Off-field incidents hold back Korean Major Leaguer
Posted : 2017-03-16 17:30
Updated : 2017-03-17 11:34
Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho / Korea Times
Kang Jung-ho appeals ruling to ease US visa application
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Survival of the fittest is in full swing in Major League Baseball (MLB) weeks before the opening games of the 2017 regular season slated for April 2.
Korean-born Major Leaguers have been striving to survive the cruel competition and make the cut of their teams' 25-man active rosters since the spring exhibition games unfolded.
Among eight Koreans in the big leagues, some analysts here say three or four -- including Texas Rangers' Choo Shin-soo, St. Louis Cardinals' Oh Seung-hwan and Baltimore Orioles' Kim Hyun-soo -- are highly likely to make their teams' rosters, while the remaining players are still fighting for their slots.
Pittsburgh Pirates' infielder Kang Jung-ho is in a different game in his homeland -- one that could make or break his MLB career.
He's locked in a protracted legal fight. Kang and his lawyer appealed to Seoul Central District Court on March 10 regarding the March 3 ruling that gave the slugger a suspended 8-month sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol. In a statement submitted to the court, his unnamed lawyer reportedly pleaded for a lighter punishment for Kang so he would have no problems getting a U.S. visa to return to MLB and continue his successful career there.
Kang, 29, drove a rented BMW into a guardrail in the early morning of Dec. 2 while returning to his hotel in Seoul. The guardrail was damaged and debris hit a car parked nearby. Kang left the scene of the accident and was later arrested by police. His blood alcohol level was 0.084, higher than the legal limit of 0.05.
Experts say Kang's legal fight could end in mid-April or later in the month.
"Considering that the prosecutor didn't appeal, Kang won't receive any punishment harsher than the initial ruling. Kang and his attorney have nothing to lose in terms of sentencing," said Jo Woo-sung, a Seoul-based lawyer. "I think his lawyer just took advantage of the right to appeal."
Three judges of Seoul Central District Court's Appeals Department will review the case. According to Jo, it will take a month or so and the ruling will be made in mid- or late April.
If Kang and his lawyer don't change their course of action, the athlete will be able to return to MLB once his legal battle is over and if his visa request is accepted.
Appealing the suspended sentence seems to be an inevitable choice for Kang. As a Korean player, he must get a U.S. work visa to return to his team.
The U.S. State Department has strict visa rules and applicants who fail to meet certain conditions could be denied entry. A criminal record is one of the factors that could lead to a visa denial.
"An applicant's current and/or past actions, such as drug or criminal activities, as examples, may make the applicant ineligible for a visa," the State Department states on its website about the visa rules.
Sources familiar with Kang's legal battle said his lawyer appealed to the court to plead for a lighter punishment, such as fines rather than a suspended jail term, because such a criminal record could hamper the athlete's U.S. visa application.
On Tuesday, a U.S. media outlet reported that Kang would receive a U.S. visa within this week and the Pirates infielder would be able to return to his team sooner or later.
The A-Pro law firm that provides legal support for Kang declined to comment regarding Kang's U.S. visa status. It also refused to confirm whether Kang had any plans to drop the appeal of the earlier ruling.
The protracted legal fight has already dealt a blow to the slugger.
Kang missed the Pirates' spring training and exhibition games. If his legal fight ends in mid- or late April and he returns to his team after that, he will be joining the team after the start of the regular season. Compared to his teammates who focused on training, Kang would be less prepared for the regular season because he was distracted by his legal fight. Disciplinary action from MLB also awaits him if and when he returns to his team.
Earlier this week, the Pirates placed Kang on the restricted list for players unable to play for reasons other than injuries.
Pirates President Frank Coonelly was quoted calling it a procedural matter. "It's neither a statement of permission nor optimism that Jung-ho will get back in time to report to Bradenton and prepare for opening day," he said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It says nothing on that topic. It is just a reflection of the reality that he's not here today on March 11."
Since he signed an $11 million deal with the Pirates in 2015, Kang has successfully adapted to the big league that many Korean players were longing for as their next career move.
He had a successful rookie year in 2015. During the 2016 season, he had a .255 batting average with 21 home runs and 62 RBIs in 103 games and proved himself a critical asset to the Pirates.
His solid performance drew accolades from the U.S. media. "Kang Jung-ho's stellar, albeit injury shortened, rookie year with the Pirates after nine seasons in the KBO was a true game-changer that has legitimated the jump straight from the KBO to MLB and opened the door for others," baseball writer Anthony Castrovince wrote in his article.
Ryan Sadowski, who played for the Lotte Giants, praised Kang for his athletic talent, while mentioning his first encounter with the Korean-born player in 2010 in Sadowski's first game.
"The team that Kang played on -- the Nexen Heroes -- was really weak but I noticed the shortstop really struck out," he was quoted as saying on the Global Sporting Integration website posted in December 2014.
His comments came before Kang joined the Pirates. "They asked me who's good on this team and I said the shortstop (Kang). He's got unbelievable tools," said Sadowski.
All of a sudden, off-field incidents are holding back Kang's successful Major League career. His third DUI came months after he was investigated by the Chicago Police Department for allegations of sexual assault involving a 23-year-old woman. He has not been charged.
"There's no doubt Kang is now going through maybe the darkest moment in his baseball career," said Jeon Yong-bae, a baseball analyst and professor at Dankook University's Department of Sports Management.
"He's a talented player and played a lot better in the MLB than how he played in the Korean Baseball Organization League... There're some gifted players who suddenly fall into traps all of a sudden during their heyday and ruin their careers. They face situations like this because they fail to control themselves."