my very first season — because I missed her so much. I was playing in the Gulf Coast League, and I hadn’t been home to visit for a while. I had a tough time making friends initially, and the disappointment about that had been building up inside me, so I got extremely homesick. No one understood me. They didn’t know what to make of this little guy from South Africa. When I told people where I was from, some of them thought that I was making it up.
I remember one of my coaches early on started speaking to me in Spanish, like I was a Latin player. I told him that I did not entiende, because that was the only word I knew in Spanish, but it was kind of always something. And things just got very difficult after a while. I had always been a momma’s boy, so I pretty much decided I was going to pack it up and go home to be with my mom.
But when she caught wind of my plans, she told me that I needed to be strong and remember my dream.
That made the difference. Her saying that convinced me to keep playing.
Then, a few years later, right before she passed away in 2013 from pneumonia, I was ready to give up again. I went back to South Africa and visited her at the hospital for five days before she passed, and I was all set to stay home for good.
Things weren’t going well on the field, and being the hope of an entire country — of an entire continent — really began to weigh heavily on me. It was like, What if I don’t make it? What if I’m not good enough and then no African player ever breaks into the majors?
I felt like in addition to letting myself down, and letting my family down, I was in the process of letting down my country.
But my mom would have none of it. She urged me to keep going. She said she knew I could make it, and I felt like I needed to prove her right.
I needed to show her that I could do it.
I needed to prove to her that we could fulfill that dream … that she had been right about me all along.
And when I got that hit the other night in my first at bat, I know it was because of her.
All I could think about when I reached first base after my first big league hit was….
Whatever you do, Gift … just don’t cry.
Again, easier said than done.
And it was almost like our first base coach, Kimera Bartee, was going out of his way to get me to shed some tears. He came over to me and told me that he had almost wept when I stepped into the box for the first time.
There were tears kind of welling up for me at that point.
Then he said, “When I saw you hit the ball like that … I almost cried again.”
But it was the next thing he told me that hit me the hardest.
“Oh,” he said, “one more thing: Your mom is really proud of you right now, Gift. She is smiling down on you from above.”
I almost broke down at that point. I really did.
I had a couple tears in my eyes when he said that. They were ready to roll down, but I kept them in there somehow. I don’t know how, but I kept them in.
Now that I’ve made it to the major leagues, the big challenge is going to be staying here. And you better believe that I’m going to be relying on lessons my mom taught me in order to make a go of it.
If she were here with me today, I know that she would be proud. She’d be overjoyed, actually. But she’d also have some words of wisdom for me.
I’m sure of it.
She’d look at me, and smile, and maybe pause for a second.
“Gift,” she’d say, “your journey has only just begun.”
Mom was always thinking about the future, and how wonderful it might be.
“Stay humble, Gift. Be respectful to other people. Do right by your family name. Keep working hard and reaching for your goals. Never stop reaching for your goals. You can do whatever you put your mind to, my son.”
Right at this moment, in my head, I can hear her saying those words to me in the most beautiful voice you could ever imagine.
And if she were here with me, and I were able to respond, I’m pretty sure I’d just tell her that I love her.
Then I’d give her a big hug and a kiss, and thank her for making all my dreams come true.
“We did it, mom,” I’d tell her, smiling. “You and me, together … we did it.”