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Pirates infielder Kang has two-fold purpose in playing in United States

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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang works out during an informal spring training session in Bradenton, Fla.
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Pittsburgh Pirates' Jung Ho Kang, of Korea, throws to first after fielding a ground ball at shortstop during an informal spring training baseball workout in Bradenton, Fla., Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. Pirates pitchers and catcher begin official workouts Feb. 19, with the full squad workouts beginning Feb. 23. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Pittsburgh Pirates' Jung Ho Kang, of Korea, left, and Neil Walker take the field during an informal spring training baseball workout in Bradenton, Fla., Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. Pirates pitchers and catcher begin official workouts Feb. 19, with the full squad workouts beginning Feb. 23. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Pittsburgh Pirates' Jung Ho Kang, of Korea, takes the field during an informal spring training baseball workout in Bradenton, Fla., Monday, Feb. 16, 2015. Pirates pitchers and catcher begin official workouts Feb. 19, with the full squad workouts beginning Feb. 23. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang throws long toss during a workout Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang waits his turn in the batting cage Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang throws to second base during a workout Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang is greeted by second baseman Neil Walker as they take the infield during a workout Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang signs autographs as he shags balls during a workout Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla.
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The Pirates' Jung Ho Kang throws a long toss session during an informal spring training workout Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, in Bradenton, Fla., Pirates pitchers and catcher begin official workouts Thursday.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Jung Ho Kang wants to be a trailblazer for other Korean ballplayers.

His job began with a 10,000-mile trek from East Asia to the Pirates’ spring training camp on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

In mid-January, Kang flew from Seoul to Pittsburgh to sign a four-year, $11 million contract. A few strokes of a pen made him the first position player from the Korea Baseball Organization to join an MLB club.

The next stop was Surprise, Ariz., where Kang worked out for a few weeks with his old team, the Nexon Heroes. Last Wednesday, Kang (pronounced “Gahng”) finally arrived at Pirate City in Florida.

Pitchers and catchers don’t hold their first official workout until Thursday. Kang, an infielder, isn’t required to report until next week.

Kang, 27, figured an early arrival was the best way to get acclimated to his new surroundings — and to make a good first impression on management.

“I feel a little bit of pressure,” Kang said through an interpreter. “But I know that if I do well, more Korean players will come here. So while I feel pressure, I’m also very excited about opening the market here for Korean players.”

There already have been two Korean position players, Shin-Soo Choo and Hee-Seop Choi, in MLB. However, both were signed as amateurs and groomed in the minor leagues. Kang aims to be the first player to jump from the KBO to MLB.

The Pirates scouted Kang for a couple of years before Nexon posted him as a free agent over the winter. Last season, he batted .356 with a .739 slugging percentage.

Although they had no history of big spending on the Asian free agent market, the Pirates won the rights to negotiate with Kang. Their bid of slightly more than $5 million is the second highest ever for a Korean player.

“We tried to gather as much information as we could (about Kang) because this is unprecedented,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “We understand there are risks to this signing. Our hope is that the rewards will significantly outweigh the risks.”

The Pirates allowed Kang to train with Nexon, hoping that would ease his transition process. Kang speaks very little English, so an interpreter is by his side even when Kang is just hanging out in the clubhouse.

“The easiest part (of spring training) will be being with and getting along with my teammates. I’m confident about that,” Kang said. “The challenging part is the language barrier that I’ll have to overcome.

“I’m still getting adjusted to everything. I like it, and I’m having a lot of fun. I’m very excited and looking forward to the start of the season.”

On Monday morning, first baseman/outfielder Andrew Lambo and catcher Tony Sanchez struck up a conversation. It was typical clubhouse chatter — topics such as equipment, training techniques, and wives and girlfriends — and there was laughter.

“He seems like a great dude,” Lambo said. “He’ll fit in right. He’s real quiet, obviously, coming from a different country. But he’s also given a (vibe) that he is genuinely friendly and wants to get to know every player, which is really cool.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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