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(Yonhap Interview) Contrite over DUI conviction, Pirates' Kang Jung-ho hoping to revive career in Dominican Republic

2017/09/20 05:50

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By Yoo Jee-ho

GWANGJU, Sept. 20 (Yonhap) -- Since being convicted of drunk driving in Seoul in March, Kang Jung-ho, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, has been keeping a low profile.

Kang hasn't played for the big league club this year and remains without a U.S. work permit. In the meantime, Kang, who in May lost an appeal of his eight-month term, suspended for two years, has been training on his own in his hometown of Gwangju, some 350 kilometers south of Seoul.

Then last month, the Pirates extended him a lifeline, setting him up an opportunity to play in the Dominican Republic this fall. Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Winter League announced their signing of the South Korean infielder on Aug. 30, and Kang is scheduled to join them soon.

And the 30-year-old is itching to get back into action.

Kang Jung-ho, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, speaks to Yonhap News Agency in an interview in Gwangju, 350 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 19, 2017. Kang remains without a U.S. work visa necessary to play for the Pirates, following a drunk driving conviction. He will play in the Dominican Winter League starting in October. (Yonhap) Kang Jung-ho, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, speaks to Yonhap News Agency in an interview in Gwangju, 350 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 19, 2017. Kang remains without a U.S. work visa necessary to play for the Pirates, following a drunk driving conviction. He will play in the Dominican Winter League starting in October. (Yonhap)

"Just the fact that I'll be playing actual games will be significant in and of itself," Kang told Yonhap News Agency in an interview in Gwangju on Tuesday. "The most important thing is to make adjustments as quickly as I can, and just get back my feel for the game. I've been away for too long.

"I'd never thought about the Dominican Republic as a possible option, but the Pirates brought that up first," Kang added. "They told me it'd be good for me and I agreed to give it a shot."

   But first things first: Kang knows he let down a lot of people both in South Korea and in the United States with his misdeed, and he is still searching for ways to make it up to them.

Last December, Kang fled the scene after crashing into a guardrail on his way to his hotel in Seoul. Kang's blood alcohol content level was 0.084 percent. The legal limit is 0.05 percent.

The DUI arrest was Kang's third in South Korea. His driver's license has since been revoked under the three strikes law.

A Seoul court then handed down the suspended jail term, which meant Kang would avoid actual prison time as long as he stayed out of trouble for two years. He'd filed for the U.S. visa prior to the court ruling in March, but his application was rejected.

Where Kang's fans saw a missed opportunity -- the slugging infielder coming off a 21-homer season appeared primed for more -- others considered him the poster child for spoiled, entitled professional athletes, the type who feel they're invincible away from the field of play. Kang also drew major flak for offering to make up for the incident by playing good baseball, with detractors saying Kang has to get his act together off the field first.

Kang apologized to fans in both his native country and in Pittsburgh, and also to the Pirates' teammates and front office.

"Something like that must never happen again, and I am trying to be a better man," Kang said of his arrest. "I've been playing baseball all my life and that's all I know. At the time (of the controversial remarks), I thought I'd be able to return to the United States. I was foolish."

   Kang said staying away from the public's prying eyes in recent months has been a valuable learning experience for him. He got to spend much time with himself and also with his family and close friends.

Kang gradually began to move out of his shell over the summer, as he started giving free clinics to youth players and donating equipment to schools.

"Honestly, I was afraid to go out (and see young players)," he said. "But once I was there, the players welcomed me with open arms. I started enjoying my time with them, and it was nice to be received so well. And it also made me think I should try to become a role model and an exemplary player for kids."

   Kang reserves a special place in his heart for the Pirates, which signed him to a four-year, US$11 million deal before the 2015 season.

Kang finished third in the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year voting in 2015 after batting .287 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 126 games. Last year, the South Korean had 21 homers and 62 RBIs, along with a .255 batting average in 103 games.

For this season, the Pirates placed Kang on the restricted list, which is for players who are unable to play for non-injury reasons, such as arrests or family matters. Kang will not be paid or earn major league service time while on this list.

They have been eliminated from postseason contention for the second straight year, after winning an NL wild card in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Pirates, who dropped to 68-83 after suffering their sixth straight loss on Monday (local time), could certainly have used Kang's bat. They're among the worst in the NL in runs scored, batting average, home runs and slugging percentage.

Kang Jung-ho, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, listens to a question in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Gwangju, 350 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 19, 2017. Kang remains without a U.S. work visa necessary to play for the Pirates, following a drunk driving conviction. He will play in the Dominican Winter League starting in October. (Yonhap) Kang Jung-ho, third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, listens to a question in an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Gwangju, 350 kilometers south of Seoul, on Sept. 19, 2017. Kang remains without a U.S. work visa necessary to play for the Pirates, following a drunk driving conviction. He will play in the Dominican Winter League starting in October. (Yonhap)

The Pirates have still remained in close contact with Kang. They even shipped him a pitching machine to aid his training -- Kang has since donated it to a local school -- and all Kang wants to do is to respond to the club's show of faith.

"I am really grateful, and I want to do well in the Dominican Winter League for them," he said. "I am a little worried about how I am going to fare after sitting out for a year. And for all they've done for me, I know the Pirates will be disappointed if I don't live up to their expectations. That's why I've been training so hard here."

   Kang's typical day begins at around 8:30 a.m. After breakfast, Kang heads out to Hampyeong, a smaller town lying west of Gwangju, for some baseball training. He returns to Gwangju in the afternoon for weight training. He has stuck to the simple routine, and said he feels more than ready physically.

"I can't afford to fail, and I am confident I'm going to do well," Kang said of the upcoming Winter League season. "I can't wait to get into games. I've prepared so much for that."

   No matter how well he does in the Winter League -- prospects in search of playing time and major league veterans rehabbing from injuries often play there -- Kang's future in the major leagues remains murky at best. He will still need his U.S. visa to rejoin the Pirates and earn his salary.

For now, Kang is trying not to get too ahead of himself.

"Obviously, I am worried about such uncertainty, but I can't do anything about that because it's all been my own doing," he said. "I'll just try to worry about things I can actually control. I'll concentrate on playing well in the Dominican Republic."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

(END)

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