By Andrew Keh
May 23, 2015
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — Jung Ho Kang grinned late Friday night as he balanced on a motorized scooter and zipped through pockets of pedestrian traffic in the hallway outside thePittsburgh Pirates’ clubhouse.
Kang, 27, had been ruminating earlier on how much easier his cultural transition — moving this winter from South Korea to the United States — had been than he had expected. His English was improving, a word or a phrase at a time, and Pittsburgh was proving to be an easy place to live. He had even tried one of the city’s Korean restaurants.
“It wasn’t bad,” he said, smiling, after a diplomatic pause.
The fast camaraderie of a sports team has helped. Before the game that night against the Mets, Kang was waiting with some teammates to take batting practice and chuckled along to the banter volleying around in English and Spanish. Upon spotting a fan asleep in an otherwise empty section of the stands, they tossed a ball gently into his general vicinity and laughed as the fan awoke, confused.
Hours later, after getting his ninth hit in five games and knocking in a run, Kang hopped on his scooter — a gift each player received from the closer Mark Melancon — and rolled away amid a pack of his teammates.
Such scenes have pleased Clint Hurdle, the Pirates’ manager. The language barrier has meant that Hurdle has spent more time watching Kang, a shortstop from Gwangju, than talking to him, and the manager has liked what he has seen.
“What he’s doing right now is probably paving the way for another guy to get another opportunity, because, right now, it looks real,” Hurdle said. “Time will tell. However, it looks real from the lens we’ve had looking at it six, seven weeks into the season.”
It remains an automatic question whether the statistics and accolades an international player gathers overseas can be considered, so to speak, real. That Kang has found a nice groove at the plate and, as a result, secured a regular lineup place has given the Pirates a measure of relief.
Before the season, Pittsburgh submitted a $5,002,015 posting fee to the Nexen Heroes, Kang’s old team, and signed him to a four-year, $11 million contract. It was not an expensive transaction, and yet many characterized it as a risk. Kang, after all, was the first Korean position player to move from the Korean Baseball Organization to Major League Baseball. (Hee Seop Choi and Shin Soo Choo, the only other Korean position players to play in the majors, began their professional careers in the farm systems of American clubs.)
The Pirates entered spring training touting Kang as an everyday player, but there were doubters. To start, the team did not seem to have an open infield position, and Kang’s preseason performance was a bit ragged.
But Kang is batting .355 with four doubles and two home runs since April 29, and with shortstop Jordy Mercer struggling, Kang has played regularly.
“As I play more, I’m seeing the ball better at the plate, and even on defense, I’m reading it better off the bat,” Kang said. “Everything has been getting easier because, of course, getting inconsistent time, here and there, can be hard.”
Hurdle shrugged at the notion that players from overseas brought an inherent risk, noting that the Pirates had scouted Kang, asked former teammates and opponents about him and, in the end, trusted that they had an accurate read on him.
“So far, the information that we were able to get has been good information,” Hurdle said.
C. J. Nitkowski, who pitched a decade in the majors before playing with and against Kang in South Korea, was one of the people Hurdle sought out for information.
Like most people, Nitkowski doubted that Kang could reproduce the 40 home runs he hit last season in the K.B.O., where even middling American pitchers have been known to succeed. And he did not think Kang could play shortstop here. And still, he predicted his former teammate would succeed.
“He was a good kid, an aggressive, alpha-male type, who wanted to be great,” Nitkowski said. “You wouldn’t have to worry about him being timid or scared coming here.”
In Bradenton, Fla., where the Pirates hold spring training, doubt lingered while Kang, at times, looked out of his depth. Second baseman Neil Walker said this was just the normal adjustment process that every player experiences. Walker said it was obvious, as well, that Kang was “mentally and physically exhausted” trying to process all that was new.
Walker said that playing winter ball in Mexico and Venezuela had given him some sense of what Kang was going through, but he surmised that the level of disorientation was incomparable.
“Our alphabet and language are completely different, so it’s hard for us to even comprehend how lonely a place, a situation, it could be,” Walker said. “But I think over the last three weeks, his focus has been less ‘When do I need to be here, when do I need to go there?’ and more ‘How can I compete?’ ”
Walker said that his ability to communicate with Kang had improved — each has learned how the other likes to receive the ball on double plays — but that they still relied on hand signals for positioning and bag-covering responsibilities.
Like most players from East Asia, Kang has relied heavily on his interpreter, H. K. Kim, to assist with his life in and out of baseball.
On Friday, as he does before many games, Kim translated the scouting reports and fielding charts for the Mets to Kang in front of his locker. Kim said Kang, who is not married, was taking English lessons with a tutor whenever his schedule allowed.
As his conversation with a visiting reporter was coming to an end, pleasantries were exchanged in Korean.
Then Kang smiled, extended his hand and said firmly, in English, “Thank you.”