(ATTN: ADDS Kang's apology, details in paras 7, 16-19)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 25 (Yonhap) -- Former major league infielder Kang Jung-ho, seeking a return to the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) under the cloud of multiple drunk driving cases, received a one-year suspension from the South Korean league on Monday.
During its disciplinary committee meeting, the KBO also ordered Kang to do 300 hours of community service.
The lighter-than-expected penalties will keep the door open for Kang, 33, to return to the league where he began his professional career in 2006.
Kang filed for reinstatement from the "voluntarily retired" list last Thursday. He was placed there when his former KBO club, Nexen (currently Kiwoom) Heroes, posted him for interested big league clubs after the 2014 season. Kang signed with the Pirates in January 2015.
The suspension will come into effect once Kang comes off that list and joins a KBO team.
Because Kang wasn't a free agent when he left the KBO, the Heroes still hold their reserve right to Kang. The Heroes must agree to activate Kang from the voluntarily retired list, but Kang has yet to contact the Heroes about a potential return. If Kang wants to sign with another team, he will need the Heroes' permission.
A Heroes official said it was "premature" to discuss Kang's future with the club because he hasn't spoken with the team about a return.
The KBO is expected to face much heat in the court of public opinion. That Kang even attempted a comeback to the KBO didn't sit well with disgruntled baseball fans, some of whom called for a permanent ban for his three DUI cases. The first two didn't become known until after Kang was caught for the third time.
Kang, who's staying in the United States with his wife, didn't attend the hearing. He was instead represented by his lawyer, Kim Sun-woong.
Kang has been caught driving under the influence of alcohol three times, and the KBO could have banned him for three years, in accordance with its rule on punishment for DUI cases.
Most recently, Kang received a suspended jail term in 2017 for driving into a guardrail in Seoul while under the influence and then fleeing the scene in December 2016. His two previous DUI cases came in August 2009 and May 2011.
The KBO rule on DUI cases was instituted in 2018, and the disciplinary committee decided not to apply the rule retroactively to Kang's 2016 arrest, which happened when he wasn't a KBO player.
Based on the first two DUI incidents, Kang could have been banned for at least around 90 games, with about 180 hours in community service. A full KBO season is 144 games long.
Kim, Kang's legal representative, said he asked the KBO to make "a rational decision" based on rules and precedents.
Kang also submitted a two-page letter through Kim, who said he didn't want to divulge its content but added, "Kang said he was extremely sorry to have caused trouble and that he would keep giving back to the community."
Soon after the KBO announced its ruling, Kang released an apology through his Seoul-based agency, Leeco Sports Agency.
Kang apologized for his past wrongdoings once again, saying he has been trying to become a new, better person since that latest case in 2016.
"Over time, I came to realize just how important baseball is to me," Kang said. "I took putting on a uniform and getting on the field for granted, and I was a fool not to see how precious that was. I know I don't deserve to be saying this, but I would love one final opportunity to play baseball."
Kang reiterated his pledge to give back to the community to atone for his mistakes, adding, "I'm forever indebted to those I let down with my action."
The third DUI accident effectively put an end to Kang's once-promising big league career. The former KBO All-Star missed the entire 2017 season because he was unable to obtain his work permit and appeared in only three games in 2018.
Kang's four-year deal with the Pirates expired in 2018, but the team gave him a second chance by handing him a new one-year deal for the 2019 season.
Kang led the majors with seven home runs in spring training, but in the regular season, Kang stumbled to a .169/.222./.395 line in 65 games with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs. He struck out 60 times in 172 at-bats, and the Pirates released him on Aug. 4.
Kang briefly worked out with the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple-A team, but no new deal came out of it.
Drafted out of high school as a catcher, Kang carved out an All-Star career at shortstop for the Heroes. In his last season before moving to the majors, Kang established a new KBO record for most home runs in a season by a shortstop with 40.
In 2015, Kang finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, thanks to a .287/.355/.461 line, 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 126 games.
Then in 2016, Kang posted a .513 slugging percentage while setting career highs with 21 home runs and 62 RBIs in 103 games. But following the DUI accident in December that year, Kang never duplicated that level of production.