SEOUL, Apr. 27 (Korea Bizwire) — His major league career once in limbo over a drunk driving conviction, embattled South Korean infielder Kang Jung-ho is finally set to rejoin the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates announced Thursday (local time) that Kang has been granted a U.S. work visa and has re-entered the country. After missing the entire 2017 and the beginning of the 2018 season, the third baseman will soon return to the Bucs and begin working out at the team’s spring training site in Florida.
“After a lengthy process, we are pleased that Jung-ho has been allowed to re-enter the United States,” Pirates President Frank Coonelly said in a statement.
“We are encouraged by the steps that Jung-ho has taken to date and are hopeful that having the game he loves taken away from him for more than a year has driven home the reality that he must make better life decisions as we move forward together. As we have communicated to him throughout this process, we will work to provide Jung-ho with the resources and support necessary for him to meet the high expectations that we have for him as a member of our organization and our community.”
Kang, 31, hasn’t played since 2016. He was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in Seoul in December that year. It was his third DUI arrest in South Korea, and he received an eight-month jail term, suspended for two years, in March 2017. He lost his appeal two months later.
Though he avoided prison time, Kang was denied a work permit after his arrest and was unable to enter the U.S. to play for the Pirates. The club placed him on the restricted list, where he didn’t receive any pay or earn major league service time, in March 2017.
Kang tried to stay sharp by playing in the Dominican Winter League last year but was released by his club in November following an extended slump.
Kang, a former All-Star shortstop in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), 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.
The following year, the South Korean had 21 homers and 62 RBIs, along with a .255 batting average in 103 games. He is the first position player to jump from the KBO to the big leagues.
According to MLB.com, Kang must fulfill his obligations under the treatment program to which he agreed in January 2017 before reporting to the Pirates’ spring training complex in Bradenton, Florida. He will remain on the restricted list while he works his way back into big league form.
Kang is set to make US$3 million this year, with a $5.5 million club option (or $250,000 buyout) for 2019.
Through Thursday’s action, the Pirates were in third place in the National League Central Division at 14-11, two games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. Colin Moran, a 25-year-old getting his first extensive opportunities in the bigs, has been the Pirates’ regular third baseman this year. Moran is batting .296 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 22 games.
Catcher Francisco Cervelli, one of Kang’s closest friends on the team, told MLB.com that the South Korean would be welcomed back with open arms in the clubhouse.
“We never quit on him. He was a big thing in 2015. The fans love him,” Cervelli said. “He’s a human. We cannot judge and do anything. He’s a human. He makes mistakes like everybody else. When he comes back here, we’re going to make sure that he feels like he’s at home.”