Sunday, September 06, 2015

Polanco a work in progress but emerging

Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, 10:24 p.m.
 Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco watches his RBI-single during the seventh inning of the baseball game against the New York Mets at Citi Field, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, in New York. Photo: Seth Wenig, AP / AP
Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco watches his RBI-single during the seventh inning of the baseball game against the New York Mets at Citi Field, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015, in New York. (AP)

ST. LOUIS — Gregory Polanco is always smiling.

So when his lips fold into a frown, something is wrong. And for a few seconds Saturday morning, Polanco's expression resembled the shape of the Gateway Arch.

He hasn't learned to speak one sentence in Korean.

The same cannot be said for his newest friend, who has mastered a couple of phrases in Spanish.

“I should learn, but no,” Polanco said after bowing his lips but before rolling his eyes toward Jung Ho Kang in the clubhouse stall next to his at Busch Stadium. “He can talk to me. He's good.

“Spanish must be easier (to learn) than Korean.”

There's that smile.

It's worth a million dollars, you know?

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle might also believe that smile could brighten PNC Park during a power outage. That it could charm the Lawrenceville waitress who has heard every line. That it could make a skipper regret benching his most talented player.

As that player, Polanco remains a work in progress. And his most important work may have happened way back in the spring.


The cold winter weather had even chilled Bradenton, Fla., in late February. But as he swung a hot bat during spring training, Kang received a cool reception from many Pirates veterans.

Maybe it was simply a rite of passage, the touted newbie being given the business by in-it-together veterans. Perhaps it was a test. Probably it was support for Neil Walker, whose days as Pittsburgh's Pirate seemed numbered even then.

Whatever it was, Polanco would have none of it.

Raised as a fundamentalist regarding the three Fs (faith, family and friendship), the youngest Pirate found his locker near the one belonging to the newest Pirate. Not knowing Korean, presuming Kang didn't speak Spanish and guessing English wasn't the best option, Polanco opted for a universal greeting: a smile.

That smile made Kang feel like he belonged.

“He's helped me a lot,” Kang said to a Pirates' employed interpreter. “We're always talking. We happen to be locker mates every where we go.”

Slowly, Kang has revealed to teammates — and fans — a personality that is inviting, engaging, respectful and bitingly funny.

“I think we share the same sense of humor,” Kang said of Polanco.
“That's why we connect.”

Also, they're insatiably curious.

Their early conversations were similar to first dates. What is your favorite color? How big is your family? The background stuff, basically.

Before long, Kang and Polanco found what would become their rap. What is this like in the Dominican Republic? What is that like in North Korea? The deeper stuff, essentially.

Well, how does anybody get to know somebody?

“He was open to me,” Polanco said. “He wanted to communicate. And I wanted to know a lot about him.

“That's it.”


Hurdle had “felt strongly that Polanco needed a day,” but the Pirates needed a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday. Under a slowly setting blazing sun, Polanco stepped in to pinch hit, again attempting to turn sideways the Cardinals' closer, Trevor Rosenthal.

This was St. Louis, not Pittsburgh.

This was the first week of September, not the middle of July.

This was Polanco striking out swinging, not walking off the Cardinals in the 10th inning.

This was a manager trying for a tie but also a teacher trusting a student.

“Gregory and I have a lot of common fabric that I don't know if he's aware of,” Hurdle said, recalling his experience as the hotshot prospect expected to become among the best of big leaguers.

This game, as Hurdle often reminds, can humble anybody. As a player, Hurdle was no exception.

As the Pirates manager, he is the franchise's best bet to help Polanco settle that sweet-looking lefty swing, master right field and make good on promise not seen by scouts since they first watched a young Darryl Strawberry.

Unlike with Kang, Polanco's chats with Hurdle are not daily occurrences. Hurdle picks his spots. Polanco appreciates the space, though not as much as he does Hurdle's unapologetic, unfailing reassurance.

“I'm a positive guy,” Polanco said. “In everything I do, I'm a positive guy. I need to be.

“I know Hurdle has my back.”

Two men of deep spirituality, born 35 years apart, found one another at the moment in their lives when one could shine a guiding light for the other.

Polanco said he sees this as no coincidence. And in Polanco, Hurdle suggested he might be watching an emerging leader.

With A.J. Burnett set to retire, and Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Mark Melancon perhaps on their way elsewhere, the Pirates will need new leaders by the start of next spring training.

They found one at the start of their last one.

“That was Kang's first interaction with a player, first and foremost,” Hurdle said. “But I think it was a plus for Gregory because he probably needed to reach out.”

The Pirates lost Saturday. Polanco started the game on the bench and ended it striking out.
He's the guy who can turn the Arch upside.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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