Heroes defend signing of troubled player, deny influence from ex-owner

SEOUL-- The Kiwoom Heroes defended their decision to bring back troubled former franchise star Kang Jung-ho on Friday, saying the veteran infielder deserved a fresh opportunity a few years after off-field problems drove him out of the game, seemingly for good.

Ko Hyung-wook, the Heroes' general manager, also denied Kang's signing had anything to do with former club owner and CEO Lee Chang-suk, a controversial figure himself. Lee recently served a prison term over embezzlement charges, and still with substantial financial stake in the club, Lee is said to be wielding significant influence over the Heroes' decision-making process, however indirectly.

"(Lee Chang-suk) had nothing to do with this move. I've been thinking about signing Kang for a long time," Ko told reporters at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul before a preseason game. "I kept things under the wraps. I went directly to our CEO (Wie Jae-min) and then discussed it with other front office members later."

Ko also said he had the full support of Wie, a former prosecutor and attorney.

"He said, once I started the process (of signing Kang), I should try to finish it, or I shouldn't even bother with it," Ko said.

Kang first played for the Heroes franchise from 2006 to 2014. He was then posted for major league clubs, and the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him to a four-year deal. He showed some early promise as a big leaguer, hitting 15 homers in 2015 to finish third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. In 2016, Kang launched 21 dingers and put up a .513 slugging percentage in 103 games.

But his career got derailed in December 2016, when Kang drove his car into a guardrail in Seoul while under the influence of alcohol and then fled the scene. It later turned out to be his third DUI case, and he received a suspended jail term for that offense in 2017.

Unable to secure a U.S. work visa, Kang missed the entire 2017 season. The Pirates gave him a new one-year deal for 2018 but he was cut in August that year.

Kang attempted to return to the Heroes in 2020 but the KBO slapped him with a one-year ban for his past misconduct. Kang abandoned his comeback bid in the face of growing public criticism.

The clock on Kang's suspension will begin once he's formally registered as a KBO player, meaning he is ineligible this season.

Ko, a former player, said signing Kang despite his baggage was about giving the 34-year-old "one last opportunity" to finish his career on the field, instead of the baseball netherworld he'd inhabited the past three years.

"Before he will resume his career, he will have a chance to show fans that he regrets his mistakes," Ko said. "We also wanted to give him a chance to give back to communities and help the underprivileged."

It was only last year that the Heroes cut ties with an outfield prospect, Song Woo-hyun, for a DUI incident. Asked if the Heroes weren't contradicting themselves by signing Kang after three DUI arrests, Ko said enough time had passed for Kang to have paid for his misconduct.

"To baseball players, I don't think there is more severe penalty than being kept away from the field," Ko said. "Song's case happened last year, and Kang's (last DUI) happened in December 2016. He's been away from baseball for almost three years. And he will have one-year suspension to serve. I hope he will continue to show repentance during that time."

Ko also said he was confident Kang will not have a repeat of 2020, when he gave up on an attempted comeback.

"If we felt he'd give up this time, we wouldn't even have signed him," the general manager said.

Source: Yonhap News Agency