It's hard to believe now, but when John Kruk first reached the major leagues in 1986 he was beardless and, if not skinny, svelte compared to his later playing days. Thanks to the diaspora-creating amateur draft, the Charleston, West Virginia native had found himself the property of the San Diego Padres. He was drafted in 1981, the same year the Pads drafted Kevin McReynolds and Tony Gwynn. This helps explain why Kruk didn't make the majors until 1986 despite hitting extremely well -- playing mostly outfield and a little first base (where the Padres had an aging Steve Garvey) he was simply blocked. Even the 1985 Pacific Coast League batting title (.351) didn't merit a call-up.
It took a .465 average in spring training of 1986 for Kruk to force his way into the Padres' plans. They found that Kruk, while no Gold Glover, was surprisingly athletic for a guy who looked like a panda wearing a rubber mask. Hitting almost exclusively to the opposite field and selective, Kruk was good for .300 averages and .400 on-base percentages annually. The left-handed hitter was usually platooned a bit -- whereas he had some pop against right-handed pitching, he was just a patient .270 hitter. He finished his career with .300/.397/.446 averages, .314/.416/.482 against right-handers. His 134 career OPS+ is in the top 130 all time.
He was tremendously fun to watch. At the plate, Kruk had quick hands and a good eye, so that he was able to wait on the ball just a little bit longer than the average hitter. The extra instant of time this afforded him on each pitch meant not just relatively few strikeouts and some extra walks, but the ability to drive the ball hard the other way; Kruk wasn't just blooping the ball over the infield, he was hitting doubles and home runs.
As a baserunner he was unique. He ran like he was being chased by a pack of hungry wolves. Writing after Kruk's rookie year, Bill James said, "He doesn't run real fast but, boy, does he run hard. When he gets pressed real hard, like somebody is running up his back or something, he sticks his arms out to his sides and pinwheels them real fast when he runs, sort of looking as if his arms were attached to his body by a rubber band that was too short, so that the joints would go straight rather than relaxing into a normal position. At the same time, he puffs out his cheeks and blows real hard... He runs kind of like a little fat three-year-old who hasn't quite figured out the motion yet."
Ozzie Smith and John Kruk (Wikimedia Commons)
The Padres of the mid-to-late 1980s were afflicted with a nearly terminal case of incompetence and in a few short years turned the World Series team of 1984 into the 101-game losers of 1993. Part of that process was the December 1989 swap of Kruk and utilityman Randy Ready to the Phillies for the outfielder Chris James. James played one mediocre season for the Padres and headed for free agency; Kruk helped take the Phillies to the 1993 World Series. He hit .348 in the losing effort against the Blue Jays.
During his career, Kruk would often talk about vanishing back into the wilds of West Virginia once his playing days were over. Indeed, he retired mid-game in July 1995, getting one last hit and walking away. That he would instead remain on the scene as an ESPN commentator is one of those ironies that we probably would have been better off without experiencing. Just as the image of Kruk bailing out on Randy Johnson during the 1993 All-Star Game has came to define his playing career, his sideline bloviating has obliterated it altogether. The thing to remember is not his mouth but his bat: the man could flat-out hit.