John Kruk - From First Base to the Booth

Mar 29, 2023 - 1:00 PM
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On a warm winter morning in Mexico, a young John Kruk awoke to the sound of waves lapping the shore. He sat up and looked around. Sand. Seagulls. Memory of the night before was amorphous, disjointed. He remembered tequila shots. But he didn’t recall falling asleep on a beach.

For most people, this moment would provoke reflection and perhaps a reevaluation of one’s life choices.

But not so for John Kruk. He was exactly where he was supposed to be. He was south of the border playing winter ball in a Mexican league. As a minor league player for San Diego, he was dedicated to working every day to stay sharp and continue improving.

But from then on he would avoid tequila.

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The Early Days

Strangely enough, he didn’t start off as a ball player. In high school he played basketball. But to play basketball, the coach wanted the team to run track in the off season. John wasn’t thrilled by the idea but capitulated, ran a mile, then dropped track and replaced it with baseball.

His focus remained on basketball when he started at Potomac State College in his home sate of West Virginia, though he still played baseball. He was such a talented basketball player that several colleges around the state tried to recruit him. But the basketball coach at Potomac didn’t concentrate on coaching as much as Kruk would have preferred, so he quit hoops and devoted his attention solely to baseball. Shortly after, Potomac State dropped their baseball program, and John transferred to Allegany Community College to keep playing ball.

In ‘81 he was playing in the Shenandoah Valley League when a scout noticed him and he was drafted by the Padres. His teammate, Tom Browning, was drafted at the same time. According to Kruk, the coach of their minor league team told the two of them they were making a huge mistake and would never make it. Browning went on to pitch for the Reds from ‘84 to ‘94 and made more than 30 starts in the majority of those seasons. Kruk had a career batting average of .300 and an OBP of .397, made three All-Star teams, and helped lead the Phillies to a World Series.

By ‘85, Kruk led the Pacific Coast League in hitting, batting .351. Chalk that up to his dedication to the sport, traveling around Mexico in the winter, and electing to never truly enjoy an “off-season”.

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Those days in the minors were wild. He shared an apartment with two roommates, one of whom somehow funded their partying lifestyle. One day, before batting practice, a couple FBI agents approached Kruk and showed him some pictures taken by surveillance cameras during a bank robbery. Sure enough, in the pictures he recognized his roommate, wearing the same ‘West Virginian by the grace of God’ hat as he always wore. Even though others had already identified the robber before the feds approached Kruk, the roommate was tipped off that John was the one who ratted them out. For a year afterwards Kruk lived in fear of becoming a target of the guy’s revenge.

The Big Leagues

Even though Kruk was batting a cool .465 during spring training of ‘86, he was certain that he wasn’t going to get called up yet. He was in Vegas, playing in the Padres’ AAA. Bobby Brown, a Padres outfielder who had played for Blue Jays, Yankees, and Mariners, approached John during spring training. Brown told him that he was retiring, that he had made his money and it was Kruk’s turn to earn his share. And so John got the call every minor league player hopes for - he was going to the majors.

As a hitter, Kruk put in the work. Before a game, he studied videotapes of the opposing pitcher. What did the guy throw? Were there patterns? Any surprises? On game day he watched how the pitcher threw to other lefties. Kruk says he would go to the plate and guess at what was coming to him, but those were very educated guesses. Putting in the work always paid off for him. It’s why he was one of the best hitters of that Phillies era and a huge reason why the team made it to the World Series in 1993.

Philadelphia Phillies

As far as the ‘93 Phillies and their epic World Series run, Kruk said that it was the most fun year of his career.

“[T]o describe that team? When the most sane person on your team [Jim Eisenreich] has Tourette’s syndrome, there are some issues. And it was all 25. There was no stone unturned. And we had the perfect coaching staff. They were more messed up than we were.”

“I still think, and I’ll say this to the day I die, that we were a better team than the Blue Jays. In a short series they won, that’s all. Joe Carter disagrees, but we don’t like him anyway.”

His quick wit and larger than life personality turned him into a celebrity. He more than held his own during a Letterman appearance in ‘92. When the iconic host asked him about the team’s chances that year (they were on track to finish below .500), without missing a beat Kruk shot back, “Of finishing the season?” On October 23rd of the following year, the very night that Toronto took the final game of the World Series from Philly, Chris Farley portrayed him on SNL’s Weekend Update, where Farley as Kruk was supposed to respond to the charge that the Phillies were “unshaven, overweight, long-haired, dumb slobs.” The ensuing skit was short but funny (although at the time it was a little too fresh to be amusing).

During spring training of ‘94, an errant pick-off throw from one of his own teammates, Mitch Williams, nailed him in the groin and broke his athletic cup. The incident turned out to be a blessing as it led his doctors to discovering he had testicular cancer. It was caught early enough to be successfully treated and Kruk returned to play later that season.

He retired from baseball in manner befitting his personality. In 1995, his last year in the majors and one that saw him wearing a White Sox uniform, he got a hit, then left the game. His knees were sore. He had played long enough. The time was right to leave baseball.

“The desire to compete at this level is gone. When that happens, it’s time to go.”

From First Base to the Booth

In 2017, Kruk rejoined the Phillies as a color commentator for CSN Philly after several years working with ESPN. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said to a room of reporters when asked to explain his departure from ESPN, the room erupting with laughter.

He went on to elaborate that his wife wouldn’t allow him to retire yet. “What else am I going to do? My God, if I sat around and ate all day.”

The Phillies’ Wall of Famer endeared himself to Philadelphia from the first time he donned pinstripes. Sure, he was from West Virginia, about as far from South Philly that it might as well be on the other side of the planet. But he looked like he could have been plucked from any stoop along South 2nd Street and he plainly spoke his mind. He drank beer and his humor was crude and he worked hard, and that made him one of us.

If you ever watch other teams’ broadcasts, you immediately notice the difference in commentary. There are a lot of broadcasters who are knowledgeable and articulate. They know baseball and can talk numbers and recall memorable moments. But Kruk - especially when paired with the easy natured Tom McCarthy - is on a different level. He’s personal. He’s entertaining. His commentary compliments the game, enhances it, voices the excitement and exasperation of the viewers. And he represents Philly like no one else can.

We don’t know how the season will play out. Maybe we’ll spank the Braves and Mets and revel in another Red October. Maybe we won’t. Regardless of where the road ahead takes us, we’ve got a Phillies legend, the best announcer in baseball, to ride shotgun with us.

You can keep up with John Kruk on Twitter @JohnKruk

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