What's A Kruk?

It's a scruffy, lumpy, neckless creature named John who wears a Philadelphia Phillies uniform and leads the major leagues in hitting
May 24, 1992

Philadelphia boasts two splendid collections of dubious curiosa. The more macabre is housed in the Mütter Museum, a 19th-century repository at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Among the Mutter's assorted pathological and anatomical anomalies are the preserved corpse of Soap Lady, the distended colon of Windbag Man, a sliver of John Wilkes Booth's thorax and Grover Cleveland's secret tumor.

The other collection, alive but no less peculiar, is on display at Veterans Stadium. There, in the Phillies' clubhouse, you'll find a bug-brained pitcher named Wild Thing (Mitch Williams), a hard-nosed centerfielder named Nails (Lenny Dykstra) and a bulb-headed third baseman named Head (Dave Hollins). But the strangest specimen of all is a neckless creature mounted on a chair in a far corner. The sign above its locker reads JOHN KRUK. Teammates simply call it Kruk.

"I've never seen anything that looks like Kruk," says rightfielder Dale Murphy. "I've never seen anything that moves like Kruk. I've never seen anything shaped like Kruk."

Kruk's body looks like a third helping of mashed potatoes. Kruk's legs can't quite walk a straight line. "John Kruk looks like a guy who went to a fantasy camp and decided to stay," says Atlanta Braves broadcaster and ex-major league pitcher Don Sutton. Yet at week's end this wobbly Mashed Potato Man was batting a major league-best .383—which may be the greatest anomaly of all.

"Kruk's a strange bird," says Williams. "He's overweight, out of shape and built like a plumber. You look at him and wait for stuff to start falling off. But he's got a tremendous will. Anyone who looks like him and survives 12 years in this game has to have one. Whether it's a pie-eating contest or a ball game, Kruk wants to win. And he's a pure, unadulterated hitter."

But an unlikely hero, and a reluctant one. In clubhouse interviews Kruk often answers questions with his back to inquisitors. Here he is sitting on a chair, staring into his locker before a game, his lumpy, dumpy frame gruesomely stooped. I le pulls a cigarette from a box of Marlboro Lights, fires it up and glances at a wall clock, frowning.

"I can't believe the damn game starts in an hour," he grumbles. His eyelids droop at half-mast.

How many hours of sleep did you get last night?

"Can't remember. At least two."

Kruk takes a long drag, stabs out the cigarette in a small sandbox brimming with butts and slowly rises to his feet. He tilts his head down about an inch, then tilts it up. "Well," he says, collapsing into the chair, "that's enough stretching for today." A few minutes later he slouches out to the field.

Here is Kruk at the plate. A lefty, he leans so far out of the batter's box that he seems in danger of falling into the home dugout. The stance he adopts is as lopsided as Windbag Man's. His shoulders are aligned with the rightfield foul line. His bat barrel is pointed straight up to the sky. His expression borders on baleful.

The first pitch is a fastball, up and in. Snapping the bat with his quick wrists, Kruk swings through it. Strike one.

Kruk has the look of a man who has just been slugged in the stomach. He lowers his bat and drops his hands.

The second pitch is another heater, down and in. Kruk slashes at the ball samurai-style, fouling it off. Strike two.

Kruk's mouth is pinched, as if he has just spit out a lemon seed. He adjusts his grip and realigns his feet.

Pitch number 3 is yet another inside fastball. This time Kruk rolls his shoulders, crooks his elbows and inside-outs the ball to left centerfield.

Single.

Three hours later Kruk slouches back to the clubhouse. Mashed Potato Man has mashed three hits.

Since the beginning of this season, Kruk, 31, has maintained a batting average in the vicinity of .400, yet he claims he's not in a hitting groove. "Only a handful of my hits weren't lucky," he tells his locker. "I've hit balls harder with a Wiffle bat. I know they're falling in, but I'm just not comfortable at the plate."

Murphy shakes his head at this. "I hope he stays uncomfortable," he says.

Kruk changes batting stances as often as uniform numbers—he has worn four in three years with the Phillies. He switched from number 28 to 29 last summer after Williams, who coveted 28, offered Kruk two cases of beer. "I knew it would have to be beer or Ding Dongs," says Williams. "I just wasn't sure which."

It could have been hot dogs, too; Kruk inhales four of those before every day game. The appetite, the bulk, the affability...why, he almost reminds you of....

"Kruk is a poor man's Babe Ruth," says Bill Giles, the Phillies" president. Like Ruth. Kruk is sneaky quick: He stole seven bases in seven attempts last season. Like Ruth, Kruk plays with a rumpled ease: His late-inning heroics have prompted Phillie catcher Darren Daulton to say, "It ain't over till the fat guy swings."

"There's only one real difference between Kruk and the Big Bambino," says Daulton.

What's that?

"Six-hundred-and-forty-three home runs."

Don't expect any cloud-scraping Ruthian clouts from Kruk: He's strictly a line drive hitter, though more than a few of those liners have made it over the fence. 21 of them last season. "The key to Kruk is phenomenal bat control," says Philadelphia coach Larry Bowa. "He used to be an opposite-field hitter. Now he can pull the ball and use the whole field. Most important of all, he believes he can hit. His attitude is the same whether he's 10 for 10 or oh for 10. If he went oh for 40, he'd say, 'Don't worry, I'll get my hits.' Nothing, absolutely nothing, affects him."

Phillie second baseman Wally Back-man calls Kruk a throwback.

"Throwback to what?" asks Kruk. "The Romans or the cavemen?"

Kruk plays old-style baseball. "He takes guys out hard at second, he dives for balls," says Backman. "You don't see that much anymore. You don't see it at all in the American League. There's so much money at stake today that ballplayers worry more about staying healthy than winning. I bet staying healthy doesn't even enter Kruk's mind."

Kruk played almost the entire spring on a leg bruised so badly that it could have been exhibited under glass at the Mutter. "Kruk's always hurt," says Giles. "But his injuries rarely keep him out of games." Kruk hadn't missed an inning this season until he strained his left groin while legging out an infield hit in Cincinnati on Sunday and left in the seventh.

He not only plays hurt, he plays well—he hadn't made an error in his last 85 games through Sunday—and he plays wherever needed: first, left, right and, when Dykstra is out, center. "That's what I'm paid for." says Kruk. "Besides, baseball's boring unless you play it. It I had to sit around and watch, I'd go home."

That would be back to West Virginia, where porch-sitting is as much of a pastime as stoop-sitting is in South Philly. "Kruk is actually more of a couch sitter," says former teammate Randy Ready. "He might be the original sofa spud. Give him a couch and a remote control, and he's set."

Loafing takes up most of Kruk's off-season. "Light hours I sleep," he says. "Six hours I sit, and the other 10 I lie around." It makes no difference if he's settling into a couch or an easy chair. "When it comes to laying around," he says, "I'm pretty flexible."

Exercise is unthinkable. "I went to a batting camp once last winter, but I couldn't hit at all," he says. "I figured I'd just put myself in a slump, so I quit." Roadwork? Impossible. "It's 20 below zero on my farm in February," he says. "What am I supposed to do, run? I'd freeze to death."

Kruk's farm spreads out over the green mountain coal country of Mineral County in West Virginia's eastern panhandle. The farm is perched on the side of a winding road more or less in Burlington, which is a snip of a village near his hometown, Keyser. Kruk met his wife, Jamie, a few years ago at Keyser's video store, where she was working behind the counter. They were married last spring on May 6 and now share the farm with Jamie's pet Pomeranian and Kruk's Samoyed, whose names he refuses to divulge. "You don't want to know," he says cryptically. "Just say they're two dogs, and leave it at that."

Equally mysterious is the fact that Kruk's father, Frank, is called Moe. "Don't ask me why he changed it, because I don't know," says Kruk. "Only 15 or 20 people in the world know the real story, and they ain't telling."

Frank/Moe, who used to work in Keyser's bottling plant, is the first natural choice in memory for the lead in The Don Zimmer Story. "He looks like me, only shorter," Kruk says of his father. "It's a scary thought." Kruk has three older brothers, Joe, Tom and Larry. "If I had a daughter, and she came home with Tom or Larry, I'd be happy," says Kruk. "But if she came home with me or Joe, I'd kill her. Me and Joe are alike—we're all screwed up."

The Kruk boys played ball all day, every day. "Rain, snow, it didn't matter," Kruk says. But he never imagined that he would someday make the big leagues. "I didn't lack confidence in my ability," he says. "I just didn't think anyone knew West Virginia existed."

The San Diego Padres spotted him in a Virginia summer league when he was 20 and picked him in the June '81 amateur draft. Kruk's Virginia manager advised him to stay. "You're not good enough yet," the skipper said. Kruk ignored him. "Maybe I wasn't good enough," he reflects. "But everyone's entitled to his own opinion."

That summer Kruk wallowed in Walla Walla, Wash., hitting .242 for the Padres' Class A club. San Diego management thought he needed seasoning and sent him to the Mexican winter league. Kruk weathered five winters in Mexico, and it might have been more if he hadn't been banned for life in 1987. Ejected for arguing a called third strike, he Hipped his batting helmet over his shoulder. The helmet nicked the plate umpire, which by Mexican league rules calls for automatic banishment. "Hell, I never even expected to be ejected," Kruk says. "I was sure that ump didn't understand English. But I guess the words I used were universal."

Though Kruk hit .309 as a Padres rookie in 1986 and .313 with 20 homers in '87, his colorful vocabulary didn't impress San Diego manager Jack McKeon. "He thought my mouth was louder than my bat," Kruk says. His bat did grow increasingly quiet; by June of '89 it was practically mute, and Kruk was benched. "I can't complain," he says. "I stunk."

The Padres had no use for a .184 platoon hitter, so they shipped him to Philadelphia. When Kruk arrived at the Vet, Giles stuck out his hand and said, "Bill Giles, president of the Phillies."

Whereupon Kruk stuck out his hand and said, "John Kruk, ballplayer."

It has been a mutually happy affair ever since. Kruk was a Philadelphia hit right off the bat: He went .331 for the rest of '89; the next season he hit .291, followed by .294 with 21 homers and 92 RBIs, all team highs last year. Maybe it was the move from grass to artificial turf that revitalized his hitting, or maybe it was the chance to play every day. Kruk can't pinpoint it, though he suggests-that the change of weather may have helped. He found San Diego too placid, too predictable. "It's always the same," he says. "Perfect, boring 75-degree days. You need rain every once in a while or you get complacent. Lousy days make the good ones more important. In my four seasons in San Diego, it rained once, for about an hour. They had to call the game because nobody knew how to put the tarp on."

The "trash weather" on the East Coast invigorates him. "I like the excitement of looking out the window and not knowing if you're gonna play." he says. "It's fun." He even enjoys being booed by the legendary Phillie less-than-faithful. "At least fans in Philadelphia know how to boo," he says. "San Diego fans had no idea." Phillie fans seem to appreciate his working-class ethos. "It's not that hard to bust your ass for three or four hours a day," says Kruk. "That's all you can do. You're gonna make mistakes—even Ryne Sand-berg does. But if you're playing hard, the fans are gonna appreciate you."

Playing hard is the only concession Kruk makes to image. Despite his current three-year, $7.2 million contract, good through the '94 season, he remains indifferent to the niceties of dress—he leans toward the Ace Hardware school of sartorial elegance—and remains unapologetic for his less-than-wholesome habits. Ready recalls a spring training booster bash at which a scruffy Kruk puffed on a cigarette and was buttonholed by an outraged fan.

"I'm shocked!" she said. "You're a professional athlete and you smoke?"

"Lady," said Kruk. "I'm not an athlete."

He took another drag.

"I'm a baseball player."

PHOTODAVID WALBERG PHOTOAL TIELEMANSKruk hasn't had an error since last August, adding to his popularity with Philly fans. PHOTODAVID WALBERGThough shaped like the Babe, Kruk is more inclined to line drives than towering homers. PHOTODAVID WALBERGKruk's health regimen includes hot dogs, Ding Dongs and as little exercise as possible.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)