This 24th entry in the ongoing “Philography” series (you can enjoy the others through links at the bottom of this page) spotlights the career of one of the most colorful and beloved characters in Philadelphia Phillies history.
John Kruk arrived in Philadelphia less than a week after the end of an era. The Phillies acquired the 28-year-old in a trade with the San Diego Padres on June 2, 1989 along with infielder Randy Ready in exchange for outfielder Chris James.
Just four days earlier, the greatest player in Philadelphia Phillies franchise history had retired. During an off-day on May 29 in the middle of a west coast road trip, Mike Schmidt had made that sudden, shocking announcement.
The Schmidt retirement sent the Phillies powers-that-be into a massive rebuilding and retooling effort. Just over two weeks after Kruk’s arrival, general manager Lee Thomas traded Juan Samuel to the New York Mets in a deal that brought in Lenny Dykstra.
On the same day as the Samuel-Dykstra deal, Thomas dealt away closer Steve Bedrosian to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for third baseman Charlie Hayes and pitchers Terry Mulholland and Dennis Cook.
Kruk would take over left field from James, Dykstra center field from Samuel, and Hayes had the enviable task of filling Schmidt’s shoes at the hot corner. Mulholland and Cook slipped into the pitching rotation, immediately helping to stabilize a group that would see no fewer than 15 arms get a shot, 10 of them making at least five starts on the mound.
It was massive, sudden change for the Phillies from late-May to mid-June. But the deals would lay the groundwork for the incredible 1993 National League pennant-winning season.
At that point in his career Kruk was already appearing in his fifth big-league season. He had been the Padres third round pick in the 1981 MLB Amateur Draft secondary phase out of Allegany College of Maryland. After a slow start that same summer at Low-A Walla Walla, Kruk began to rip through the Padres’ minor league system.
From 1982-85, Kruk batted .333 over 2,000 plate appearances over 496 games as he rose from High-A Reno through Double-A Beaumont to Triple-A Las Vegas.
The Padres finished at .500 or better each season from 1982-85 under future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. In 1984 they captured the first-ever National League pennant in franchise history before losing the World Series to a dominating Detroit Tigers squad in five games.
The 1986 season would mark a changing of the guard in San Diego. It would be 41-year-old third baseman Craig Nettles and rising center fielder Kevin McReynolds final seasons and 37-year-old first baseman Steve Garvey‘s final full season in a Padres uniform. And just prior to spring training, Williams was let go in a power struggle with GM Jack McKeon and team president Ballard Smith. He was replaced as skipper by Steve Boros.
Kruk made the ball club out of spring training that year, splitting left field with Carmelo Martinez while also seeing a few games at first base and serving as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner.
At the MLB All-Star break the Padres were in third place in the National League West Division standings. But at just three games back they were still in the thick of the playoff race. The Padres won their first game back from the break, but then it would all go south. From July 18 through the end of the season, San Diego went just 38-45 to finish in fourth, a distant 22 games behind the division-winning Houston Astros.
By the end of July, Kruk was the full-time starter in left field. He would slash .309/.403/.424 over 327 plate appearances across 122 games in his freshman season. For that performance he finished in a tie for seventh in the 1986 NL Rookie of the Year voting. One of three players tied with him was a fella by the name of Barry Larkin. The two players finishing just ahead in fifth and sixth? Will Clark and Barry Bonds.
Boros was canned after that poor season and the Padres brought in a new manager in hopes of lighting a fire under the ball club. That new manager was a 41-year-old Larry Bowa, who had retired following the 1985 season after a 16-year big-league career.
The move wouldn’t work as San Diego fell to the bottom of the division in 1987 with just 65 wins during Bowa’s first year as skipper. But there was no sophomore slump for Kruk, who had moved to first base and would have a strong year in his first season as a full-timer. He slashed .313/.406/.488 that year with 20 home runs, 91 RBIs, and a career high 18 stolen bases.
Things appeared to be on the upswing for Kruk when, in October of 1987, he decided to rent a house with high school buddy Roy Plummer. It would prove a fateful partnership. Plummer had a friend, Jay Hafer, who was not well known to Kruk when he also moved in with them.
With Kruk making the major league minimum of $60,000 in 1986 and getting a raise to a $100,000 salary for the 1987 season, it wasn’t as if he was poor. But he also was far from wealthy at that stage of his life and career. It was said that Plummer often picked up the check when the three would go out to dinner and partying.
In November 1987, Kruk went to play winter ball in Venezuela, leaving the apartment behind. He obviously also left Plummer and Hafer behind.
Well, as it turns out, Plummer had been funding his lifestyle by robbing banks, with Hafer serving as his getaway driver. And it seemed that Plummer believed he had been turned in to the authorities by Kruk.
“We have no reason to believe John Kruk was involved in any way, and in fact, I’m not sure the FBI even followed him,” said U.S. Attorney David Katz per Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times in a story the following January. “Kruk apparently only shared a place with Plummer and cooperated freely with us when we questioned him, and our involvement with him ends there.”
According to Plaschke, Kruk was repeatedly warned by friends and family back in his Keyser, West Virginia hometown. “They all said the FBI was rooting around asking questions about this guy,” Kruk said per Plaschke. “They told me that I better be careful, that something was happening.”
Kruk believed that he may have been under surveillance all summer as the investigation dragged on, and the stress of the entire ordeal affected his performance on the field. After he received an in-person visit from FBI agents just prior to batting practice in San Diego during the month of August, that stress increased. Plaschke quoted him:
“I just didn’t care about playing anymore. I’m not going to make excuses for anything, but yes, all of this was on my mind. I was scared. Yeah, this guy was my friend. But if he did some of the things they said he did, you never knew what he might do to me. . . . I mean, I have never been so scared in all my life.”
The authorities finally caught up to Plummer just weeks later in September of 1988. But with Hafer still on the loose, Kruk still didn’t feel at ease. In the end, the whole situation passed, with Plummer even writing him a letter of apology from jail.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this last year,” Kruk told Plaschke, “it’s how to deal with the fact that I’m not invincible.” It would not be the last time that Kruk’s feelings on that topic of his own mortality would raise their head during his playing career.
There was one other big change that occurred during that summer of anxiety for Kruk. His manager, Bowa, was fired after the Padres got off to a horrid 16-30 start. He was replaced by McKeon himself and the club responded, going 67-48 to finish with a winning record.
The stress of 1987 had resulted in a serious decline in his stats. He did play in 18 fewer games than the prior 1986 season, seeing 61 fewer plate appearances. But that alone cannot account for his average falling from .313 to .241, his hits total from 140 to 91, and his homer and RBI numbers dropping by more than half.
As he prepared for the start of the 1989 season, Kruk felt that he was in good shape physically and in a far better state of mind. He turned 28 years of age just prior to spring training. Kruk was in the prime of his career. Led by All-Star center fielder Tony Gwynn and a flashy young second baseman named Roberto Alomar, the Padres appeared to be on the upswing again.
Following a June 2 defeat in Cincinnati, the Padres sat in fourth place. But with a winning record at 29-26 they were just 2 1/2 games out of the NL West lead. Kruk pinch-hit in the 5th inning that night at Riverfront Stadium, drawing a walk. It would mark his final appearance in a Padres uniform.
The next day he was at Veteran’s Stadium, the trade to the Phillies having gone down. Manager Nick Leyva slipped him into the starting lineup in left field against the visiting Montreal Expos batting in the five-slot of the order. In the bottom of the 2nd inning in his first at-bat wearing red pinstripes, Kruk slung an opposite-field base hit off former Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross.
Kruk hit safely in his first six games with the Phillies. Over the next four months he slashed .331/.386/.473 over 81 games, and his popularity with the fan base began to grow.
As the Phillies came out for the 1990 season they were beginning a new decade with a new corps of ball players. It included Kruk and Dykstra, each ready for their first full seasons in a Phillies uniform, and 28-year-old Darren Daulton. The catcher had been with the team all the way back to the 1983 NL pennant-winning team, but 1989 had been his first season as the full-time starter behind the plate.
Coming off the bench for that 1990 Phillies team at various points during the season were infielders Dave Hollins and Mickey Morandini and outfielder Wes Chamberlain. In August, pitcher Tommy Greene was added in a trade with Atlanta. All would prove pivotal to what would happen just a few years later.
The Phillies would finish just 77-85 that year, their fourth straight losing campaign. Kruk slashed .291/.386/.431 and his 67 RBIs were second on the team behind only 31-year-old veteran Von Hayes, who would be dealt away after that season.
When the Phillies again started slow in 1991, Thomas decided it was time to make a move. He fired Leyva, bringing in 49-year-old Jim Fregosi to take over as the new manager. Fregosi had an 18-year career as a player in Major League Baseball and had seven seasons of big-league managerial experience, leading the California Angels to a 1979 AL West Division crown. He would certainly be respected by the players.
The Phillies went 74-75 under Fregosi to finish in third place in the NL East. Kruk had perhaps his best statistical season, slashing .294/.367/.483 with career highs of 21 homers, 54 extra-base hits and 92 RBIs. He also was selected to the first of what would be three consecutive National League All-Star teams.
However, the Phillies perhaps could have done even better that year. Their season was marred when Dykstra and Daulton were seriously injured in a controversial auto accident in early May. The accident caused both to miss time and would affect their performances on the field once they returned to the lineup.
Per a story by Bill Glauber in The Baltimore Sun, the accident occurred at 1:06 a.m. on May 6 when Dykstra drove his 1991 Mercedes 500 SL into two trees on the side of a two-lane road in suburban Philadelphia as the teammates were returning from Kruk’s bachelor party.
Kruk’s wedding took place later on the same day as the accident. But he was quoted by Don Bostrom of The Morning Call that “It went real quick, and it wasn’t as happy as it should have been.” That marriage to Jamie Heeter would last through most of the 1990’s. They were divorced in 1998.
Dykstra suffered a fractured right cheekbone and collarbone and broke three of his ribs. He would not return to the lineup until July 15. Daulton sustained a fracture of his left eye orbit and a scratched left cornea. He tried to come back in late May, went 0-5 in two games, and went back on the DL again until returning for good on June 18.
1992 was yet another All-Star campaign for Kruk, who slashed .323/.423/.458 with new career highs of 164 hits, 30 doubles, and 86 runs scored. Daulton and Dykstra bounced back well, with Daulton making his first NL All-Star squad. The pitching was bolstered with the April trade addition of 25-year-old Curt Schilling. But again it did not translate to winning as the club went 70-92 and finished in last place. There may have been one hint of what was to come, as the Phillies won 11 of their final 15 games.
The 1993 season would prove to be pure magic from start to nearly finish for the Phillies and every fan who got to enjoy it. It remains the most fun year of baseball that I have ever followed. April 9 was the only day that the Phillies were out of first place in that entire season.
Kruk slashed .316/.430/.475 with what would be career highs of 169 hits, 33 doubles, and 100 runs scored and made his third straight NL All-Star team. He was joined on the All-Star team by Daulton, third baseman Dave Hollins, and starting pitcher Terry Mulholland.
In that 1993 MLB All-Star Game, the lefty-hitting Kruk provided a moment of hilarity during a plate appearance against hard-throwing left-hander Randy Johnson. During the plate appearance, the future Hall of Famer fired a wild pitch above Kruk’s head, clearly shaking up the NL first baseman. Kruk would go on to strike out feebly.
“When I stepped in the box, I said all I wanted to do was make contact. And, after the first pitch all I wanted to do was live. And I lived, so I had a good at-bat.”
One player who was not an All-Star that year was Dykstra. But by the end of the season the Phillies fiery center fielder had become a legitimate NL MVP candidate, ultimately finishing runner-up to Barry Bonds for the honors.
While a handful of Phillies position players had career seasons, two factors probably made the difference in their winning the NL East Division crown and the National League pennant. That was the play of rookie shortstop Kevin Stocker, called up in July, and a tremendous performance from the pitching staff. Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Tommy Greene, and Danny Jackson and relievers Mitch Williams, Larry Andersen, and David West all were healthy and productive for nearly the entire season.
The Phillies clinched the division crown that year in Game 157 on Tuesday night, September 28 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with a 10-7 victory over the host Pirates. Kruk had two hits and a walk that night, with his 4th inning double driving home the Phillies first run of the game.
In the six-game victory over the heavily-favored Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series, Kruk delivered a mixed performance. He went 4-7 with a home run during the Phillies two losses but just 2-17 in the club’s four victories. It didn’t matter. The Phillies were going to the World Series for the first time in a decade.
Kruk started out hot in the Fall Classic against the Toronto Blue Jays. He went 7-12 with four runs scored and three RBIs during the first three games as the Jays jumped ahead by 2-1. He would go just 1-11 over the final three games. Joe Carter finally and famously walked the series off with a home run in the bottom of the 9th inning at SkyDome in Toronto.
There was great optimism around the Phillies as spring training opened for the following season. But the baseball gods who had smiled favorably on Kruk and the team the prior year were nowhere to be found in 1994.
While in Clearwater preparing for that season, Kruk underwent a routine physical examination that returned a shocking result – he had testicular cancer. Questions about baseball moved to the back-burner as he underwent surgery which would prove successful.
That 1994 season started without him as Kruk recovered from the surgery. But he would not miss too much time. On April 11 he returned to the Phillies lineup for a game at Veteran’s Stadium against the Colorado Rockies. With the team trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the 1st inning, Kruk slammed an RBI double to the right-center field gap. He deliver two more hits in that game, and then two more as the offense exploded for 12 runs the following night in a nationally televised game.
Kruk would slash a characteristic .302/.395/.427 that season, but it was cut short for him and everyone else when the baseball strike hit in mid-August.
On August 11 at The Vet, Kruk was not in the starting lineup. The Phillies and New York Mets would battle into the bottom of the 15th inning tied at 1-1. With the winning run at third base and one out, Fregosi decided to send Kruk up as a pinch-hitter. He never really got a chance to swing the bat, drawing a four-pitch walk from Mauro Gozzo. The Phillies would win the game two batters later. Little did he or anyone else realize at the time, it would prove to be Kruk’s final appearance in a Phillies uniform.
The baseball strike wiped out the remainder of the 1994 season, including the World Series. Kruk did enjoy some off-field accolades that year as his book “I Ain’t an Athlete, Lady” was published. The title was based on a quote that he had given a female reporter a few years earlier when she had asked him a question about being a professional athlete. Kruk had responded “I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a ballplayer.”
That off-season, Kruk was granted free agency for the first time in his career. With all of the uncertainty he remained unsigned as the game returned in April 1995. Finally, on May 18, Kruk was signed to a one-year, $1 million deal with the Chicago White Sox by their general manager, former Phillies 1974-76 pitcher Ron Schueler .
Appearing almost exclusively as a Designated Hitter with the Chisox, Kruk’s bat was still effective. He hit .308 with a .399 on-base percentage over 188 plate appearances across 45 games. But it couldn’t last. Kruk’s knees were killing him and it was just getting worse.
On July 30 during a game with the host Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, Kruk came to the plate in the top of the 1st inning with a runner on and one out. He lined a single, and after reaching first base, promptly took himself out for a pinch-runner. It would prove to be the final plate appearance of his career as he decided to retire, going out with a base hit. He issued a parting statement to the media that simply read, “The desire to compete at this level is gone. When that happens, it’s time to go.”
In retirement, Kruk undertook a career as a broadcaster and commentator, including a long run from 2004-2016 with ESPN. He was then hired by Comcast (now NBC Sports Philadelphia) to serve on their television broadcast team where he remains today. In 2001, Kruk put the uniform back on, serving as coach with the Phillies Double-A Reading farm club.
Kruk has made cameo appearances in a handful of motion pictures, including as a member of the San Francisco Giants in “The Fan” starring Robert DeNiro in 1996 in which DeNiro’s psycho character slashes him. He also appeared as a guest of David Letterman on The Late Show on a number of occasions during the mid-1990’s.
In 2016, Kruk accepted the role as high school girl’s softball coach at Seacrest, a private school in Naples where his son and daughter were students. He took the job in order to bring stability to a program that had seen frequent coaching turnover: “It’s tough to build a program when you have a new coach every year,” Kruk said per Adam Fisher of the Naples Daily News. “It’s not fair to the girls.” He remains the Stingrays coach today.
After moving his family into the area in 2010 and enrolling his children at the school, Kruk was concerned that there was no softball diamond. Per Fisher, he hosted fundraisers with celebrity guests, including Mike Schmidt and Buck Showalter. That effort helped raise enough money to build the school their own field.
Kruk is now married to the former Melissa McLaughlin, who was Miss New Jersey in 1999. Per his biography at SABR by Seamus Kearney the two met at a “setup” dinner by former teammate Mitch Williams. John has credited Melissa with a life-changing epiphany: “I was a mess. She saved my life.”
Over six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies from 1989-94, Kruk appeared in 504 games with the Phillies at first base, 172 games left field, and 68 games in right field. He made 3,001 plate appearances in which he slashed .309/.400/.461 with 790 hits. Over a 10-year big-league career he recorded 1,170 hits and finished with exactly a career .300 batting average.
In 2011, Kruk was selected for a place on the Phillies Wall of Fame, joining his 1993 teammate Daulton, who was honored the prior season. They have since been joined by Schilling, who was honored two years later in 2013.
John Kruk’s self-deprecating personality have helped to make him one of the most popular and beloved Phillies players of all-time with the team’s fan base. So has the fact that his body is more in line with many of those fans, looking more like a beer-league softball player than the professional athlete he has already denied being.
Krukker is good for the game. Phillies fans are blessed to have him around when he is available for broadcast booth duties, providing valuable and thoughtful insight as a new generation of players tries to do what he and his 1993 teammates once did, reach the World Series.
Click on the “date” in order to read the Philography piece. Click on the individual name to view their stats page at Baseball Reference
12.12.2014 – Grover Cleveland Alexander
2.15.2016 – Edith Houghton