BRADENTON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang said he has been sober since his third DUI arrest in December 2016 and is focused on getting into baseball shape and returning to the Pirates.
The 31-year-old is back in Pittsburgh's minor league system, playing for Class A Bradenton in the Florida State League.
"Obviously, I'm not touching a drop of alcohol moving forward," Kang said through his interpreter Mark Kim on Wednesday in his first public comments since he was cleared to return to the U.S. two months ago.
Kang's third arrest in South Korea on DUI charges included an eight-month suspended prison sentence and led to his failures to receive a work visa for the 2017 season. Kang, however, received a visa in April and was allowed to return to the United States. He is in the final year of an $11 million, four-year contract with the Pirates that includes a 2019 club option.
It had been unclear when and if Kang would be allowed to return.
"It would be a lie if I said I wasn't concerned and worried," Kang said.
Kang admitted he did not disclose his previous DUI arrests to the organization.
"Looking back at it, it was an ill-informed decision and I'm very regretful for doing that," Kang added.
The infielder said he kept in touch with some teammates during his 18 months away from the Pirates, including catcher Francisco Cervelli and former Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, Kang said he did what he could to stay in shape without knowing if he would make it back.
"It was obviously difficult to prepare for something that had no deadline or date," Kang said. "I tried to do my best given my situation to mentality and physically prepare myself so I can be the same player I was in Pittsburgh two years ago."
Kang finished third for 2015 NL Rookie of the Year after hitting .287 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. He batted .255 with 21 home runs and 62 RBIs in 103 games in 2016. Before returning to the U.S., Kang worked out in the Dominican Republic and played a short stint of winter ball. Kang visited a rum factory with teammates during his time in the Dominican but said he did not drink any alcohol.
"I think anyone who was there can testify but when I was in that rum factory I didn't touch alcohol," Kang said. "I'm completely fine with there being alcohol around me but I'm trying to stay away from that too."
Kang is off to a fast start in Bradenton, hitting .462 with two home runs and seven RBIs through four games. He is likely to move up to Triple-A Indianapolis in the next couple of weeks. He has dabbled a little bit at shortstop, though his specific role whenever he gets back to the majors is uncertain. Veteran David Freese and rookie Colin Moran are platooning at third base, though there is a need for depth at shortstop behind Jordy Mercer.
""He's continuing to work into game shape," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "That's the biggest challenge. He's playing complete games. The work is being done. He seems to be in a pretty good place right now."
As part of his return to the U.S., Kang is not allowed to drive and Kim will serve as his personal driver. Kang also is taking part in the MLB's substance abuse program.
Kang said he is grateful for the opportunity to continue his baseball career and will do whatever it takes to get back to Pittsburgh and help the Pirates win a World Series. He hopes the fans will embrace him, but he isn't sure what to expect.
"The experiences that I've had with Pittsburgh and its fans has been such an overwhelming experience I saw it as a motivation for me to fight back and repay my debts to the faithful of Pittsburgh," Kang said. "But whatever the reaction is, even if there are jeers from the crowd, that's something that I deserve and I'll take full responsibility and ownership to that reaction."