Big League Stew honors one birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Players will be culled from both past and present. Please help us in lighting the candles.
To the younger generation, John Kruk is better-known as the loud analyst on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight." And back in his playing days, he was known as much for his appearance as he was his bat — Kruk was a bearded, mulleted and lumpy first baseman on the ugliest pennant-winning team in modern times, the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies.
But make no mistake: The dude could hit. From 1991-1993, Kruk was one of the best hitters in the league, worth around five wins a year. His numbers don't stand out very much today, because they were very '80s — he never hit more than 21 homers, drove in more than 92 runs, or slugged .500, but he walked a ton and hit for a good average. His last full season was 1993, so he never played in the artificially inflated era that was just about to start.
Kruk was also one of the best West Virginians ever to play baseball. The state has produced three Hall of Famers — George Brett, Bill Mazeroski and Jesse Burkett — but Kruk is among the very best of the rest, along with longtime Ranger Toby Harrah and Braves spitballer Lew Burdette. (Kruk still has a long way to go before catching up to the best-named West Virginian player, the shortstop Pebbly Jack Glasscock.)
Best Year: 1992, .323/.423/.458, 10 HR, 70 RBIs
See what I mean about his power numbers? From 1991-1993, Kruk hit .311/.407/.472, with 45 homers and 247 RBIs, made three All-Star games in a row, and had the fourth-most WAR in the league, behind Barry Bonds, Ryne Sandberg and Barry Larkin. He could do everything with the bat but hit it out of the park. But those were the only seasons in his career that he played at least 144 games. He came up as a platoon outfielder/first baseman with the Padres, and didn't become an everyday player till he was traded to the Phillies in 1989. But he was always a hitter, and once they hid his glove at first base, they had a devastating middle-of-the-order hitter. Because of injuries and the like, he never played more than 150 games, and he only played 1,200 games over his 10-year career. Still, when he was in the lineup, he stung the ball.
Worst Year: 1988, .241/.369/.362, 9 HR, 44 RBIs
The only time Kruk ever hit under .290, Tubs (as his fellow Padres called him) had a rough time in 1988. A year after one of his best seasons — 1987, the year offense was up all across the league — he hit a sort of junior jinx. The third-year player was 27 and should have been in his offensive prime, but offense across the league plummeted, and his batting average and power both tumbled, though his batting eye remained terrific, as he drew 80 walks to just 68 strikeouts.
Claim to Fame: Kruk could seriously hit, but he was also charmingly aware of his own image as a simple country dude. When he faced Randy Johnson(notes) in the 1993 All-Star game, he was made to look like a fool, ducking a fastball three feet over his head and then waving helplessly at two unhittable sliders. He was a three-time All-Star, but gave a goofy grin as he walked back to the clubhouse, looking like he was happy just to have his head connected to his shoulders. He titled his autobiography after his most famous quote: "I ain't an athlete, lady. I'm a ballplayer."
Off the Field: Even during his playing career, Kruk had a face for television, appearing on Letterman twice. During one of his appearances, he told Letterman a story about why he hated playing in Colorado:
"There's no air. I was on base, and there was a 3-2 count, two out, so they made me run. And Dave Hollins kept fouling balls off, and I kept getting more tired, and I told the first base coach, 'I'm not going,' and he said, 'You have to.' And I said, 'The hell I do.'... So then he hit a ball into the gap and I had to try to score, and I slid into home, but it really wasn't much of a slide because I had no momentum left. It was just kind of a stick. And I was safe, and Darren Daulton had to pick me up and help me back to the dugout."
He was also famously parodied by Chris Farley on "Saturday Night Live" — perhaps the greatest honor a portly gentleman could receive in the mid-'90s.
Kruk was also victimized by perhaps the most famous — and probably the most fortuitous — errant pickoff throw of all time, during a spring training game in 1994. The ball hit him in the groin and broke his protective cup; when he went to doctors to get the pain checked out, they discovered that he had testicular cancer. He returned to the team later that spring while undergoing radiation treatments, going 3-5 in the Phillies' home opener and receiving multiple standing ovations from the famously prickly Philly fans. But a few weeks later he was forced to the DL once more for knee surgery, after admitting:
"I couldn't even score from first on a home run."
Kruk would retire in 1995 at age 34 after playing 45 games with the Chicago White Sox.
Happy half-century, Krukkie.