Kang looking toward promising future
Rays' Korean-born prospect will play for World on Sunday
When he was 14 years old, Kyeong Kang came to the United States from South Korea with his parents in search of a better life. With his selection to the XM Radio All-Star Futures Game on Sunday, it looks like that might include a career in the big leagues.
The 11th annual XM All-Star Futures Game, pitting the best Minor League prospects from the United States against the best from the rest of the World, will be held at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on All-Star Sunday, July 12, at 2 p.m. ET. MLB.com will provide complete coverage before, during and after the game, which can be seen live on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD and followed live on Gameday.
The 21-year-old Rays outfield prospect will play on the World Team in the game, and if the history of the game is any indication, Kang's move to the States will eventually pay off in a big way.
"They moved here for me and my brother, for better opportunities," Kang said. "My aunt lived in Alabama, so we moved there for the first two years. But my parents couldn't find work in Alabama, so they decided to move to Atlanta."
Kang had brought with him a nascent love of the game of baseball, having started playing when he was 12 back in Korea. When his parents were looking to move from Alabama, the story goes, they looked on the Internet for schools in the Atlanta area. They saw the story of Jeff Francoeur, who was drafted by the Braves in the first round of the 2002 Draft out of Parkview High School. Kang's parents decided that's where they wanted their son to go to school.
Getting on the baseball team was a different story. Kang would hop the fence of the school's baseball field and practice on his own. The coach found him there one day and began yelling at him to get off the field. When he discovered Kang was in high school, he came up with a better idea.
"He told him, 'Come play on the team, and I'll give you a key. You won't have to jump over the fence anymore,'" said Rays scout Milt Hill, who first saw Kang. "It's kind of neat."
Playing the game at a high level is hard enough. Try doing it while simultaneously adjusting to the culture and the language. Kang admits it wasn't easy, though the baseball field did provide a respite from the challenges of making his way through high school.
"Baseball was the only time I could escape," Kang said. "I was really stressed out in school. I didn't speak any English. I barely knew the alphabet. It took me three years to learn English.
"It was really difficult. I had to make good grades to play baseball. I concentrated more on learning English than on baseball. I practiced a little bit to be a good player."
He clearly practiced enough to garner some attention. Hill liked what he saw right away, though it was clear Kang lacked experience on the diamond.
"I don't like to use the word 'raw,' but you could tell he hadn't played our game much," Hill said. "He had a different approach, with a stiff front side, but definitely showed the power and was a pretty good runner."
What the Kang family didn't have at the time was a realistic sense of the baseball market. They had seen what guys like Francoeur had received and thought that's what Kang should get as well. Kang's father told teams they wanted $1 million to sign.
The Rays liked the talent, but not with that price tag. Instead, they took Kang in the 15th round of the 2006 Draft and sent him off to Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Alabama. It turned out to be a good situation all around, giving Kang more experience and allowing the Rays to give him a healthy dose of reality.
"He saw he wasn't the only guy who had good raw power, and he saw he wasn't going to develop as much as he would in a pro environment," Hill said. "He got more realistic with the signing bonus."
The Rays signed him just prior to the 2007 Draft for $75,000, and Kang began his pro career. He spent his first two summers in short-season Rookie ball, first with Princeton in the Appalachian League and then with Hudson Valley in the more advanced New York-Penn League. He is now experiencing his first taste of full-season ball, with the Rays' new affiliate in the Midwest League, the Bowling Green Hot Rods.
"Junior college was a really good experience for me. There were better pitchers there," said Kang, who's hitting .272 in 44 games and has yet to turn that raw pop to game power. "Here, all the guys throw 91-92 mph with good breaking balls. Hitting a baseball is really hard."
So is figuring out where his loyalties lie. His language skills have come a long way. When there's a rare occasion he doesn't quite get what someone is saying, he asks for it to be repeated, but for the most part, his teammates with Bowling Green treat him like an American. At the same time, he has pride in where he comes from and is glad to wear his birthplace's flag on his Futures Game uniform. Ask him to pick which he prefers -- his first home or his second -- and he answers with the dexterity of seasoned professional.
"That's a hard question," Kang said. "I love my country, and I love America, too. I don't worry about it. I just want to go out and play."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.