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Phillies’ New Wall Of Famer John Kruk epitomized the Philadelphia Athlete

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"KEEP ON PHIGHTIN' WITH JOE VALLEE"

It was 1988, and my next door neighbor and I were trading stickers for our TOPPS sticker books when I offered some guy I can’t remember in exchange for the last sticker I needed to complete my book.

Who was that guy? It was John Kruk of the San Diego Padres, who actually homered earlier that week off the Phillies’ Wally Ritchie on a Sunday afternoon game in San Diego.

So fast forward one year later to around the same exact time. Chris James, the “heir apparent” to the suddenly retired Mike Schmidt, struggles badly in his new position over at third base. A week later, the Phils are playing the Expos at The Vet, and James botches a ball in an extra inning game that leads to the eventual winning run for the Expos.

However, before the Phillies lost, the camera showed a close up of James muttering every expletive you could think of in response to his gaffe in the previous half inning.

And as he’s dropping F-bombs, the Phillies broadcast team informs the audience that James has been traded to the Padres for Kruk and Randy Ready. We probably knew before James did. Don’t be surpirsed. That’s how things went down back then with the Phillies.June 3rd 1989: John Kruk's first game as a Philadelphia Phillie. Photo: Joe Vallee Sr.


The next night is photo night. Schmidt throws out the first pitch and former Phil Kevin Gross beats the Phils, but what I remember the most was the arrival of John Kruk, who was already in uniform smiling from ear to ear. Keep in mind Kruk was hitting .184 at the time of the trade, which makes it even more impressive that he would finish the season hitting .300.

Kruk would flirt with that mark the next couple seasons. Not only would his batting average climb above the mark in 1992, it will stay their for eternity, as Kruk retired with an average of .300 on the nose. How he ended his career is truly a story for the ages: He got a base hit, was taken out of the game, packed his belongings up in his locker, and drove home during the game. Classic Krukker.

Now the photo my dad took that night shows a cleaner version of the Kruk we would all come to know and love. This image was developed over several years, culminating of course with the 1993 squad- my all-time favorite Phillies team no matter how many titles this current group of guys bring home to our city.

So what exactly endeared Kruk to Philadelphia? Well first off, the Phillies were a team consisting of very few personalities at the time, and the ones who had them (Steve Bedrosian, Juan Samuel) were traded shortly after his arrival. We love characters in this town, and Kruk’s charismatic, honest demeanor combined with his all-around hustle and his love for getting his uniform dirty made him an instant fan favorite. He got us, and we got him. At times that can be an oddity around here.

When 1993 rolled around, Kruk had become somewhat of a cult hero in this town. By this time he looked more like a softball player who was a weekend warrior than the starting first baseman on a major league team with his long hair, scruffy beard and paunch. After all, he didn’t name his book “I Ain’t an Athlete, Lady,” for nothing. He was mentioned in a speech by President Clinton and even appeared on David Letterman that September when the Phillis were in New York.

The fact that Kruk would go on and have a successful career as an analyst for ESPN first makes me shake my head in amazement, then it makes me proud that a member of the ‘93 team ( a team often looked down upon by people outside of Philadelphia) has gone on to make our city proud by exemplifying professionalism and keen insight into the game. After all, not EVERY athlete on that team embarrassed himself and ruined his life.

 

From escaping a Randy Johnson fastball to the head in the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore to his bout with cancer in 1994 (one of the most emotional moments ever on a baseball diamond was his first game back in 1994 when he ripped a double in his first at bat), there was nothing about John Kruk that was fake. People in this town also love honesty, and Kruk always shot straight from the hip, even though it sometimes aggravated the guys upstairs and didn’t always make him the most popular player with the media or even sometimes his teammates (the guy did once piss off Dale Murphy for God’s sake).

Would this town had loved Kruk as much as we did if he stunk? Hardly, but it’s like he said at his Wall Of Fame induction speech last Friday, you have to have the guts to succeed in this town. John Kruk not only welcomed that challenge, but he embraced it and succeeded at the same time. In Philadelphia, that makes you a hero for life.  

Congratulations Krukker.

 

Joe Vallee is a lifelong Phillies fan and former Phillies batboy. Joe has claimed to have seen about 98% of every Phillies game since the early 1980's.

Contact Joe at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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