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Positive attitude drives Jung Ho Kang on his long road to recovery

BRADENTON, Fla. -- One of these days, one of these weeks, Major League Baseball will announce a rule change that people will no doubt refer to as the "Chase Utley Rule." But here's a guess: That's not how the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to remember it.

It may have been Utley's ferocious October slide into New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada that the outside world will forever believe inspired the forthcoming new rule to protect middle infielders. But in Pittsburgh, they have a different take.

In Pittsburgh, they're still wrestling with the painful memories of two dubious slides last summer that took a big chunk out of the season of two Pirates shortstops. And their team is still dealing with the ripple effects this spring.

At least Jordy Mercer, who missed 30 games with an MCL sprain and deep leg contusion after an unusual collision with Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez in July, can say: "I've moved on. I'm healthy now. And I'm ready to go." But just a couple of lockers away, his teammate and rising Korean-born star Jung Ho Kang can't say the same.

"I'm good, good, getting better," Kang says -- in English, by the way -- and then smiles broadly to show he means it.

But the truth is, he's not good. Not yet. And his team still isn't smiling about the play in September that cost him the rest of his season or about the ramifications of that play.

"I've said the things I need to say," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says, sternly, "to the people I needed to say them to."

"We've voiced our concerns," says general manager Neal Huntington.

Now Huntington, Hurdle and their team eagerly await the final wording of a rule designed to protect the future Jung Ho Kangs of the baseball earth from slides by runners whose intent is to upend middle infielders, not reach second base. And whenever that new rule arrives, there is no clubhouse where it will get a more rousing ovation than the Pirates' clubhouse.

"I think it's time," Hurdle says. "We lost two shortstops last year for two large extents of time. ... We've eliminated the consequences of that type of play at home plate. And now I think it's time we need to take it to second base."

"We don't want to soften the game," Huntington says. "But we also want to make sure we continue to evolve in the game."

Hurdle knows one reason the process has taken so long is that there is still a howl of protest out there from players who don't want to be protected from themselves. But the manager shakes his head and says: "A lot of them fighting it, they're not the ones playing second or short."

But meanwhile, in his own clubhouse, the man whose injury has his manager so fired up, all these months later, remains a picture of serenity amid the hurricane swirling around him. Most likely, it will still be two months before Jung Ho Kang is healthy enough to play again in the big leagues. But he's not angry. He's not bitter. If he's tormented in the least by what happened to him on Sept. 17, he couldn't possibly hide it more masterfully or gracefully.

He was playing shortstop that day in a game against the Chicago Cubs. But in the first inning, a seemingly routine 4-6-3 double play turned into a play that would change his life. As Kang crossed the bag and fired to first to complete that double play, the Cubs' Chris Coghlan barreled into him a good 10 feet away from the bag. Down went Kang immediately, clutching his left knee.

He had surgery the next day to repair what the Pirates described as a "displaced lateral tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscal repair." And even though Kang appears on track for the best-case scenario in his projected six- to eight-month recovery time, that still means he isn't likely to return before mid-April.

But when you ask Kang if he's been able to watch the play, he says (once more in English): "Yeah. A lot of times."

Then again, he says -- this time through his translator, H.K. Kim -- it would have taken way too much work to avoid it.

"Well, they played it on TV a lot," he says, with another big smile. "So I watched it."

But when asked if it was hard to watch, Kang shakes his head and says: "No. I'm fine watching it. ... I have nothing against it. No pain. No emotions. Crazy play."

The word they would use to describe that play in Pittsburgh, however, isn't "crazy." It's "controversial." But that's a bee's nest Kang won't be flying into -- and never has.

"I think it was just being unlucky, in that play," he says. "It's a little bit more aggressive here when it comes to breaking up the double play. But it is what it is."

At the time he crumpled to the dirt that day, Kang was in the midst of a fabulous rookie season -- maybe the least ballyhooed great season of any rookie in baseball last year, in fact. His .816 OPS and .355 on-base percentage were second only to Kris Bryant among NL rookies. And Kang's slash line after the All-Star break (.310/.364./.548/.913) topped Bryant's (.282/.361/.505/867) across the board, leading to a third-place finish in voting for rookie of the year, the highest by a Pirate since Jason Bay won the award in 2004.

It wouldn't be accurate to say it was a season no one saw coming. But after watching Kang hit .200 last year in spring training, with 17 strikeouts and nine hits in 45 at-bats, the Pirates left Florida thinking it was going to take him a while to adjust to life -- and pitching -- in the big leagues.

Instead, after a brief period of working on toning down his big leg kick at the plate, Kang became such a dangerous offensive force, he wound up hitting behind Andrew McCutchen for much of the season -- and even finished ninth in the NL in OPS against fastballs (.911).

"I think in spring training, that was what we all kind of thought he was going to be," Mercer says a year later, "that he was going to struggle a little bit with the pitching. But then, as soon as his season started to turn, he absolutely turned it on and blew everybody's expectations out of the water."

A year later, the Pirates have constructed their team in a way that tells you they have exceptional confidence that Kang is going to have a big offensive impact, once he returns. The departure of Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker has subtracted 43 home runs from an offense that finished 10th in the league in homers last year and eighth in slugging. So Kang, who mashed 40 homers in Korea two years ago, could come in handy on that front.

"All you need to do is see like one or two swings," says second baseman Josh Harrison, "to say, yeah, he's got some pop."

The Pirates' only significant offensive addition was their new converted first baseman, John Jaso. But they have reason to believe a number of hitters in their lineup have legitimate offensive upside, in a multidimensional kind of way. And Kang, in his second year on this side of the Pacific, is right up there with any of them.

"He'll have faced more of the pitchers," Huntington says. "He's a very prepared hitter. And it's one thing to prepare for a pitcher on video. It's another thing to begin to compile your own database.

"I don't even know if there was ever a time where he felt sorry for himself or was down. I know he felt pain. I know he felt sad that he had to leave the team and wasn't able to help us down the stretch. But I've never caught that from him. I've never seen that from him. All he shares with me is that he's going to come back bigger, better and stronger."

Clint Hurdle, Pirates manager, on Jung Ho Kang

"And Kang is in the process of expanding his own database, live and not just on video. He's shown the ability to hit different pitches in different parts of the zone. He's shown the ability to hit the ball a long way. But he's also shown the ability to close down his swing and absolutely battle in an at-bat that required a battle."

In a year in which the Pirates are emphasizing that sort of battling, from the top of their lineup to the bottom, that approach figures to be an excellent fit. But first, of course, Kang needs to get healthy. And even though he's now running and hitting in the cage, he still has weeks of work to do before that word applies.

He had never been seriously injured before, he says. So after five months of diligent rehab, he's ready to announce, cheerfully: "I never want to get another surgery in my life."

But he has attacked rehab with a professionalism that has been so eye-popping, Hurdle says he has gotten way too little credit for putting aside the furor over his injury and just bearing down on the long road to recovery.

"He's taken ownership of it," the manager says. "I don't even know if there was ever a time where he felt sorry for himself or was down. I know he felt pain. I know he felt sad that he had to leave the team and wasn't able to help us down the stretch. But I've never caught that from him. I've never seen that from him. All he shares with me is that he's going to come back bigger, better and stronger."

Oh, and one more thing: He's going to come back with a much-improved grasp of English, thanks to hours of Netflix binge watching of good old American TV.

"My favorite is 'Walking Dead,'" he reports, after ripping through the first five seasons. He then provides this review for the marquee: "Exciting."

"I'm watching 'Breaking Bad' now," he reveals next. "Very fun."

And after a moment of reflection, he has one more to add: "There's another show I really enjoyed watching," he says. "'Entourage.' I love Vincent Chase. I just love the character."

And what does he love about it?

"Being positive," Kang says. "Always having a good time with friends. And being loyal."

It's a description, actually, that matches what the people around Kang say about him.

"He's a very positive, very intelligent, very passionate guy, that wants to grow, that wants to get better, that wants to help a team win," his GM says. "And that has been better than we anticipated. Not that we set the bar low. We just weren't quite sure what to expect. We'd done our due diligence. But everything we could have asked for, about his personality, about his intelligence, about the man, he just continues to impress us on a daily basis."

That positivity ought to come in extra handy this spring, especially on the big day when the (cough, cough) "Chase Utley Rule" is announced and Kang's favorite media minds descend to ask him, in two languages, to relive his own role in the evolution of his sport. But somewhere out there will come a better day -- a day when Jung Ho Kang can actually get back to doing what he loves -- playing baseball. It will be that day when he'll know the worst is finally over.

"I don't think it gets easier," he says of the season that lies ahead, then flashes that magic smile one more time. "Just another chapter."