John Kruk: More Awesome Than You Realized by Dan McQuade

Dan McQuade writes and plays Rock Paper Scissors in Philadelphia. He has an infrequently-updated blog and a frequently-updated Twitter.

John Kruk doesn’t like being taunted about having one testicle.

Who knows what he thinks, really. Don’t presume a man is going to tell the truth in a Philadelphia magazine interview where one of the previous questions was, “Did she think Mitch brought his homeless buddy along for a meal?”1 But, in that 2007 interview, Kruk said a guy at a high school football game in West Virginia made a testicle joke once.

“He yelled it from far away, I’ll tell you that, because I woulda beat the shit out of him,” Kruk told Phillymag. “If people I know joke, like Mitch Williams, it’s a joke. People I don’t know, they deserve their ass beat.”

I guess I knew a whole lot of people in 1994 who deserved to have their asses beat. I was an 11-year-old in Northeast Philadelphia, and Kruk was a running gag in the playgrounds and schoolyards across the Far Northeast. A lot of people simply knew Kruk, who had surgery to remove his cancerous right testicle that March, as the baseball player with one ball.

Kruk’s lasting career highlight was a comical right-handed at-bat against Randy Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game, but he was actually a pretty good player over his 10 seasons (.300/.397/.446 slash line; 133 OPS+). He went to three All-Star Games and hit .348 in the ’93 World Series.

And, of course, he did it while being fat.

John Kruk the baseball player, as opposed to John Kruk the running gag for 11-year-olds, is the fat guy who played baseball. He wasn’t enormous, but he was usually overweight and unkempt looking. He’s “the poster boy for critics who deride baseball players as [not] physically fit athletes” (Murray Chass, The New York Times, 1995)2. He “doesn’t look good, partly because of a diet that features hot dogs and hamburgers” (Robert Fachet, Washington Post, 1992). He “looked like a classic Chicago softball player.” (Mike Royko, Chicago Tribune, 1993). The adoration continues today: “John Kruk was Kenny Powers before Kenny Powers was Kenny Powers.” (Drew Magary, NBC Philadelphia, 2011).

The classic Kruk story is his response to a fan who questioned his conditioning: “I ain’t an athlete, lady, I’m a baseball player.” His autobiography’s even called I Ain’t an Athlete, Lady. To be fair, the woman’s alarm only came after she saw Kruk drinking beer and smoking cigarettes at a restaurant during spring training.

Kruk didn’t care about his weight — “Besides, two years ago, I was skinny and had the worst year of my life,” he said — or indeed what people seemed to think of him at all. Naturally, he didn’t always get along with reporters. Kruk’s attitude and physique gained him a bit of a following as a baseball everyman, the smartass kid from West Virginia who made it big. He changed his stance all the time. He had a mullet.3 In the Tribune Royko called him his new sports hero and “the best thing to come along since Yogi Berra.” The Virginian-Pilot’s Larry Maddry became a fan after Kruk came to the plate in the 1993 NLCS with a giant rip in his pants. Philadelphia went crazy for him that year, as the Phillies lost to the Blue Jays in six. There were John Kruk lookalike contests!4

Today, we think of John Kruk as a boring ESPN analyst, one of the mostly interchangeable 25 people on Baseball Tonight. He said the Yankees would win 130 games, by far his most insane prediction. A lot of people really loathe him. Seriously. Search Twitter.

But let’s be clear: John Kruk is awesome. He retired in the middle of a game after getting one last hit. He feared for his life after a roommate who robbed banks believed it was Kruk who turned him into the FBI. He zoned out after catching a fly ball in left and allowed Bobby Bonilla to score from second.5 Chris Farley played him on Saturday Night Live.

And he beat cancer. He returned from radiation therapy for the home opener and got three hits. John Kruk was Lance Armstrong before Lance Armstrong was Lance Armstrong.

1 I have been told this story by several people: When the movie Rookie of the Year came out, John Kruk was asked how he’d feel were a 12-year-old to strike him out. His response: “Get the hell away from me!”

2 The Times also described Kruk as “the Phillies’ Huck Finn in residence.” Presumably, he tricked Darren Daulton into whitewashing a fence.

3 “On this Twitter thing,” Kruk tells the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s John Gonzalez, “at least five people a day say ‘bring back the mullet.'”

4 Steve Odabashian, the lawyer who sometimes dresses up as Andy Reid, is running for City Council. I don’t think you need me to tell you that both the Inquirer and the Daily News endorsed him.

5 The batter, R.J. Reynolds, was credited with a sac fly.

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