The rented BMW was speeding through the streets of Seoul, South Korea on 2 December 2016. At 2:46am the luxury car smashed through a guardrail with bits of debris hitting a nearby car. The two occupants of the car fled on foot before being caught by police. One of the occupants was MLB star, Jung-Ho Kang.
Kang was driving under the influence and had asked his friend to take the heat and say that he was driving. Unfortunately for Kang, the on-board security camera showed him driving, and so in March 2017, he received an 8 month suspended prison sentence for his actions.
Gwangju Jeil High School – A Baseball Superstar Factory
Kang attended Gwangju Jeil High School, which is renowned in South Korea as producing some of the country’s finest talents. Before Kang, the school produced three other players who made it to Major League Baseball: Seo Jae-weong, Kim Byung-hyun, Choi Hee-seop. There are many other graduates of this school who have made it to the KBO (South Korea’s top baseball league).
High school baseball is played at a very high level in South Korea by students who play year-round. Unlike in Japan or the United States where nearly every high school fields a team, there are only about 60 to 70 schools that field teams in elite competitions. There are 5 major national high school competitions, all of which have MLB, KBO and NPB scouts attending games. Competition is understandably fierce and the pressure is immense on such young players. When the opportunities arise to showcase your talent you need to grab it and nail it. A young Jung-Ho Kang did just that in 2005.
Kang was pitching in the 59th Golden Lion National High School Baseball Tournament. He ended up pitching eight scoreless innings, striking out seven and only giving up two hits. He not only took Gwangju to victory but also won the Outstanding Pitcher Award and the RBI title. You could say that Kang was something of a phenomenon in South Korean high school baseball.
Lacklustre Performance in KBO
Kang was drafted by the Hyundai Unicorns (eventually named Nexun Heroes and now Kiwoom Heroes) in the second round of the 2006 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) First-Year Player Draft. However, his high school performances didn’t carry through into the KBO, with a .138 batting average in his rookie season and a .150 average in 2007. Kang was down in the dumps and things needed to improve drastically. The next two years were mediocre but then things started to improve slightly for Kang, and in 2010 his batting average went up to .301.
Kang, like many South Korean high school baseball players, dream of making it to Major League Baseball, however, his stats were fairly average and would not catch the attention of MLB. Then came 2012.
The Kang Boom Years 2012 – 2014
It was as if Kang had an epiphany, a moment of realisation, or maybe a talk from one of his coaches. Whatever it was, Kang’s fire was lit and there was no stopping him from the 2012 season. Kang batted .314 with 25 home runs (2nd in the league), 82 RBI’s, 77 runs scored, and a career-high 21 stolen bases. He would also win another Gold Glove Award, the second of his career. 2013 wasn’t too bad either with Kang hitting .291. People thought it was impossible for him to reach the standard of the 2012 season. However, he not only matched it, but he smashed it: Kang hit .356 with 40 home runs and 117 RBI’s. He led the league in slugging percentage (.739) and OPS (1.198). He also finished second in home runs (40) and OBP (.459), third in both RBIs (117) and doubles (36), and fifth in runs scored (103). He also won his third straight Gold Glove Award, his fourth overall and fourth in five seasons, establishing himself as the best defensive player in KBO.
Kang had made his mark. The baseball world had to listen. MLB had to listen – and they came quickly knocking on his door.
The Dream – making it to MLB
With Kang’s outrageous 2014 statistics, there were a number of MLB clubs who showed interest in him. However, it was the Pittsburgh Pirates who ultimately secured the right to begin negotiations with a winning bid of $5,002,015. They offered Kang an $11 million, four-year contract. The deal included a $5.5 million club option for 2019 with a $1 million buyout.
He made it – the young boy from South Korea made it to the pinnacle of his sport. Gwangju Jeil High School were cheering, his friends and family were cheering, but above all, the whole of South Korea was cheering. This was a moment of national pride.
The Slide at Second – The Downfall Begins
Kang’s rookie season wasn’t too bad. He hit .287 with 15 HR’s and 58 RBI’s. In the “National League Rookie of the Year” contest, Kang placed third behind Kris Bryant and Matt Duffy.
However, on September 17, 2015, during a game against the Chicago Cubs, Chris Coghlan attempted to break up the double play aggressively by sliding into Kang. Coghlan collided with Kang’s left knee, fracturing his leg and tearing his MCL.
It seems like Kang’s troubles start with this clash.
The Legal Troubles
2016 was actually a good baseball year for Kang. He recovered from his injury fairly quickly and came back to the field on May 6, 2016. He went on to hit a career-high of 21 home runs and 62 RBI’s.
However, in early July 2016, after losing to the Chicago Cubs, Kang matched with a 23-year-old Chicago woman on Bumble. After inviting her into his hotel room, the Chicago Tribune reports that she said “she blacked out about 15 to 20 minutes later, then drifted in and out of consciousness as he sexually assaulted her”. No charges were brought against Kang.
At the end of the 2016 season, Kang returned to South Korea where he was arrested for driving under the influence. The problem here was that this was actually Kang’s third DUI – he has two other DUI’s from 2009 and 2011. The Pittsburgh Pirates did not know about this.
There was an even bigger problem for Kang: Due to his third DUI, he was now being refused a work permit to enter the United States. His 2017 season was now over.
The Attempted Recovery
The Pirates had to do something. An agreement was made for Kang to join a treatment programme – which he did faithfully. Kang said “I’m just trying to be as careful as possible in everything that I do. Obviously, I’m not touching a drop of alcohol moving forward”. He came back to the Pirates but the next two seasons were nowhere near his best. On August 2, 2019, the Pirates designated Kang for assignment after he hit .169 with 10 home runs in 185 plate appearances. Kang was released on August 4, 2019.
Kang said, “It was my dream when I was in Korea playing baseball to become a Major League player… I can’t really forget at all, forever, playing in the Major Leagues for the first time with the Pirates.” – Unfortunately for Kang, this would be the last time he would ever play in Major League Baseball.
Once the pride of a nation, now a national disgrace. Kang begged to come back to the KBO. Unfortunately for Kang, under KBO rules, a player who has been caught driving under the influence at least three times is subject to a suspension of at least three years. After many discussions and a letter of apology, this was reduced to a one-year suspension and 300 hours of community service.
Kang stated in his apology, “Over time, I came to realize just how important baseball is to me, I took putting on a uniform and getting on the field for granted, and I was a fool not to see how precious that was. I know I don’t deserve to be saying this, but I would love one final opportunity to play baseball.”
Final Chance to Redeem Himself?
At 33 years old, and with a one-year suspension, Kang will most likely come back to KBO but he will not be at the peak of his powers. He does, however, seem genuinely remorseful over his past actions – this is the first step in getting back to form. There is no doubt that Kang is one of South Korea’s greatest baseball players. However, misfortunes (like being taken out by a slide at second base) along with foolish decisions (DUI) have brought this one-time great down on to his knees. We must now wait and see whether Kang will produce a final flourish in his baseball career.
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