If this was a video package instead of a wordy online dispatch I’d open with the kid chasing the railcar in the movie version of The Natural, yelling: “What’s your name, Mister?” and we insert the Psi “Gangnam Style” video of Jung-Ho Kang, the first Korean position player to set up shop in Major League Baseball. A fast-paced montage of very sweet home run swings in gaudy maroon uniforms in mall-like Korean ballparks would follow. Blurry footage of double plays in the field would show off the defense of the 28-year-old native of Gwangju who spent nine seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization before signing with Pittsburgh this past February. Because it was the Pirates, the somewhat historic deal flew beneath everyone’s radar, except for a few transaction wire bloggers and of course USA Today’s all-seeing sports section.
His Spring Training in Florida established the severity of the language barrier as Kang sat lonesome and quite sullen in a corner of the dugout with the requisite translator in tow (the guy wearing all the team gear he can get his hands on with the “This must be heaven” expression on his face.) Kang’s name was also an issue debated for a few weeks by broadcasters and PR guys on how it is properly pronounced. It’s fun listening to visiting team announcers try it out for the first time, especially those fellas from the Southern states who end up sounding like Hoss from Bonanza. In the end, the American media has accepted his name pronunciation as Gung, and his teammates, many of them cold to the newcomer during those hot March days in Florida, have now embraced the confident Korean who likes to face big-name pitchers.
The minuscule Pittsburgh media horde seemed to have early doubts about the Pirates’ little international experiment that could. Keep in mind, this is the franchise previously burned at the stake by the PR disaster of the Million Dollar Arm pitchers from India—a direct result of the front office being led by a former Bud Selig toady lifted from the halls of MLB’s Park Ave. office. (In a sweet parallel, the KBO offices are housed in the ritzy Seoul suburb of Gangnam.)
As Opening Day loomed, it was unclear as to how and where Kang was going to fit in on the infield depth chart, especially with manager Clint Hurdle promising all kind of at-bats for the Korean star. Nothing irks the modern analytic-addict baseball fan more than having any lack of clarity whatsoever as to who plays where and when (and why).
Much like the rest of the Pirates, it was a slow April for Kang, but as he steadily collected hits—many of them quite clutch—his playing time increased as starting shortstop Jordy Mercer slumped at the plate yet again. Mercer worked hard to get to his starter status over the past few seasons, and as Kang began finding his way onto Hurdle’s line-up card, Mercer started to awaken from his hitting slumber. Hurdle has played the Wilfred Brimley role quite well so far this season, with pitching coach Ray Searage coming off as the William Farnsworth “Red” character from The Natural. Their expressions are priceless as they watch Kang add a robotic precision to a team brimming with swagger from bootstrap king Josh Harrison and MVP Andrew McCutchen. Pair that with Okie resilience from Mercer, the unhittable taciturn Iowan Tony Watson, operatic drama from catcher Francisco Cervelli, Melvillian reticence from back-up catcher Chris Stewart and Arkansas redneck authority from a swan-songing A.J. Burnett. In addition, one must throw in the Dominican posse of Francisco Liriano, Arquimedes “Bitchin’” Caminero, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco to be teamed with NYC-raised power hitter Pedro Alvarez and hometown Pittsburgh icon Neil Walker. Add all of this up and you’ve got a team chemistry set that would make Louis Pasteur whine with anticipation on the eve of his birthday.
It was odd to see Kang’s rise burn through the Miami Marlins in late May with Ichiro Suzuki riding the opposite bench of a team in complete freefall. Much of Kang’s at-bat preparation is a toned-down version of Ichiro’s intense stretching. Kang also pays homage to Hideki Matsui’s dutiful inspection of his own bat while plateside, as his was always the cleanest in the park.
Kang’s got the high leg kick, which some coaches tried to talk him out of once he was on U.S. soil. It’s fun to watch his routine and warm-up quirks that are equal part gyroscopes, ropes and pulleys and nervous ticks—all done with a stone face slightly moist even in cold conditions. Kang has also dealt well with the rookie/veteran yin-yang of international transplants. Pirates TV color man Bob Walk likes to frequently remind new viewers: “This is not Kang’s first rodeo.”
By Flag Day, Kang’s secret weapon status was becoming well known, and he was batting clean-up in Hurdle’s line-up against lefty starters. In Chicago Wednesday night, Kang took White Sox starter John Danks deep in the first inning with Andrew McCutchen aboard, a two-run blast that would put the Bucs up 3-0 and would lead to a 3-2 win, their seventh in a row. Three of Kang’s four homers have come on first-pitch swings, and Wednesday night’s was the first to the opposite field. As his playing time has increased, he’s looked tired at times. The KBO plays a 144-game slate with minimal air travel between 10 franchises in South Korea, five of which are huddled around the city of Seoul. The level of play in the KBO is generally compared to AA baseball in the U.S. Now that he’s here, Kang’s got the challenge of San Francisco to Atlanta road trip mileage, time zone bingo and hotel room TV remote thumb-twiddling.
Kang came to Pittsburgh as a slight bargain (four years for $16 million) from the Nexen Heroes, with the Pirates outbidding the allegedly cash-strapped Mets for the right to negotiate a contract with the man who was with the franchise from 1996 when they were the Unicorns. The Heroes lost the 2014 championship to the evil Samsung Lions, so Kang, who hit .356 with 40 homers over there last year, was ready to set sail for American baseball waters, away from the league that allows draws (only 12 innings can be played). Kang has (perhaps) jokingly said through his translator that he enjoys the steaks and women of life in America. One thing is for certain: he has mastered the seeing-eye ground ball single without the Ichiro-style cricket swing and rarely gets stuck with an oh-fer. Yes, Shin-Soo Choo and Hee-Seop Choi have preceded him, but they both came up through MLB organizations and neither of them starred in the KBO, so Kang is the true pioneer. He wears it well.
This video package now concludes with Kang highlights from 2015 in a Pirates uniform. His home runs, his near-collision with Cervelli on a foul pop, his insistent tag on an oversliding Ben Revere at third base. The voiceover for this footage is Bob Costas reading from the early chapters of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 Pulitzer-winning novel The Natural. It is the scene where the Knights manager Pop first sees Roy Hobbs entering the dugout carrying a bassoon case. “For his bulk he looked lithe, and he appeared calmer than he felt, for although he was sitting here on this step he was still in motion. He was traveling (on the train that never stopped). His self, his mind, raced on and he felt he hadn’t stopped going wherever he was going because he hadn’t yet arrived. Where hadn’t he arrived? Here.”