John Kruk was pulling into the parking lot at the San Diego Padres' Yuma, Ariz., training camp in March when a security guard stopped him. Kruk explained that he was a player. The guard, understandably, didn't believe him. "If I didn't know me and I saw me, I wouldn't think I was a ballplayer either," says Kruk, who at 5'10" and 195 pounds would rank as a "tiny tub of goo" on the Terry Forster scale. "The last thing that would come to mind is that I'm an athlete. My manager in Triple A said I looked like a truck driver."
In fact, Kruk is a driver of baseballs, and he performs with unbridled emotion and a steady stroke, even though he does so without a lot of recognition. Last year the lefty first baseman was fourth in the National League with a .313 average and led the Padres with 20 homers and 91 RBIs. As a rookie in 1986, he batted .309. This season Kruk, 27, is struggling at .266; he has been bothered by a shoulder injury that kept him out of 10 games.
"He's a throwback," says San Diego outfielder Keith Moreland. Adds utility infielder Tim Flannery, "Watching John is like watching an old film clip."
Kruk says, "What they mean is I don't fit the mold of the modern player—slender, with rippling muscles." No, Kruk isn't slender and his muscles sort of droop. When he was in the minors, Kruk once dazzled his teammates by ordering takeout pizza—always large—after eight straight games. Clubhouse nicknames, such as Snack Bar and Fat Boy, bounce harmlessly off him. "I'm out here to play baseball," he says. "They don't pay me to be pretty."
Kruk's fast-food body, his less-than-stylish clothing and his couch-potato inclinations (he loves watching pro wrestling on TV), inspired an anonymous teammate—Kruk suspects former Padre Steve Garvey—to stick a rubber slug on his locker two years ago. Kruk keeps the nameless gastropod around as a sort of mascot.
But Kruk's sluglike exterior is deceptive. He is a man of considerable strength and surprising speed (he stole 18 bases last year), and he is given to occasional outbursts of temper. He has broken helmets, bats, light bulbs and lockers while venting frustrations stemming from appearances at the plate. "I've seen him run up the tunnel in San Diego, take his bat and beat it against the concrete wall," says teammate Tony Gwynn. Kruk's hitting problems—and the resulting emotional fireworks—generally occur when he tries to pull the ball. He is a natural opposite-field hitter—25 of his 27 major league home runs have been hit to left or left center. Kruk says he has always hit that way, perhaps because his high school field in Keyser, W.Va., had a drainage ditch running through leftfield that made an attractive target.
Keyser (pop. 6,569) is where Kruk began his rise from obscurity to near obscurity. He is one of only two active major leaguers born in West Virginia (George Brett of the Kansas City Royals is the other), and the Padres like to tease Kruk about his "hillbilly upbringing." Two years ago, the first time he played in Pittsburgh, 50 of his relatives and friends drove the two hours from Keyser to Three Rivers Stadium. "I looked at his pass list," says Flannery, "and asked him if it was the cast from Deliverance."
Kruk is not ruffled by such barbs. He recently built a home in Keyser, and the state seal of West Virginia shares locker space with his slug. " 'Mountain men are always free'—that's the motto of West Virginia," Kruk says. They're free-spirited, too: Last week Kruk let two teammates cut off most of his hair after he vowed to be shorn if the Padres lost a game to Chicago.
The mountaineer says that San Diego is "too fast-paced" for his taste. It's easy to get lost in the big city. But it shouldn't be long before San Diego's favorite slug becomes a little better known—as a slugger.