Jung Ho Kang injury challenges principles of the game

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LOS ANGELES – Their shortstop is in a hospital, which is unfortunate for him and inconvenient for the Pittsburgh Pirates, none of which can be undone today.

Jung Ho Kang had surgery Thursday, hours after his left leg was broken and MCL torn at second base in a game at PNC Park. It left the talented Kang without baseball for at least six months and the Pirates without one of their more productive players for the games they have left, because Kang lingered in a bad area at a very bad time.

Not everyone who takes a throw at second base ahead of an incoming runner gets his leg broken. Most get out of the way. Some get lucky. The rest hope for compassion from the man whose job in that moment is to separate the player with the ball from the out.

That’s where it gets hazy. And in the very worst scenario, Kang is half-carried from a baseball field in mid-September, the Pirates are sorting through their available options a few minutes later, and a season changes on a play that doesn’t have to happen, and doesn’t have to include casualties, but does and can.

“That, unfortunately, is called ‘sport,’” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Men are playing for championships. … They’re big, they’re strong, they’re passionate.”

The Cubs' Chris Coghlan slides into Jung Ho Kang, resulting in a serious knee injury for Kang. (Getty Images)
The Cubs' Chris Coghlan slides into Jung Ho Kang, resulting in a serious knee injury for Kang. (Getty Images)

Friday afternoon found Hurdle 2,100 miles from second base at PNC Park, here, where the Pirates were to open a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and a 10-game road trip that would continue through Colorado and Chicago. The day before, he’d chosen to avoid video of the slide that harmed Kang until after he’d spoken publicly on the matter. He wished to arrange his thoughts and remain composed, neither of which he believed possible were he to relive the violence that felled the likeable Kang.

Hurdle is an emotional man, loud and fun at times, loud and displeased in others, but forever lively. He has remade a culture in Pittsburgh, just as he had in Colorado, in part because of how deeply he cares. Not just for the wins and the championships, but for the men who chase them, for what they sacrifice for him, and so he’d need a few minutes not just to mourn the injury but to wonder the cost. At a time when catchers are protected from the worst of it, why had he lost two infielders – first Jordy Mercer and then Kang – to damaging (and possibly avoidable) slides in the same summer.

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Hurdle tried to reach Kang by phone twice Friday and was unsuccessful. He did, however, reach Joe Garagiola Jr. on his first try. Garagiola is a senior vice president with the league office. He perhaps figured Hurdle would be calling and why, and he asked Hurdle, “Well, if we were to write a rule today, what would your thoughts be?”

Hurdle had watched video for a lot of the day. Not just of Kang. Not just of Mercer, who in mid-July sprained his MCL and missed more than a month. What was out there – the legal slides, the borderline illegal slides, the reckless slides – seems to have brought him to the conclusion middle infielders require something like the same rule that keeps catchers safe. That avoids, as he called them, the “yard sale” collisions.

“Without,” Hurdle said, “taking away from the game.”

That’s it, isn’t it? For better or worse, plays at the plate have gone soft. And more catchers, presumably, are whole because of it. What about the shortstop? The second baseman? The third baseman shifted into the area of second base who hasn’t turned a double play since his sophomore year of high school? Is he equipped with the skills and repetitions to avoid a skittering baserunner?

They’re already allowed to escape into “the neighborhood.” Has the neighborhood gone bad?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

If there is a ballplayer who believes the Cubs' Chris Coghlan intentionally and savagely went after Kang he has yet to speak up. It was, by consensus, a hard, clean play that ended poorly. “It’s our job to get ourselves out of the way,” said Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who has lived in that area for most of his life.

Said Dodgers second baseman Howie Kendrick: “If you know what you’re doing over there you don’t get hurt.”

Sighed one coach: “Twenty years ago, they all woulda been in left field.”

That’s old baseball talking, of the way the game used to be, the kind Hurdle, of course, grew up playing, the romantic version in which real men walked off irritants like broken legs and torn MCLs. It’s also the game in which shortstops knew better than to hang around in bad places at very bad times, which seems a reasonable guideline, what Hurdle would call “sport.”

He sat Friday afternoon behind a binder opened to a page on Zack Greinke, the Dodgers’ starting pitcher. His hair was gray and at attention, the way it goes now. Around his neck hung his reading glasses, which bounced against his chest when he made a more strident point. For his enthusiasm, his wry sense of humor (“A maze trying to get into here,” a writer observed upon entering Hurdle’s office. “Put a pizza in here and you’d have no problem,” Hurdle responded), his passion for people and the game, Hurdle is impossible to dislike. He is one of the few managers whose team, it would appear, flows straight from his heart.

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More than 24 hours later, he believed his desire to change a core element of the game came from a pragmatic place. He’d thought this through. He’d spoken to the league, which he found sympathetic. This wasn’t, he believed, simply about two of his guys and their avoidable accidents. This was, he believed, about everybody else’s guys too, and all the guys to come, and the game itself. That, you can respect.

You also can hate what happened to Jung Ho Kang, and believe it didn’t have to happen, and still not agree. There’s still a game to play. There’s still sport.

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