The Hope Embodied by Jung Ho Kang

Jung Ho Kang has had an incredible rookie season. (Photo courtesy of Dave Arrigo/Pittsburgh Pirates)

Jung Ho Kang has had an incredible rookie season. (Photo courtesy of Dave Arrigo/Pittsburgh Pirates)

I grew up in Massachusetts, became a sports fan, and followed the Red Sox. But something was missing: I never felt I could truly relate to the athletes I saw on television or at the park. While I certainly grew up as an American, the pure fact that nobody playing baseball (or sports, period) looked like I did always made me feel as if something was missing in my fandom. But this season, I’ve developed a rooting interest in a rookie infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

My parents always have been hyper-aware of what it meant to be a minority and to be Korean immigrants in the United States. From a young age, my mom told me there are times we need to stay quieter than others to make sure we don’t stick out, and other points when we need to speak louder to make sure our voices are heard.

At times, my parents had a sense of hyper-patriotism, and at others a sense of strong shame of their heritage. These emotional extremes are ingrained in the heart of Korean culture. When the country made the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, national pride was off the charts. People became obsessed with soccer. I often heard my parents shout from across the house when they read articles about some Korean-American who accomplished something great in the U.S.

On the other end, Koreans place incredible value on reputation and perception. The country’s defamation law is among the strictest in the world regarding slander. Public figures who make mistakes often are forced to give public apologies during which they have to bow in shame toward television cameras at a 90-degree angle. Apathetic stances are few and far between.

While this culture permeated my upbringing, one major area of American culture in which this sense of hyper-awareness failed to exist was sports. While my dad watched baseball from time to time, with his interest peaking during Pedro Martinez’s 1999 and 2000 seasons, there was never really a reason for him to care strongly about sports. Asians currently make up 1.2 percent of major league player personnel in a country in which Asians make up nearly five percent of the population, according to a 2015 racial and gender report on the majors conducted by researchers at the University of Central Florida.

That changed in 2003 when Byung-Hyun Kim came to the Red Sox. My mom didn’t know Nomar Garciaparra from any other man on the street, but she sure knew who Kim was. One of the main reasons my dad sat me down to teach me the basics of baseball was that Kim was on the mound against the Yankees. After that initial introduction to the game, I fell in love with baseball, which subsequently lead to my interest in football and basketball.

I remember my excitement when the Red Sox signed Daisuke Matsuzaka because, finally, I could regularly watch someone I felt that I could relate to, though Matsuzaka’s heritage was Japanese. As a pitcher in youth baseball, I finally had a player my friends and I could pretend I was while on the rubber.

But even with Daisuke (and we now know how disappointing he was), there was still a missing sense of national pride while I watched baseball. Kim was never a star in the majors, and while Hyun-Jin Ryu certainly has performed well in his first couple of years in the big leagues, he hasn’t been a star. I was five years old at the peak of Chan Ho Park’s career. The rise of Shin-Soo Choo happened at a time when I didn’t have access to baseball games outside Boston. Twitter wasn’t really a thing yet, and baseball coverage was significantly less pervasive than it is today.

When the Red Sox claimed Hee Seop Choi, the first Korean position player in the majors, off waivers from the Dodgers and assigned him to Triple-A, my family made the nearly two-hour drive from western Massachusetts to Pawtucket to watch the PawSox, a trip we’d never made when we lived much closer in Boston. My mom, a person who goes to baseball games to eat hot dogs rather than watch the players, made a point of bringing her camera and took pictures of Choi throughout batting practice and warm-ups. To this day, the only time this side of my mom comes out at sporting events is when there is an opportunity to support fellow countrymen.

I used to loathe when substitute teachers came into class. Yeah, it did mean there was a decent chance my class was going to watch Forrest Gump or E.T. for the hundredth time, and yeah, it did mean there usually was no class work accomplished during the day, but that didn’t rid me of the embarrassment.

As the substitute’s eyes rolled down the page and they slowly approached the letter L, I would tense up. Just a glance at her face would reveal that she had come to my name on the class list. Joon-Yeop Lee. The teacher’s eyes would open wide and a look of bewilderment or confusion would spread across her face. One of two responses would stumble out of her mouth.

“Uhh, I can’t pronounce this name. Who is Lee?”

And every time, I would raise my hand timidly. The teachers who made an attempt had a similar success rate to those who gave up before even trying. A selection of the names volunteered included Juno, Jo-ON and Joon-Yepo. At a certain point, I just gave up and raised my hand at the look of confusion before they even opened their mouths.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I lived in a suburban town in western Massachusetts where three percent of the population was Asian. My family moved out from the shadows of Boston when my dad accepted a job to teach at a college in Springfield after he completed his doctorate. At school, only two kids looked like I did, and both had “American” names. In more than just moniker and appearance, I stood out like a sore thumb.

Before moving to the suburbs for fourth grade, I never quite understood why my mom always felt she needed to go above and beyond to get what she wanted and accomplish what needed to get done. When I lived in Boston, being Asian never seemed like my defining characteristic. My elementary school supported a program that particularly focused on Japanese immigrants to the United States, which included a Japanese language and culture program for every class. As a result, the fact that I didn’t look like the rest of my friends never really crossed my mind.

After I moved, sometimes people in school would ask me if I knew some other Asian kid from some other random place or school somewhat relatively nearby. I never did. There were the times kids would ask me “what type of Asian” I was, which seemed similar to when they inquired about what kind of string cheese another kid brought for lunch. There was the time I dropped a piece of dried seaweed (otherwise known as the thing that wraps around sushi) and a girl screamed because she thought it was puke.

There were little situations that bit away at my consciousness when I knew the color of my skin played a factor. None of the other Asian kids in my grade ever wanted to play football or knew how, so when I tried to play during recess during the first couple of years, I always was chosen last and never thrown the ball. It was only after I joined organized football and made a couple of league All-Star teams playing baseball that balls began to be thrown my way during recess.

Near the end of my last year in the suburbs, I sat in English class, counting down the hours until my family finally moved back to Boston. By then, most of the unpleasant interactions had faded away, and I had established myself as someone kids would come to for advice in fantasy football and baseball and, admittedly, was a goody two-shoes who always came prepared with his homework and tried to avoid trouble. Our first English teacher had retired halfway through the year, and her replacement was just out of college, was in way over her head and had no idea how to control a class of hormonal middle schoolers.

I remember seeing a guy tease a girl from across the aisle, making some jokes about something she was wearing. The girl decided to respond, giving the kid a good hard kick in the nuts. The guy fell out of his chair and began to writhe in pain on the ground.

“What happened?” the teacher asked.

Without really thinking, I spoke up. “Well, she kicked him in the nuts.”

The girl turned around and looked at me.

“How would you even be able to see that with your small eyes?”

When the Pirates signed Jung Ho Kang this past offseason, I remained hesitant in my excitement, remembering the “betrayal” of so closely following Matsuzaka as a middle schooler. That hesitancy further grew when the Pirates used Kang sparingly to start the season.

But when Josh Harrison went down, Pittsburgh gave Kang an opportunity to play every day, and a torch was lit. Kang has not only quieted the doubters since coming over from the Korean Baseball Organization, he has absolutely flourished with the Pirates. Kang is tied for the league lead in fWAR (4.0) among shortstops with Brandon Crawford, and has squeezed into the top 30 among all position players. In his first season playing halfway around the world from his home, Kang has quickly established himself as not only one of the best values in baseball, but one of the best players at his  position. Seeing the day-to-day progress Kang has made has been an eye-opening experience.

As an aspiring journalist, the reality of the situation is that I’m going into an industry in which there is an incredibly small number of Asians. Whenever my parents tell another Asian family that I’m intending to pursue a career writing about sports, I’m often asked why I’m not studying to become an engineer, a doctor or a lawyer. One Korean father told me that if I were his son he would make me switch to a major that would lead to a more financially lucrative career. Seeing Kang succeed in an area in which few of his ethnicity have made a major impact before just accentuates my desire to pursue a career in sports journalism.

Watching Kang’s success makes me, for the first time in my life, proud to identify myself as Korean-American. There’s a certain feeling of excitement whenever I can catch a Pirates game on MLB.tv or I see a tweet describing Kang’s importance to his team. It’s a feeling I never knew existed before the 2015 season.

In Jung Ho Kang, I see aspiration for Korean-Americans. I’m no longer a kid who watches baseball, idolizes athletes and has posters of baseball stars hanging on my wall. But there’s surely a young Korean-American kid somewhere in America right now who plays shortstop for his baseball team, dreams of playing professionally, and looks at Kang and sees the human manifestation of his dreams.

In Jung Ho Kang, I see establishment for Korean Americans. For many people, an athlete such as Kang could be their only exposure to someone of Asian-American descent. Kang can normalize the abstract for some and inculcate the idea that the new Asian kid at school could be as good as, or even better than, the star jock in class. That, yes, even with the appearance of narrower eyes, Asians can hit baseballs as well as just about anyone else.

In Jung Ho Kang, I see normalcy for Korean-Americans. Some kids in middle school once asked me why I never changed my Korean name to something more “American” when I came to the U.S. They asked me why I didn’t have a name like “Kevin” or “Steve” or “Kanye.” As his name is heard and read during baseball broadcasts across America, Jung Ho Kang is instilling the idea that names like Joon-Yeop Lee are as American as any other name in the phone book.

Jung Ho Kang gives me the hope that, one day, a substitute teacher will look at my name and not even hesitate.


Joon Lee writes for Over The Monster and Gammons Daily, and has interned for the Boston Herald and WEEI.com. He currently attends Cornell University, and hosts the Doing It For Bartolo podcast. Follow him on Twitter @iamjoonlee.
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Luuuuuc
7 years ago

Wow. Just a great, insightful piece- thank you for your honesty and perspective here.

Jason S.
7 years ago

I enjoyed this quite a bit too.

Andrew
7 years ago

This is a really nice article and I think a somewhat overlooked element of Kang’s season. Korea is one of the most baseball-crazy countries in the world and it’s high time that they started getting recognized for the talent that they produce.

Will W.
7 years ago

Very well written – I relate to this extremely closely as a fellow Asian American.

JP
7 years ago

Living in California, I forget how unconsciously racist people in the Northeast are. I work closely with elementary and middle school age boys through Scouting and it is a completely different world. Every team, every class, every troop, has kids of many races.

The author’s experiences remind me of growing up in suburban Los Angeles 40 years ago, so maybe there is hope for suburban Boston in 40 years.

hopbitters
7 years ago

I grew up 45 minutes south of Springfield (outside of Hartford) and never really felt any particular prejudice as a (mixed) Asian kid. That was also many years ago, so take it as you will. My cousins grew up in the Boston area and didn’t (to my knowledge) experience many issues. I’m not sure what to make of that, but I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with it in any case.

nickolai
7 years ago

Nice piece! I love the success that Kang is seeing now, but I’m not sure he is blazing a new trail as there were other (but not many!) Korean-American ballplayers of note who preceded him. I grew up in LA during Chan Ho Park’s time with the Dodgers, and man those home games were fun as hell with all manner of Korean-American fans flooding the stands for his starts, chanting his name (Bak-Chan-Ho!). I think Park was really the first proof point that Koreans could play (and at times dominate) in the majors.

BH Kim’s part in the 2001 World Series was a low point for all Korean-American baseball fans, but he still had years of dominance at the highest levels. And I suppose it’s cool in looking back since he is so central to the arc of one of the best World Series of recent memory.

In terms of position players, HS Choi was a big disappointment given the moderate amount of hype he had in his development but still attracted a following (as you pointed out above). And while Shin Soo Choo probably hasn’t matched the love generated by Park, he’s adequately demonstrated that Koreans can compete on the field as everyday players, not just pitchers.

In the end, I hope Kang’s success leads to an influx of talent from the KBO into MLB and we have multiple concurrent Korean stars in baseball to point to, rather than isolated examples over decades. But I suppose I am still skeptical of how quickly that influx happens.

Renaado
7 years ago

Wow, this is just amazing… Kang Jung-Ho is an awesome Baseball player, I followed and watched him played since 2008 in videos, and his skills never ceases to amaze me. His determination to improve and his love for Baseball are the things that struck me the most. I always supported him and will always continue to support, ever since when he was still with the Nexen Heroes, I always watch some of his games in SK’s SPOTV (I’m an LG Twins fans BTW, but I already saw his potential to succeed ever since when he was still with the South Korea’s KBO league… so I just couldn’t help myself to watch him play…).

Next season, his former Nexen teammate, 1B/3B Park Byung-Ho will be playin in the Major leagues next year, Starters Kim Kwang-Hyun and Yang-Hyeon Jong too. I have no doubt in my mind that these players will succeed, I’ve seen them played and still watch them play in this ongoing 2015 KBO season, Last year… these 3 players (4 actually cause Kang Jung-Ho was in that roster too) were among in the National team that trampled other power house Baseball teams in Asia back in the 2014 Incheon Asian games, which resulted them winning the gold medal against Taiwan in the finals.

I’m a Filipino, but I really and I mean REALLY love Baseball… Supporting fellow Asian ballplayers to succeed and watching them succeed in the Major leagues really makes me happy…

Pat
7 years ago

This is wishy-washy, saccharine gibberish. My favorite non-Cub is Andrew McCutchen. I’m not black, I never had dreadlocks, and my name doesn’t resemble his at all. Do what? Glorifying and sentimentalizing what is essentially a racist sentiment ( though not negative, it’s still racist) helps no one and nothing. “I need to look like the player to really appreciate his performance.” Give me a break. In that case, my pushing-40, white, overweight, suburban dad self ought to never turn on a college basketball game, or any other sport outside of golf and bowling. This article is packed with a lot of soft arguments that white people will stand back and politely applaud, but I’m not afraid to say without equivocation that this is all socially regressive, intellectually mushy bullsh*t.

Nice grammar, though.

Jake in Pittsburgh
7 years ago
Reply to  Pat

You are an ass.

Brian
7 years ago
Reply to  Pat

It’s different when you’re part of a majority.

Were you — on an everyday basis — worried about how others would treat you just because of your race? Were in a community where there was hardly any other white person around you anywhere you went (in school, in your neighborhood, at work, etc.) and almost everything you watched were of people of other races (on TV, movies, music, sports, etc.)? If that were the case, I bet you too would feel an extra sense of pride if you saw a fellow white man doing well in the media.

Unfortunately, this has been the case for far too long in the media for Asians in the U.S. until only recently. I would know. As an Asian American who grew up in a media where I NEVER saw another person who looks like me in any of the major U.S. sports nor starring in any Hollywood movie or TV show…I had no choice but to grow up idolizing people of other races than my own (and yes, the majority of them were White).

Again, it’s different when you’re in the majority. I don’t know how you could possibly relate to the sense of joy in seeing a white man do well in baseball, or star in a blockbuster movie, when so many before him have already been there.

John
7 years ago
Reply to  Pat

Is this guy for real? Its always the idiots that try to validate themselves online hiding behind a keyboard…

Fred
7 years ago
Reply to  Pat

Classic white guy response. Didn’t even take more than 2 sentences to make it all about himself, as well as to completely miss the point:

“I need to look like the player to really appreciate his performance.”

No, you need to read the article for comprehension, assuming you’re able to in the first place.

Ann Lange Reeves
7 years ago

Another wonderful piece of writing. As you know, I am an admirer of yours. Your articles about Mookie Betts have been must reads. This one is, too.
One thing that I have noticed while watching the Pirates this season is how many Koreans (or Korean-Americans;) seem to be showing up in the stands when the Pirates travel to other venues. That is fantastic.
I cannot begin to imagine the cultural adjustments that he had to make at the same time he was getting acclimated to MLB. I know that there were a lot of nay sayers in Pittsburgh and other places when he was signed. Now the Korean Baseball League should receive a lot more attention here and rightly so.
I can relate to your experiences in a way – one of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department when I taught at Bentley was a Korean. (She still is, lol, and still is there.) She told me about numerous experiences that she has had – it was really eye opening.
Keep writing. I want to still be around when you write your first blood, and I want an autographed copy!

Renaado
7 years ago

“Now the Korean Baseball League should receive a lot more attention here and rightly so.”

Agree, in the past, MLB only seems to scout or sign players from Japan when they’re in Asia. The signing and posting of Ryu Hyun-Jin in 2012 changed all of that. Now… Kang Jung-Ho is now succesful in his first year in the MLB, and he’s also been in the conversation for NL rookie of the year. The interest now is certainly high, and South Korean Baseball players and upcoming Baseball players now have dreams to play in the big stage.

Next year, these new South Korean Baseball players will now be playing in the Major Leagues. 1B/3B Park Byung-Ho and starters Kim Kwang-Hyun and Yang Hyeon-Jong.

I have a news outlet from South Korea that there are approximately 8 Major league teams that’re interested in him and there are 17 ML clubs of 30 that have seen him played in action this year, ML scouts are just in awe on how great his power is. He currently has 47 homeruns this season with the Nexen Heroes, and he has a shot for a consceutive back to back seasons with 50 or more homeruns hit in a single season.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Q3knhxe8Aw

bucdaddy
7 years ago

When you inevitably come to Pittsburgh for a game or two, look up the denizens of bucsdugout.com and one or more of us will happily show you around.

Hornblower
7 years ago

Congratulations letting it all hang out for this article, that takes guts. However, these articles reliving racism as if it was 1950 and not 2015 are getting old. Being a person that has an odd birthmark, or a disability, or having little money, is pretty much the same as being of a certain nationality. Most kids go through the obstacles and it makes them a better person for it. Many people deal with being the minority in various parts of their lives. It is most difficult when you are a child. How you react and grow as a result of these situations is an important part of being able to survie/adjust in society. Once you reach a certain age, you realize that self-loathing is not going to get you anywhere. It is a cruel world, human nature is not pretty 90% of the time. Try to find the 10% that IS wonderful about it and build your life around it.

Brian
7 years ago
Reply to  Hornblower

Does the author sound like he grew up in the 1950s? More like the 1990’s — a decade the majority of people today have actually experienced. And yes, this type of racism is still going on strong today. Your comment just shows how much people in this country are so out of touch with the social struggles minorities face. There are well establish studies that show Asian Americans get paid noticeably less than their White counterparts, even if they were born in the U.S. and speak perfect English. You can’t just sweep social issues under the rug and expect it to go all away…the buck will just pass to the next generation on both sides to carry the burden. Let’s try starting with true parity among all races instead of essentially telling minorities to shut up about the problems they continually face.

Hornblower
7 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Yes there is racism today. It’s not new. It’s not right, and it will continue. You missed my point. Affirmative Action? Racism. I don’t hear alot of white europeans complaining about that obvious fact. People with something different about them are in the minority as well. It’s not tougher just because your nationality is different and not something else. What about the people who have one arm? Or are mute? Or can’t hear?

But you can say someone who speaks the truth is out of touch with reality. It doesn’t change the fact that I just pointed reality out to you.

Native
7 years ago

Korea has a real league, and Koreans know how to play baseball; I hope every year we see a few KBO guys more in the show. On another level I really identified with the piece.

I am Native American (if you didn’t get the handle), as 100% from this country as anyone will ever get, and yet I understand the feeling of disassociation you conveyed in the piece. It really helps to have a trailblazer, someone who puts the lie to “x ethnicity just isn’t good at sports” or “x ethnicity doesn’t play them”. As silly as it sounds, things might be different where I am from had Jim Thorpe been a full time ball player.

bucdaddy
7 years ago

Jeezum crow, people, get a grip. Don’t we all root a little harder for the homeboy?

Native
7 years ago

goddamn Bucky, some of us never had a homeboy before. Can’t grab what isn’t there.

Native
7 years ago

goddamn Bucky, some of us never had a homeboy in the show before. Can’t grip onto what isn’t there.

Native
7 years ago

Sorry for the double, Bucky.

Dave in PGH
7 years ago

Does anyone know if Pirates gear is selling like hot cakes in South Korea? Kang gear is going like hot cakes here- it’s awesome that he’s going to a local star for four more years. I think he has to stay at third as he’s not getting any younger, but there’s no reason why he can’t have an OPS over .820 over the next few years.

Renaado
7 years ago
Reply to  Dave in PGH

“Does anyone know if Pirates gear is selling like hot cakes in South Korea”

Just lagging a bit behind Ryu Hyun-Jin’s Dodgers gear in the nation… Kang’s Pirates jerseys and Baseball caps are very popular in the Mok-dong area, Yangcheon district and other parts in western Seoul.