PITTSBURGH -- Before the Pirates' 6-5 win over the Cubs on Wednesday night at PNC Park, Gift Ngoepe worried he might burst into tears the moment he had to take the field.
When Ngoepe emerged from the dugout to play second base as part of a double-switch in the fourth inning, third baseman Josh Harrison held his hand up to Ngoepe's chest, as if he was monitoring the rookie's heartbeat. After all Ngoepe had been through to get there, how could he possibly contain his emotions?
"I was holding it back," Ngoepe said. "I was like, 'You know what, you're in the big leagues. You've got to be a big guy.' … We live for this kind of moment."
Ngoepe, the first African-born player to reach the Majors, slowed his pulse enough to record a single up the middle off Cubs left-hander Jon Lester in the first at-bat of his career. Aside from Josh Bell's sixth-inning homer, Ngoepe's 107.2-mph hit in the fourth inning was the fastest exit velocity, per Statcast™, of the game. And it was certainly the most celebrated.
First-base coach Kimera Bartee hugged the 27-year-old infielder. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo smiled and offered his congratulations. In the Pirates' dugout, Ngoepe's giddy teammates screamed, "For the motherland!"
Standing on first base with Bartee's arm around his shoulder, Ngoepe allowed himself a moment to let it all sink in. He thought about where he came from, the room inside the South African baseball clubhouse where he lived with his mother and younger brother and the nine years he spent in the Minor Leagues, wondering if he'd ever get a moment like this.
"I've dreamt about this over and over and over," Ngoepe said. "And it lived up to every aspect of the dream that I had as a kid.
"[Bartee] said, 'You're going to make me cry.' I'm like, 'You're going to make me cry.' I had a couple tears rolling down a little bit, but I kept it together. I'm like, 'No, I can't do this right now.' All the emotions crashed into one for me right there."
When the ball made it back from center fielder Jon Jay, the Cubs rolled it to the Pirates' dugout. Gerrit Cole reached over to pick it up for safekeeping and jokingly pretended to throw it into the stands.
Five innings later, Ngoepe teamed up with shortstop Jordy Mercer to record the final outs of the night. Albert Almora Jr. hit a ground ball to Mercer, who flipped it to Ngoepe to start a game-ending double play.
"This game brings so much cool stuff to us. You're not going to script it out that way," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Then it goes the way it goes. It's a beautiful part of the game that we're appreciative of and thankful for."
"Jordy just kept telling everybody, 'He's representing 1.62 billion people!'" Hurdle recalled. "'There's one of him. One-point-six-two billion!'"
The actual population of Africa is estimated to be 1.216 billion. Mercer said he got his number from Ngoepe. He asked because he wanted to put his teammate's remarkable accomplishment in perspective.
Ngoepe stands alone in history, the only Major League player to represent the entire continent. That wasn't lost on Ngoepe, nor on the dugout full of players and coaches thrilled to witness his debut.
"I couldn't get over it," Mercer said. "He's like the 18,000th person to ever put on a big league uniform, ever, which is cool, too. But he's one of 1.62 billion. That's incredible."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.