As Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang works his way back to the majors while participating in his own personal Spring Training this month in Bradenton, Florida, it’s a time of mixed emotions for many Pirates fans.
Kang was deservedly one of the team’s most popular players when he joined the club in 2015 and made a big splash as an MLB rookie on a team that was headed for a 98-win season.
In 2016, a lot of that changed. The Pirates struggled after an infamously poor offseason and Kang had issues on and off the field.
In July, he was accused of sexual assault and investigated by the Chicago Police Department stemming from an incident in his hotel room in mid-June. Kang allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted a 23-year-old woman that he connected with on a social dating app.
On the field, Kang’s performance suffered. He had a .505 OPS in the month of July and the combination turned popular opinion against the then-29-year-old Korean.
When the Pirates held Jung Ho Kang bobblehead giveaway in August, the club allowed fans to request an alternative as a nod to the public sentiment regarding Kang.
He hit better the rest of the way, and in September, the Chicago Police announced that the alleged victim was no longer cooperating with their investigation. Kang was never charged.
During the offseason, things got worse. Kang as arrested for DUI after crashing his car in Korea and initially claiming that someone else had been behind the wheel. It later came out that it was his third DUI in Korea. Kang was left off the Korean WBC team because of the way the public perception had turned against him.
He was unable to secure a work visa in order to join the Pirates for the 2017 season, and in many cases, Pirates fans considered it just as well. Kang’s absence, along with that of Starling Marte, a slew of injuries and underperforming stars combined to torpedo the Pirates’ 2017 campaign.
With Kang now back in the United States, fan opinion on his potential return still remains divided. A plurality of fans polled by this reporter are excited to have him back, but 60 percent are either unsure or outright against his return.
#Pirates fans: What do you think about Jung Ho Kang's potential return to the team following an accusation of sexual assault and his third DUI arrest?
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) May 9, 2018
It seems clear, at the very least, that Kang won’t be welcomed as a returning hero, and that’s probably for the best. He isn’t one. Kang may still be a productive baseball player (we’ll get there in a second, I promise) but Kang’s actions, both those alleged and those he’s been found guilty of, are morally reprehensible.
The Pirates giving him another shot is pragmatic. If Kang is the player he once was, he will be a productive member of the team. But even if he hits well, there’s no reason for him to celebrated. There are plenty of good guys in the Pirates clubhouse if fans — especially children — want someone to cheer on and look up to.
Then there’s the fact that Kang being his productive self is far from a sure thing. I asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle this week if the team had followed any one player’s blueprint to returning after missing a year and a half of time at this stage of his career.
“There aren’t any,” Hurdle said. “There’s not a lot of history or a lot of data to grab and say, ‘this is a great model.’ I think we just need to take it one day at a time. … This is uncharted territory for us and for everybody else, especially for him.”
The last time Kang played competitively, during a stint in the Dominican Winter League, it was a disaster. He hit .143/.219/.202 and was cut after 24 games. His poor performance was attributed to him not fitting in well into the culture in the Dominican. There’s far from a guarantee that he’ll be able to turn around that performance, and there’s also no guarantee that he’ll do any better of a job fitting into an American society that might not welcome him.
“If he gets back to the player that he was, that’s going to be a big help,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We’ve thought about it, but we need to assess where he is. How close is he to where he used to be and then we go from there?”
The Pirates are smartly slowing down on any talk of what Kang’s role will be when he gets here or who might see a reduction in playing time if he’s able to return to form. It’s no sure thing that Kang will be the player he once was, and even if he is, overcoming missing a year and a half of the prime of his career lost out of stupidity, selfishness and hubris is nothing to be celebrated.