PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Jung Ho Kang chose the gray T-shirt because he thought it looked cool. That’s it. The fact “The Trillest” _ a mashup of “true” and “real” that serves as slang for someone considered most authentic _ was splashed across the front was purely incidental.
And only too appropriate.
The one constant from the day the South Korean-born infielder walked into the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training complex in February in the T-shirt equivalent of a humble brag has been Kang’s belief in his own abilities, something never in danger of getting lost in translation as the 28-year-old became the first position player to jump directly from the Korean Baseball Organization to the majors.
“He was the baddest dude over there, by far,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “There was separation. He didn’t come over here and say `I hope I’m going to be a bad dude over here.’ He came over here with the intent to play, to play well and work his way into whatever he is going to work his way into and make a difference on our team in this league.”
Kang (pronounced “GAHNNGG”) is hitting .280 with three homers and 20 RBIs for the Pirates, who figure to be in the thick of the playoff chase for a third straight summer.
“It’s going to get a lot more fun,” Kang said through interpreter HK Kim.
Really, isn’t that the point? While Kang understands he’s a trailblazer of sorts, he’s a ballplayer at heart. Press him on what he likes about the U.S. and the bachelor quickly responds: “the girls.” Hurdle refers to him as “a guy” that is quickly closing the culture gap on his teammates.
English lessons help, along with a willingness to immerse himself in the nuances of American baseball. Kang is still getting used defensive shifts and his batting stance remains a symphony of curiously moving parts, including a left foot that he picks up then drops as he swings like an overzealous piano player stomping on the pedals.
It’s a lot to take in but Kang shakes his head and offers a polite “no” when asked if he’s homesick. While Pittsburgh isn’t exactly a haven for Korean cuisine, Kang makes do with late-night meals in the team kitchen and satisfies unique cravings on the road.
Mostly, he’s up for anything, a mindset that allowed a leap that many of his countrymen have not taken. Kang transitioned in the middle of his prime to a contender after signing a four-year, $11-million deal in January.
“A lot of guys are afraid to come over here, but he did it,” said Texas Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who signed with Seattle as an teenager out of South Korea in 2000 then worked through the minors for nearly a decade before becoming an everyday player.
“He’s not afraid. He wants to play here,” Choo said.
Kang laid the gantlet down from the start, ticking off a partial to-do list once he arrived in the states, namely get a hit off Cincinnati closer Aroldis Chapman and supplant Jordy Mercer as the everyday shortstop. He tagged Chapman for a double in May and is pushing Mercer and third baseman Josh Harrison for regular playing time.
Pirates third base coach Rick Sofield sees a similar confidence in superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
“You can’t tell them any different that they can’t be good,” Sofield said. “That at any time, in any scenario, that they can’t deliver. Jung Ho has that.”
That confidence never wavered in the KBO, where Kang hit .356 with 40 home runs in 2014 to spark a bidding war (the Pirates paid the Nexen Heroes $5 million to negotiate with Kang). It didn’t budge in March even as he slogged through an uneven spring, homering his first game but hitting just .200. It remained unmoved while he languished on the bench in April as general manager Neal Huntington repeatedly defended the decision to not send Kang to the minors for more seasoning.
Huntington preached patience and Hurdle eased Kang into the lineup, staying sensitive to team chemistry.
Kang never worried about fitting in. Outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco _ one-time prospects from the Dominican Republican who understood the adjustment _ taught Kang a handful of Spanish sayings. Kang returned the favor with a crash course in basic Korean.
All nice, though irrelevant if Kang couldn’t hit. But he can. When Pittsburgh’s game at San Diego on May 28 aired live nationally in South Korea, Kang hit a three-run homer 434 feet to the outer reaches of Petco Park.
South Korea is celebrating Kang’s success with a hint of trepidation. Each milestone validates Kang’s KBO roots while also raising the possibility other homegrown stars could bolt and weaken the league.
“We obviously root for a former KBO player to do good when he goes abroad,” KBO spokesman Park Keun-chan said. “But we also prefer star players to keep displaying their talents in front of Korean fans.”
Kang understands but doesn’t dwell on the possible ripple effect.
“I try to think simple and just focus on my daily routine on my daily work,” he said. “That is going to complicate my thinking.”
Trying to find his place on this side of the world is hard enough. His education is speeding up. Technically, Kang is a rookie. Yet he also knows he’s not.
Kang was working on his defensive footwork recently when Hurdle walked over. Hurdle asked Kim to tell Kang not to get nervous, that he was just sneaking a closer peek. Kang’s response _ “I’m a veteran, I’ve got this” _ earned a good-natured laugh from Hurdle.
That night, Kang fielded flawlessly and added three hits in a win, but also got thrown out at second trying to stretch an easy single into a double. The Pirates can live with the growing pains.
So can a fan base whose skepticism has abated while being won over by Kang’s swagger and refusal to be intimidated by the stage.
“There’s a mystical thing going on,” Sofield said. “You see how he is, how he fits. This city has embraced him.”
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland and Associated Press correspondent Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.