Rossi: Fitting in will be Kang’s biggest hurdle
Into the clubhouse walked the player every Pirate is watching, and Jung Ho Kang came bearing gifts in the form of packets of Korean noodles.
You know, the traditional snack for the last day of spring training at Pirate City.
If only baseball wasn’t the sport most steeped in tradition, a game that even when it changes stays the same by an awful lot. In another sport, one with players quickly changing together in a dressing room instead of lounging for a long time in a clubhouse, Kang might have received a better welcome than he has from his new teammates.
Instead, he is getting a lot of attention on the field from coaches while, behind the scenes, team officials downplay chatter that the Pirates’ most talked about offseason acquisition wasn’t off to a harmonious start.
The truth is players haven’t given Kang the cold shoulder, but they have appeared to pay very close attention to everything he does. Last week, while polling players about the one amongst their own whom they viewed as “must-see,” I was taken aback by the response from Josh Harrison.
“The obvious guy is Kang,” Harrison said. “Most of us haven’t had a chance to see him do anything. We’ve just heard about him.”
On Sunday, in the final hour of a short morning workout, Kang showed off a bit during batting practice. He sent seven baseballs onto the roof of the outdoor batting cages behind the high left-field fence at Field 1.
Neither Pedro Alvarez, shagging grounders in the infield, nor Andrew McCutchen, catching fly balls in the outfield, bothered to turn his head as Kang bombed. For whatever it’s worth, some of the longer-tenured Pirates — including McCutchen — showed much more excitement for Gregory Polanco’s big swings during the same batting session.
Heck, even backup catcher Chris Stewart received a lot of loud love from teammates for his roof shot.
The best reaction given to Kang was manager Clint Hurdle’s shamefully obvious, “You’ve gotta have Kang,” which he offered after Kang’s homer that followed one from Corey “You gotta have” Hart.
The optics and sounds haven’t been out-of-the-park when it comes to Kang’s earliest days here. Even his translator, HK Kim, conceded that Kang’s spring training was only “getting better.”
“It was difficult to start,” Kim said.
There is a language barrier for Kang, obviously. But players overcome language barriers in all sports, and often those players become galvanizing forces for teams. Evgeni Malkin is very much the player the Penguins now most naturally follow.
I’m not predicting that future for Kang and the Pirates.
However, considering Kang spent time before this camp practicing at second base, I am predicting a future — next spring training at the latest — when Kang replaces Neil Walker as the Pirates’ everyday second baseman. And if I can see that coming, so can Walker and all of the teammates for whom he very much serves as a leader.
This dynamic — or, more accurately, this worst-kept-secret that Kang is here to eventually kick out The Pittsburgh Kid — is a curious one for the front office to have injected into a clubhouse that has been fortified by the togetherness of its players, many of whom have come up through the same Pirates system.
These Pirates fancy themselves a team that can win the National League Central. Actually, they’re thinking about adding a few flags to the dusty ones that fly at PNC Park.
Their best weapons are obvious. Their surest weapon, as was the case over the past two magical baseball seasons in Pittsburgh, is that they genuinely like one another.
Keeping that weapon free of muck sure seems a necessary part of the Pirates’ push to finally track down the St. Louis Cardinals, let alone hold off the Chicago Cubs.
Hurdle, ever the bright-side believer, is either completely buying into Kang eventually finding a fit with his group or he is pulling the greatest sales job since Jim Tracy tried touting Jeromy Burnitz in the spring of 2006.
Last week, Hurdle said he wanted to “prepare (Kang) for a starting role.”
On Sunday, Hurdle walked back from that statement as though the plank beneath him was about to crack.
“It doesn’t mean he’s going to be taking somebody’s job,” Hurdle said. “It means an opportunity can be created by his performance.”
Actually, it means that negotiations between the Pirates and Walker’s camp have stalled, and that Walker’s job is Kang’s to take. And so far, it sure looks, sounds and feels like every one of Walker’s teammates know it.
That places Kang in a tough spot and Hurdle in the one that is worth watching.