PITTSBURGH — After the Pirates beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0 on Corey Dickerson’s first career walk-off home run on Thursday, the Pirates celebrated.
They celebrated on the field, with Dickerson rolling his helmet into his amassed teammates at home plate like a kegler hunting a strike and Adam Frazier dousing Dickerson with a cooler full of Powerade as he crossed home plate.
After a brief replay review, they celebrated again, with hugs and high fives and the traditional interrupting of Robby Incmikowski’s postgame interview on AT&T SportsNet. Then, in the clubhouse, they celebrated again, with what’s become their signature clubhouse dance routine.
Typically, by the time reporters file into the clubhouse, the celebration is over, with players already starting on their post-game routines: a quick shower for some, a trip to the cold tub or training table for others.
Friday, that wasn’t the case. Because the reporters brought news into the clubhouse. Jung Ho Kang had returned to the United States.
Kang, the Pirates third baseman that had been barred from entering the country for over a year after being arrested for his third DUI offense in South Korea, was supposed to be a key part of the 2017 Pirates team that failed to reach its expectations, and Kang’s absence was a big part of it.
In addition to his drunk-driving incidents, Kang was accused of sexual assault in Chicago in 2016, and though that legal issue was never resolved, he’s become something of a polarizing figure amongst the Pirates fanbase.
The Pirates management has to be about ready to rip its hair out about the process they’ve had to undertake thanks to Kang’s mis-deeds. They spent the entire 2016-17 offseason thinking he’d be the team’s starting third baseman in 2017. Instead, he never played a game, with David Freese asked to shoulder most of the load. The absence of Kang, along with the suspension of Starling Marte and ineffective seasons from some other Pirates left the club 28th in the league in wRC+.
In the 2017-18 offseason, the Pirates traded ace pitcher Gerrit Cole, not because he was a pending free agent (he wasn’t) or because the Pirates couldn’t pay him (they could’ve), but because they needed to fill so many holes in the club that trading their best player was seen as a near-necessity.
The biggest of those holes? Third base, where Houston Astros prospect Colin Moran was a big piece of the return for Cole. Imagine the hot start to the Pirates 2018 season, and then imagine it with Cole in the rotation, Kang at third base and Steven Brault solidifying the front of the bullpen.
That has to be an incredibly frustrating feeling for general manager Neal Huntington and his staff, and the players in the clubhouse aren’t blind to those factors, either.
But when word started to spread in the Pirates’ clubhouse Thursday afternoon that Kang was returning, the mood was celebratory.
One player yelled, “F*** yeah! It’s about f***ing time!” while catcher Francisco Cervelli gleefully and playfully mocked some reporters, saying “I knew before all of you.”
Cervelli did know, because he’s stayed in touch with Kang throughout the process. Cervelli and others made it clear that despite what has transpired, Kang will be welcomed back into the Pirates clubhouse with open arms.
“We’re gonna dance a lot,” Cervelli said. “He’s part of us. We never quit on him, because he was a big thing for us in 2015. The fans love him. He’s a human. We cannot judge and do anything. He’s a human, making mistake like anybody else. When he comes back here, we’re going to make sure he’s at home.”
Cervelli admitted that even he didn’t thing Kang would ever return.
“I kept in touch with this guy,” Cervelli said. “He called me like two weeks ago and told me ‘I’m coming, I’m coming.’ I almost didn’t believe but this guy is hungry and he’s part of this because for us he’s a good guy and he’s a good player.”
He also acknowledged that even though Kang has a visa and can return to work in the United States, there will be plenty of work before he can get back on the field at PNC Park.
“He was in (the Dominican Republic), he was training every day,” Cervelli said. “He played winter ball. But of course, he’s got to come back and play a lot, see pitches, velo. He’s smart. He can hit. I think it’s going to be fine.”
Kang didn’t play very well in the Dominican Winter League, hitting .143/.219/.202 in 24 games for Aguilas before being released. He’s 31 and hasn’t played high-level baseball for over a year. There’s good reason to question if he’ll ever approach his career MLB .838 OPS again. There’s also the matter of where he’ll play, now that the Pirates have filled their infield in his absence. But Cervelli feels confident that Kang will take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.
“Life give you another chance so you better take it and do it the right way,” Cervelli said. “I think, after this guy gets ready, he’s going to be good for us.”