There actually are some similarities between Gwangju, South Korea, and Pittsburgh.
They’re about the same size, have similar climates — though Gwangju gets a bit more rain, if that’s possible — and both are defined geographically by intersecting rivers.
Of course, the two cities are a world apart. And to Pittsburgh’s most famous Gwangju native, Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang, there’s one important difference.
“Well, Gwangju has more Korean food than Pittsburgh,” Kang said, through an interpreter, with a laugh. In his second season with the Pirates, Kang is much more comfortable with his surroundings than he was a year ago, when he was meeting new teammates, living in a new city and speaking an unfamiliar language.
Kang went to Bradenton, Fla., in December, rehabbing the MCL injury that prematurely ended his 2015 in September. He was looking forward to returning to his adopted city of Pittsburgh, a city he admitted he didn’t know much about when the Pirates won his bidding rights from the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization in 2015.
When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he liked what he saw.
“I was impressed by the city,” said Kang, the first position player to jump directly from the KBO to Major League Baseball. “More than I expected.”
As Kang broke out on the field in his first year with the Pirates — finishing third in the National League’s rookie of the year balloting — he also took the time to explore his new home.
Those trips were often documented on his Instagram account. One day walking down Walnut Street in Shadyside, another relaxing outside Constellation Coffee in Lawrenceville.
His favorite discovery, so far, has been the brisket taco at Smoke Barbecue Taqueria in Lawrenceville.
As Kang got more comfortable with his surroundings last season, he also started to mesh with his teammates. Outfielder Gregory Polanco, also playing his first full major league season in 2015, took an immediate liking to Kang.
“I like to be happy, he’s a happy person,” Polanco said. “He’s a nice guy. We’re together, joking around, having fun.” As Kang got more comfortable with English, Polanco, who is from the Dominican Republic, also peppered in some Spanish, so Kang’s joking ability is becoming trilingual.
Teammates will now attest to Kang’s sense of humor, which can help bridge a language barrier, but it took some time for that to develop.
“In the beginning, you’d see some opportunities where he could do something and he’d be like, ‘I’m just going to pass it up. Don’t want to do anything, [tick] anybody off, step on anybody’s toes,’ ” said utility man Sean Rodriguez.
“[Now] he’s more open, more outspoken, not so passive in certain situations. If he feels like he wants to make a comment, do something funny or just be himself, he’ll just do it.”
With a locker next to Kang’s, Rodriguez hears about his exploration of Pittsburgh’s Korean food scene.
Kang eventually settled on Green Pepper, in Squirrel Hill, as his favorite. Owner Jacob Young remembers the first time Kang visited. One night last year, Young got a call just a few minutes before closing from two people on their way, seeking some Korean barbecue ribs.
When the customers arrived, Young was stunned to see Kang and his interpreter, H.K. Kim.
“The very first thing that came out his mouth was, ‘This is delicious,’ ” Young recalled.
Still, even the best bibimbap won’t replicate the taste of home. Kang said he planned to return to South Korea this offseason, but surgery and rehab for his injury changed those plans.
“Of course it’s tough,” he said. “I want to go back to Korea, my country. But I have my goals set here, and I’m here to achieve that.”
Those goals involve pushing the Pirates past the wild-card game this October. Even though Kang didn’t play in last year’s season-ending loss to the Cubs, he likely provided Pirates fans with the most memorable moment of an otherwise forgettable evening.
Before the first pitch, Kang was introduced with his teammates and brought out in a wheelchair to a thunderous standing ovation from his adopted city. It was an inspiring moment that helped spur a long offseason of rehab.
“I was very thankful for the fans, for the city to give me such energy that day,” he said. “Makes me determined to do even better this year.”
Young, who emigrated from South Korea more than 20 years ago, said it has been special to see Pittsburgh embrace one of his countrymen.
Even though his English is generally good, he said he doesn’t quite have the words to explain his emotions when he saw Kang get that standing ovation, or the South Korean flags that populated PNC Park.
“Some mixture of words such as pride, hope and love, basically,” Young said.
There are still some hurdles for Kang. He is “not completely” comfortable with English, but better than last year. He uses an interpreter to speak with reporters, but seems to have no problems joking with teammates on the field.
When asked if, one year in, he feels like a true Pittsburgher yet, the question needs translation, but the answer does not. A smile, a nod and “Oh, yeah.”
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