Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.
Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.
"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."
It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.
"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."
Before the game, he discussed what the moment meant to him, and fans back home.
"It's a dream come true for me because it's been my dream since I was a 10-year-old boy, but it also means so much to the people of South Africa and baseball in Africa," Ngoepe said. "I've gotten plenty from people back home who are so excited. Baseball is still very much in the development stages (in Africa) and hopefully this gets more people interested."
The Pirates optioned right-handed reliever Dovydos Neverauskas to Indianapolis.
The 27-year-old Ngoepe was born in Pietersburg, South Africa, and attended high school in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Ngoepe signed with Pittsburgh in 2008 and was batting .241 in Triple-A when he was promoted.
Ngoepe was not in the starting lineup Wednesday.
"It's a great win for the organization and great accomplishment by Gift," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Ngoepe's promotion. "I first saw him 6 ½ years ago in instructional league and he's completely changed.
"I'm sure a lot of people have told him over the years that he would never make the major leagues: professional scouts, people in uniform, people out of uniform. But he didn't listen, and persevered until he got here."
Ngoepe is considered the best defensive prospect in the organization. Pittsburgh is struggling defensively this season. The Pirates' 19 errors entering Wednesday were tied for most in the majors.
Neverauskas became the first Lithuania-born and raised player to pitch in the majors when he appeared Monday.
"It shows that you don't have to be from a big country like the United States to reach your dream of making it to the major leagues," Ngoepe said. "Dovydos is from Europe. I'm from Africa. Baseball is not a popular sport (on either continent), but if you work hard enough and dream a little bit, anything is possible."