From Unicorn To Pirate: Five Facts About Pittsburgh’s Jung-Ho Kang

Kang, waiting for the snow to melt. Me too, Kang, me too.

Jung-Ho Kang is the most recent Korean player to join the MLB, the Pirates having signed him on in January for a four-year, $11-million contract with a fifth-year option. He’s the first infielder to make the jump directly from KBO (Korean Baseball Organization) to MLB. The only thing I’ve seen is the solo home run he hit against the Jays last week, in his very first spring training game. To tide any other Korean-oriented MLB fans over until the start of the regular season, here are a few facts about Kang to inform and/or distract you.

1. Let’s get the name straight.

For non-Korean speakers, his last name, “Kang,” is pronounced with a soft “ah” sound. Think closer to “Donkey Kong,” and not at all like “kangaroo,” despite the spelling of the latter. This is also how you should have been pronouncing “gangnam style” all along.

One of the many joys of early-season baseball, with its empty stadiums and not-quite summer weather, is hearing the commentators butcher foreign names. The two in the clip above pronounce Kang to rhyme with “dung.” I don’t mind the initial mispronunciations. It’s rich drinking-game fodder. And it proves MLB’s international diversity. I used to feel a strange surge of pride every time someone mispronounced Hee-Seop Choi’s last name to rhyme with “Joey,” or Jung-Keun Bong’s last name as it looks like it should be pronounced. It was as if their names were a secret, known only to select insiders, i.e. the entire population of South Korea.

But still, respect the man’s name, folks. It’s only four-letters long.

2. He was born and raised in Gwangju, one of the most badass cities in S. Korea.

Gwangju is the site of the historic 1929 student independence movement against Japan, who colonized and ruled over the Korean peninsula for the first half of the twentieth century. It is also the site of the bloody student rebellions in the 1980s that eventually swept the entire nation, ushering S. Korea into the democratic state it is today.

Kang attended Gwangju Jeil High School, an important high school that participated in the early independence movement. It’s also known for its powerhouse athletics program, spewing out KBO stars year after year. Kang’s strong arm and quick reflexes allowed him to play pitcher, catcher, and all infielder positions in high school, not an uncommon thing in Korea. As team captain, he led his school to victory in the 2005 national finals (Golden Lion Series), pitching eight innings and giving up zero runs and only two hits. Kang joins a list of alumni who have made it to the MLB: Jae-Weong Seo, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Hee-Seop Choi.

Gwangju Jeil is like the Duke University of the NBA, if Duke had a more interesting political history and consistently produced good players. (Yeah I said that; I’m getting my hate on a few days early for March Madness.)

3. He used to be a unicorn.

Kang’s professional debut came in 2006 with the Hyundai Unicorns, arguably one of the best team names in professional sports (though the Nippon-Ham Fighters of the NPB give them a run for their money). He was drafted as a catcher, but immediately transitioned to an infielder. Despite his illustrious high school career, Kang didn’t see much playing time, participating in only 30 games over two seasons and spending significant time in the minors (Future’s League).

Calling all bronies.

With the collapse of the Unicorns in 2007 due to financial hardships, most of its players migrated to the Heroes in 2008, a newly-minted KBO team. The Heroes were initially to be named the Woori Heroes, after Woori Tobacco. The KBO pulled the plug, not because it was a tobacco company sponsoring a professional sports team, but because they didn’t cough up the sponsorship money. They are now called the Nexen Heroes, after a tire company. Though I think their mascot, “Tukdori,” supposedly named for his strong and manly chin (“tuk”), is clearly a chain smoker.

Why is his face gray?

Kang solidified his status as shortstop with the Heroes, winning four Gold Gloves (2010, 2012-2014). In 2009, he played in all regular-season games, ending the year with a .286 batting average, 23 HRs, and 82 RBIs. Kang had a dazzling 2014 season offensively (.356 batting average, 40 HRs, 117 RBIs), helping the Heroes get to their first playoffs and winning playoff MVP. In 2014, he recorded all-time season highs for the shortstop position, including most home runs, most RBIs, highest OBP, highest SLG, and highest OPS.

4. He once said his favorite player was Alex Rodriguez.

I forgive him for this terrible comment, made to reporters when he was drafted as a Unicorn when he was only 19 years old. I hope you can, too. Fans then eventually dubbed him “K-Rod,” making things worse and really confusing. Kang said Rodriguez was his favorite player simply because he was the best (at the time).

On a side note, Alex Rodriguez isn’t retired yet? Oh, wait, that was the other one.

5. He helped his team to a gold medal in the 2010 Asian Games, resulting in a wild public debate about military service.

Let me explain. Korea requires all its male citizens to enlist in the army. Even if you didn’t go see The Interview (I really hope you didn’t), you should know that South and North Korea are still technically at a cease-fire, which means both sides require an active and trained military. For a lot of young male athletes, their service time coincides with the launching of their professional careers. One legitimate way to avoid this mandatory service in S. Korea is to promote the nation’s image in an international arena, by placing in the Olympics or winning gold in the Asian Games.

This explains part of why Korean players often lose their minds when they place in the Olympics. You’ve not only won some hardware, you’ve gained 2 years of your own damn life back.

On the same team with Kang in 2010 was Shin-Soo Choo, who was finally able to receive his military service exemption at the age of 28, after numerous deferrals and former failed attempts (2006 Asian Games, 2008 Olympics). Because of Choo’s high profile at the time, Korea’s participation in the Asian Games was scrutinized, with some people suggesting the national team was put together solely as a means of procuring army exemptions for promising athletes. The debates surrounding the Asian Games have resulted in the Korean government’s reconsideration of how they deal with sports-based military exemptions.

So even though Kang put up big numbers (13 runs, 8 hits, 3 HRs, 3 RBIs) and nabbed gold, it’s really the army exemption he received that’s important, and has everything to do with his ability to be in the MLB right now to begin with.


Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg, Canada.

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