When Mpho’ “Gift” Ngoepe, a talented 27-year-old rookie for baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, went to bat for the first time, he made an entire continent proud. He’s the first player from Africa to make the major leagues.
He joins at a time when U.S. Major League Baseball teams have more international players than ever. Almost 30 percent of the players on Opening Day were born in other countries or Puerto Rico.
Ngoepe is a fleet-footed, slick-fielding infielder from Randburg, South Africa, who had played for minor league teams since 2009.
Baseball, a game like cricket played with bat and ball, was invented in the United States in the the 19th century. It’s often called the national pastime.
But baseball is not just an American obsession. The sport has passionate players and fans across Latin America, Japan and South Korea. It pops up elsewhere, too, on a smaller scale. China, Italy and Israel were among 16 nations that competed in the recent 2017 World Baseball Classic, a showcase for the international nature and popularity of the sport.
This season in the U.S. major leagues, there are 259 players from 19 countries and territories outside the United States. That tops the decade-old record of 246.
The international growth comes as baseball returns as an Olympic sport at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo after an absence of a dozen years.
In the big leagues, the Texas Rangers field the most international players with 14. Several other teams have more than 10.
A week before Ngoepe’s debut, the Pirates sent Dovydas Neverauskas to the mound to pitch in a game, making him the first big leaguer from Lithuania.
For his part, Ngoepe acquitted himself well in his first big-league game, hitting a single in his first at-bat. Teammates cheered lustily from the dugout, with shortstop Jordy Mercer saying, “He’s representing 1.62 billion people!”
“I’ve dreamt about this over and over and over,” Ngoepe told reporters. “It lived up to every aspect of the dream that I had as a kid.”
Here’s how baseball works
The game is played without a clock and lasts nine innings, or longer if the score is tied.
Each team gets three outs per inning.
A pitcher hurls the ball (sometimes over 160 kilometers per hour) at a batter, who tries to whack it and run around four bases set 27 meters apart.
If the ball is caught in the air or a player fields a ground ball and throws to first base before the batter arrives there, the batter is out.
Batters who swing and miss three times or fail to swing at on-target pitches also are called out by the umpire. That’s called a strikeout.
If the pitcher throws four errant balls, the batter is awarded first base on a “walk.”
Each player who crosses the fourth base — home plate — scores a run. If a player hits the ball over the outfield fence, usually 100 to 120 meters away, that’s a home run and all the players on base plus the batter score.