Kang looks to put his past behind him

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec The Bucs’ Jung Ho Kang takes a youngster shopping at Dick’s Sporting Goods Thursday.

By John Hartsock

jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

Infielder Jung Ho Kang was a coveted prospect with the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the bidding war for him and signed him to a four-year, $11 million contract prior to the 2015 season.

Over the next few years, however, things did not go smoothly for Kang.

In September 2015, he suffered a broken leg and a torn anterior cruciate ligament when involved in a second-base collision with sliding baserunner Chris Coughlan, then of the Chicago Cubs.

That injury resulted in surgery and sidelined Kang through the first month of the 2016 season. Although Kang’s on-field statistics were good — he finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2015 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 126 games, and belted 21 homers and drove in 62 RBIs in 2016 — trouble would follow Kang.

In July 2016, a sexual assault claim was made against Kang by a 23-year-old Chicago woman. No charges were brought against Kang, as the accuser would not cooperate with a police investigation.

The following December, Kang was found guilty of his third DUI after being involved in a high-speed hit-and-run incident in his native South Korea. That resulted in his initial request for a work visa to enter the United States for the 2017 baseball season being denied.

Kang sat out the entire 2017 season, forfeiting that year’s salary. After securing the work visa in 2018, Kang returned to the Pirates organization, playing most of last season in the minor leagues. He finally returned to the Pirates for the final three games of the 2018 season, collecting two hits in six plate appearances at Cincinnati.

Having entered a substance-abuse treatment program and embraced Christianity, Kang, 31, is hoping to turn over a new leaf in the 2019 season, and thankful that the Pirates are giving him the chance. The club declined his $5.5 million contract option last fall, but signed him to a $3 million, one-year contract in the hope that he can inject some power into an offense that hit only 157 home runs, third worst in the National League, last year.

“I have the same swing,” the 6-foot, 210-pound Kang said through his interpreter, Jeffrey Kim, while visiting Altoona’s Dick’s Sporting Goods store on Thursday as part of the Pirates Charities annual winter Care-A-Van. “There have been a little bit of changes, but not too much. Most likely, the team will expect power hitting from me, and I will try to meet those expectations.

“I’m thankful and grateful to all the fans and the Pirates’ organization, and everybody who has supported me,” Kang said. “I love coming back to the Pirates and playing with them. I love the organization.”

It’s been a long road back for Kang, and it hasn’t been an easy one.

He admitted that he was sensitive about the subject when his long quest to secure a work visa was broached.

“Getting a visa wasn’t that easy, but things went well, and I’m happy to be playing again for the Pirates,” Kang said.

The last three years have led to a lot of soul-searching on Kang’s part.

“I’ve had hardships, and I’ve become a more careful personality, thankful for the small things,” Kang said. “That has what has changed over the last couple years.”

His involvement in Christianity has helped Kang.

“I became more of a wise person through Christianity,” Kang said. “Mentally, I’m more comfortable, and that has helped me.”

Kang — who has prepared for the 2019 baseball season with workouts this offseason in Los Angeles — is hoping for considerable playing time at third base this year with the Pirates, perhaps platooning there with left-handed hitting Colin Moran, who had a solid rookie season in 2018.

Kang was the Pirates’ regular third baseman in 2015 and 2016.

“I’m not sure that I’ll be a full-time third baseman this year, but I’m going to try to play third base,” Kang said.

Left-handed pitcher Steven Brault, who was also among the Pirates’ entourage visiting Altoona Thursday, is excited about Kang’s return, and what he brings to the team both offensively and defensively.

“I can’t wait — I think he’s going to be a huge asset to the team with that bat,” Brault said. “We need a big power bat, and it will be really nice to have him in there and hit a thousand home runs for us. That would be cool.”

Kang also possesses excellent skills with the glove.

“We were playing wiffle ball with some kids (Wednesday), and he made this ridiculously quick-reaction catch without almost even looking,” Brault said. “It was good to see him out there in the little bit that we saw of him last year, and now he’s had a full offseason to prepare.”

Kang is hoping that the Pirates, who achieved a winning season (82-79) a year ago, can continue the trend in 2019, and that he can help them do it.

“The important part is not to get injured, and then I’ll concentrate my effort on baseball and that will lead to good results,” Kang said. “The Pirates’ players and pitchers are pretty good. If we can cooperate and play together well, we’ll probably have a good result at the end of the season.”

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