Indianapolis Indians Players Make History
This spring, two Indians players became the first of their respective countries to play pro baseball.
There is a massive difference between someone saying they grew up on the baseball diamond, and someone actually being raised on a baseball diamond. Gift Ngoepe embodies the latter. Born in Pietersburg, South Africa, Ngoepe and his two brothers were raised by their single mother in one room in the clubhouse of their local Randburg Mets baseball squad. In exchange for that room, Ngoepe’s mother would cook for the team and clean up the clubhouse.
Approximately 6,000 miles away, in Vilnius, Lithuania, a young Dovydas Neverauskas was taken under his father’s wing and learned to play the game of baseball on rocky fields with inadequate equipment. Neverauskas’s father, a coach and advocate for baseball in Lithuania, introduced the game to his son when he was around 6 years old. Dovydas took to the game as a pitcher, and is now settling into his role as a middle reliever.
In April, both Ngoepe and Neverauskas were called up from the Indianapolis Indians to join its major-league affiliate, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Neverauskas was called up first, then sent back down to Indy after one game. The promotion of Neveraukas did spark a discussion among the game’s historians, however. The authenticity of claiming Neverauskas as the first Lithuanian-born major-leaguer was called into question, as there is the case of Joe Zapustus, a member of the 1933 Philadelphia Athletics, of being credited as the first Lithuanian-born player in the show—but it was discovered that he lied about both his age and his birthplace (not Boston, as he claimed, but Latvia). This clarification paved the way for Neverauskas to have his cap enshrined at Cooperstown along with his friend and teammate from South Africa, who was called up immediately after Neverauskas was sent back.
While growing up in Vilnius, Dovydas never gave much thought to the possibility of paving the path for his country. “When I was younger, I just wanted to play the game,” he says as he watches from the dugout as his teammates go through their pregame routines. A silent, stoic type, Neverauskas focuses less on what he has accomplished and more on what he has left to achieve. “The goal isn’t to get back to the majors, the goal is to stay up there,” he says. “I’m back to work on my pitch selection and to tighten things up. Everyone up there is a good hitter, so there is room for improvement.”
Under the lights of a night game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Ngoepe made history against veteran left-handed pitcher Jon Lester. When describing his thought process on the way up to the plate for his first at-bat, Ngoepe says, “At the end of the day, I knew that I needed to give my best at-bat. Lester wasn’t going to take it easy; I needed to earn it.” Earn it he did, taking the three-time World Series champ to a 3-1 count before knocking a single into center field.
Just as with his friend Dovydas, Ngoepe describes his mission to the majors as far from over. “It was like a dream, but I need to get over the fact that I got sent back down and I need to let myself work on the things I need to improve so I stay there.” The things Ngoepe refers to are his offensive techniques. He is an electrifying infielder, but his hitting is a weak part of his game, which Ngoepe recognizes and is working on. Keenly aware of his historic appearance, Ngoepe says, “It’s a good thing to be looked at as an inspiration to both young and old. The older people can sort of live through me, and the younger people realize that they can achieve their dreams.”
He may have proven himself to his country, and even the continent of Africa, but Gift Ngoepe still has something to prove to himself. “I belong in professional baseball and need to work on getting back up there,” he says, more to himself than anyone else.