That summer Kruk wallowed in Walla Walla, Wash., hitting .242 for the Padres' Class A club. San Diego management thought he needed seasoning and sent him to the Mexican winter league. Kruk weathered five winters in Mexico, and it might have been more if he hadn't been banned for life in 1987. Ejected for arguing a called third strike, he Hipped his batting helmet over his shoulder. The helmet nicked the plate umpire, which by Mexican league rules calls for automatic banishment. "Hell, I never even expected to be ejected," Kruk says. "I was sure that ump didn't understand English. But I guess the words I used were universal."
Though Kruk hit .309 as a Padres rookie in 1986 and .313 with 20 homers in '87, his colorful vocabulary didn't impress San Diego manager Jack McKeon. "He thought my mouth was louder than my bat," Kruk says. His bat did grow increasingly quiet; by June of '89 it was practically mute, and Kruk was benched. "I can't complain," he says. "I stunk."
The Padres had no use for a .184 platoon hitter, so they shipped him to Philadelphia. When Kruk arrived at the Vet, Giles stuck out his hand and said, "Bill Giles, president of the Phillies."
Whereupon Kruk stuck out his hand and said, "John Kruk, ballplayer."
It has been a mutually happy affair ever since. Kruk was a Philadelphia hit right off the bat: He went .331 for the rest of '89; the next season he hit .291, followed by .294 with 21 homers and 92 RBIs, all team highs last year. Maybe it was the move from grass to artificial turf that revitalized his hitting, or maybe it was the chance to play every day. Kruk can't pinpoint it, though he suggests-that the change of weather may have helped. He found San Diego too placid, too predictable. "It's always the same," he says. "Perfect, boring 75-degree days. You need rain every once in a while or you get complacent. Lousy days make the good ones more important. In my four seasons in San Diego, it rained once, for about an hour. They had to call the game because nobody knew how to put the tarp on."
The "trash weather" on the East Coast invigorates him. "I like the excitement of looking out the window and not knowing if you're gonna play." he says. "It's fun." He even enjoys being booed by the legendary Phillie less-than-faithful. "At least fans in Philadelphia know how to boo," he says. "San Diego fans had no idea." Phillie fans seem to appreciate his working-class ethos. "It's not that hard to bust your ass for three or four hours a day," says Kruk. "That's all you can do. You're gonna make mistakes—even Ryne Sand-berg does. But if you're playing hard, the fans are gonna appreciate you."
Playing hard is the only concession Kruk makes to image. Despite his current three-year, $7.2 million contract, good through the '94 season, he remains indifferent to the niceties of dress—he leans toward the Ace Hardware school of sartorial elegance—and remains unapologetic for his less-than-wholesome habits. Ready recalls a spring training booster bash at which a scruffy Kruk puffed on a cigarette and was buttonholed by an outraged fan.
"I'm shocked!" she said. "You're a professional athlete and you smoke?"
"Lady," said Kruk. "I'm not an athlete."
He took another drag.