Twenty Questions with … John Kruk

Seacrest softball coach John Kruk, center left, talks to Katey Ryan, left, and Ryleigh Howell, right, while coaching third base during a playoff game in May 2017. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Phillies icon: Fellow Naples resident/FGCU product/Red Sox ace Chris Sale on path to Cooperstown

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in May 2017, a few months prior to the launching of colliersportsinsider.com. Over the summer, Seacrest Country Day School hired former Naples High pitching standout Jaclyn Traina to join former Major League Baseball all-star John Kruk as the Stingrays’ co-head coach in softball.

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

Here is John Kruk’s resume:

  • Former Major League Baseball player and three-time All-Star first baseman with the Philadelphia Phillies.
  • Athletic cinema thespian. (He’s made cameos in a couple of baseball flicks.)
  • Major League Baseball television analyst.
  • Restaurateur trying to give Naples cheesesteak lovers a true taste of Philly.

That last title is current, but his real job these days is being the softball coach for the Seacrest Country Day School … with a part-time broadcasting gig for the local Phillies TV station mixed in as well.

John Kruk and his Seacrest softball players watch their opponent warm up prior to a home playoff game in May 2017.  GREGG HARDY/CSI

But after reading this, you might find that Kruk is most content to be known simply as the proud parent of two Seacrest students — emphasis on the words “parent”, “Seacrest” and “students”.

Kruk and his family — wife Melissa, son Kyle and daughter Keira — moved to Naples back in 2010 from their New Jersey home. Before taking over the Stingrays softball program, Kruk served as Seacrest’s junior varsity baseball coach for two seasons. Kyle, who just started his sophomore year, plays for the Stingrays’ varsity baseball team, and Keira, who just started seventh grade, plays right field for her dad’s squad.

Looking out onto an empty field just prior to what would be his team’s next-to-last practice of the season before a season-ending regional semifinal loss in the Class 2A playoffs, Kruk sat down in the dugout on a sweltering early May afternoon for a 45-minute-long interview.

This is a long read, but well worth it. Kruk’s unique ability to get right to the point by taking the longest route allowable is on full display.

And just wait until he talks golf with his buddies.

“I go down that hill once, the breaks went out in my buddy’s cart; he forgot to tell me. I jumped, the thing rolled down the hill, the top came off. I’m thinking, “He’s going to be pissed at me.” He comes down, he goes, “Huh … hey, a convertible!” We threw the top in the woods, and we finished playing.”

This interview has been minimally edited.

CSI: In recent years, Naples has flirted with luring the Cubs and Braves here for spring training. Do you see Naples as a future spring training location?

Kruk: Yeah I can see it. Certainly, there’s finances down here if people want to bring them down. I don’t know where they would put it. These complexes now, they’re so elaborate. The ones out in Arizona that the Native Americans built by their casinos for all the teams … there are five, six fields. I don’t know where they would put it here. I have no idea. I think the Cubs (potential move) was more of a ploy to get the city of Mesa to buck up and build them a new complex because their complex was dated. And you know, a lot of free agents now, that’s what they look at — “How is your spring training complex?” That’s why all these teams are building new ones. The Phillies built a new one, the Braves are at Disney, even the Pirates in Bradenton, they put up I forget how many millions of dollars to spruce up their stadium and make it more state-of-the-art. I think the Cubs were just using Naples — and other places. They didn’t want to leave Mesa (Ariz.). As far as the Braves, I don’t know why they would want to go down to Jupiter. I mean the travel is not great here, but Jupiter … when you go up to play a game in Tampa, your whole day is shot.

It’s harder in Florida for spring training, and that’s why I don’t think any of the teams that are in Arizona would ever move back here. I think the longest drive you have in Arizona is 45 minutes to play every team … Travel’s tough here. Spring training in Florida, that’s what a lot of the complaints of the players is — the travel — and the coaches, too, because you can’t get your guys work.

CSI: While you were with the Phillies, you spent spring training in Clearwater. What was your favorite thing to do while away from the diamond?

Kruk: Hmm. Hmm. I don’t know. I was there 6:30 every morning. Larry Bowa had me there early every morning, go out on a back field, and we did bunt plays, because I was new at first base; I didn’t really know how to play until I got to the big leagues. By the time he got done with me, by the time we got off the field at 9 o’clock I was done. (On our days off), some of us would go fishing, we’d play golf once or twice, that’s about it. Most of the time we just hung out, go get something to eat, hang out in the locker room. We didn’t have anywhere to go.

CSI: Major League Baseball has undergone a lot of changes over the last couple decades. What is the state of the big-league game in your opinion?

Kruk: It’s like football and basketball now — you’ve got to protect your stars. No retaliation, there’s always warnings. I’ve spoken to umpires about it, and they said that back when we first started, we policed ourselves. And now these guys don’t know how — this is what they’re telling me. If a guys does something stupid, you drill him, and the other team understood, “OK he deserved it and let’s move on,” as long as it wasn’t at the head. But now it seems like it’s never over. The first sign of anything, now it’s warnings. Guys get suspended. It’s just different. That’s one of the bigger changes.

You know, I have never really been fond of the pitch count. There’s a hundred pitches of stress-free pitches, and maybe 20 or 30 are very stressful pitches. … If he’s pitching with the bases loaded every inning, then you should get him out anyway. The older pitchers always used to tell me the hitters let him know when he was done. If they’re hitting balls all over the field, there’s a good chance that I’m probably tired or whatever.

I actually think now that kids play too much at a young age. You see kids that play 125, 130 games a year and they’re 8, 9, 10 years old. Something’s gonna break. But also, I think with travel ball and all that … and I think it’s easier for pro scouts; it’s easier for college scouts to have these showcases that they can go watch the best kids in Southwest Florida all play in one place so they’re not traveling all around. I think that stuff’s all right. But as far as travel ball goes, like year-round travel ball, you’ll see guys in the big leagues that were travel ball kids growing up, and sometimes they don’t always play as hard as they should because they’re probably burnt out. 

 

I witnessed it in some travel ball (games), you know, because there’s a time limit, kids walking on and off the field because, you know, we’re ahead, we want the time to run out. I’d rather lose and let every kid get two or three at-bats than to try to win by having some kids on the other team or on your team not getting any at-bats in two innings. Just let ’em play. I think we put too much emphasis at an early age on win, win, win, and that’s travel ball to me. A kid’s gotta learn how to play first. Once you learn how to play, you figure out if you can win or not. But to tell an 8-year-old kid we gotta win. Come on, man. They’ve got enough stress in their lives. They don’t need that crap.

CSI: You parted ways with ESPN several months ago, and last week it was announced that they let go of approximately 100 employees — including some notable on-air names. What’s going on at ESPN? Has it gotten too big?

Kruk: Um, you know, it’s funny. I was up there for 13 years, and I think every year they built a new building to try to keep up with the digital stuff and HD television — a studio had to have HD studios and all that.

I think it’s a combination of they got too big, but it’s also a combination of the cost of doing things now. When you’re paying one-point-something billion a year for Monday Night Football, and you’re paying whatever it is … 12 billion for however many years for the NBA, that’s a lot of money, man.

They’re getting competition now baseball-wise with MLB Network, FOX, and you know Turner getting into the postseason, TBS. Football, they’re getting competition now with the NFL Network. NBC has a Sunday Night game, which hurts. ESPN (has) the Monday Night game. They tried to explain it to me once … NBC gets first pick — when the schedules come out — of the best game that they want, and then ESPN gets another one. I know in baseball we did Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and we had to have every team on. On one of those days, every team had to play. I mean you get teams that stink. Who’s watching that? But, you know the Monday, Wednesday game, it’s black out.

Let’s say it’s Yankees-Red Sox on Wednesday night. Are you watching ESPN, or are you watching your local (station). You’re watching your local. I mean, I’m a dummy, but I can figure that out.

CSI: Chris Sale, former FGCU product who now lives in Naples … future Hall of Famer?

Kruk: If he keeps going, sure. I haven’t talked to one left-handed hitter yet that ever gets comfortable with him pitching. He’s filthy.

Randy (Johnson) threw harder. I think Chris is more lower. What’s Chris, 6-6, 6-7, and Randy’s 6-10. Real awkward (delivery). And you know, all the experts said that he wouldn’t last two or three years as a starter; he’ll blow out. That’s the way he’s been pitching pretty much his whole life. That’s natural to him. Experts, man. Yeah, I’d like to see the coach that says, “You know, you’re really, really good, but we need to change your mechanics to be more orthodox. Yeah right. Yeah, let’s fix something that ain’t broke. Let’s take it apart and rebuild it; we’ll make him better. You wouldn’t believe the amount of kids in the minor leagues that they’ve screwed up doing that. That’s not robotic enough. We need you to be more of a robot. Jesus.

CSI: Baseball players are known to be superstitious. Did you have any superstitions as a player, and if so, have any of them carried over into your coaching job at Seacrest?

Kruk: Not yet. Not yet. We’re still trying to figure this thing out. If we keep getting kids to come in and play and we start getting really competitive, I’m sure something’s not going to change. Our shortstop slid and ripped her pants, so we brought her a new pair. She said, “Ah-ah, I’m hitting too good with these, so she ain’t changing them.

CSI: Do either of your children have any superstitions … that you’re aware of?

Kruk: No. Well, my son does. Sometimes he forgets to tie his spikes. … He came up to bat this year, and I told my wife, “He don’t have his shoes tied.” He’s walking up and you see the heel of his socks coming out of his shoe. I asked him, “Man, that can’t be comfortable. How can you hit if you land and your foot’s sliding all over because your shoes aren’t tied. (He says) “I don’t even notice.”

CSI: Do you have an idea how long do you want to coach softball?

Kruk: Until we get fired, which could be another couple days or it could be years. I’ve had some of the parents ask me that, but I’m 56, and the good thing is that even though I’m 56 I’ve never grown up, so I’m still very immature. So it’ll take a while. No, I don’t plan on leaving. I love it here. My daughter’s in the sixth grade; I don’t plan on quitting after she’s gone. I love it.

CSI: What is it about Seacrest that made you and your wife decide to send your kids to school here?

Kruk: When we came to visit, we visited a bunch of schools. I actually put my son in two or three of them for a day. We just liked the atmosphere here. It’s like a big family, and it’s so small that you know everyone. I went to a very small school and grew up in a very small town, and when you know everyone it’s … comfortable. … I think being around the sports here, you get the feel for the kids. And when you see seniors and seventh- and eighth-graders and they’re doing the same thing and the seniors are there with them, helping them, they’re not looking at it like, “Ugh, a seventh-grader, I don’t want to deal with that.” I think the kids understand at an early time here that your varsity sports you might have seventh- and eighth-graders playing with you, so you better accept it. I just think it prepares you for life after you’re done here. Whether you’re older or younger, everyone gets treated the same.

You walk in here, if you see 30 kids, 25 of them will say hi to you, and the other five are probably scared to death of you for some reason. Perhaps we coached them at some point. Paul here, his kids are done and he still comes back; he’s here all the time.

CSI: Participation trophies in youth sports — fair or foul?

Kruk: I don’t think there’s any motivation for kids to get better. I don’t think that the kids learn anything. Where’s your will to get better? If you play, and there’s nine kids on that field better than you, but you’re going to get the same trophy they get for them being better, where’s the motivation to say, “OK, you know what, I want to get better at this.” That’s what I see. I’m not a big fan of it, but we don’t want to upset the kids, and what if he doesn’t want to play anymore because he didn’t get a trophy? Well, if that’s what the kid’s playing for, just to get a trophy, he’s playing for the wrong reasons.”

CSI: You’re an avid golfer and a member at Hideout, which is known for its fast greens. Are gimmes allowed at Hideout?

Kruk: (Without hesitation) Yeah. Heck yeah. It depends if you won the hole or not, but it also depends on if you’re up or down … financially. If you’re down, putt it. We played one round where we said we were going to putt everything out — and these are guys I played with three or four days a week — and we almost got into a fist fight. First hole. It was eerie because it was me and another guy against two other guys, and a guy on the other team, he putted one and left it about six inches short, he just went up and swiped it away, and we’re like, “What did you have?” (He said) “Oh, I had a par.” We’re like, “No, we’re putting everything out, which we agreed on the first tee.” There was yelling and cursing. While we’re going to second tee, I thought, “This is it, man, we’re getting into a brawl right here; this is going to be good.” And then the next 17 holes, it was complete and utter silence, which I didn’t mind that either.

CSI: What’s the most entertaining foursome that you’ve been a part of?

Kruk: Man, with my buddies back in West Virginia. I can’t just stop at four, though, because sometimes we play with six. Oh man. It’s fun. Those guys start 7 a.m. Pick me up and on your way, stop and get me a six-pack. Golf course is like 10 minutes away. It is a blast. The guys I grew up with back home, oh man, they’re crazy.

I’ll go back up there this summer and play. And it’s like you never left off. It’s just like one continuous day with them. A little nine-hole course up in the mountains — two of the holes are on the side of a mountain. The great thing about those guys are, if you hit one in the water, you don’t drop, you just (say) “OK, let’s move to the next hole.” It’s great. Ain’t no elongated holes looking for balls and crap. You just finish and go. There’s no rules — T-shirts, jeans. The only you can’t wear is a tank top … but that gets a little lax as the afternoon rolls on, depending on the beer intake. There’s a lot of beer; who knows, it could be shirtless.

I’ve played Augusta National; I’ve played Pebble Beach; I’ve played so many beautiful golf courses; there’s no where else I’d rather play than there. Oh, it’s fantastic. And the course isn’t like nice; it’s OK, but just the people. You play with those guys, there’s nothing like it. And then the one will start getting into politics, which is just … I actually videotaped it one day. I took it up to one of the producers up at ESPN and showed it to him, and he’s like, “What, did you hire an actor.” And I said, “No, this is him.” (He’s like) “Get outta here.” I said, “No, this is really him.” And he’s the president of the club, too. Ninety cents for a beer. Four dollars for a six-pack, I think. Oh, it’s priceless. You’re allowed to have your own cart with coolers. Back in my day when I didn’t have to be responsible, I had a guy weld a bracket so it would hold one of the big fishing coolers. Then I thought, “Now it won’t fit in my cart shed because the thing sticks out too far.” So I built on to the cart shed, and I thought, “Well this is stupid,” because every time I’d walk around the back to get my clubs, I’d bang my shin on that metal thing. I mean, I had knots … and bleeding. So then I thought, “There’s got to be a better way.” So I bought a beverage cart, and they welded on the brackets on the back so I could put my clubs in them. Hey that thing was as long as from me to you (talking to assistant coach Paul Sladick, who’s sitting a good 10 feet away). My buddy goes, “Did you ever think that maybe you have some issues.” I tell you what, though: it had trouble getting up that hill. I go down that hill once, the breaks went out in my buddy’s cart; he forgot to tell me. I jumped, the thing rolled down the hill, the top came off. I’m thinking, “He’s going to be pissed at me.” He comes down, he goes, “Huh … hey, a convertible!” We threw the top in the woods, and we finished playing. Yeah, there’s not a lot of stress up there.

CSI: Better summertime activity in Naples — golf or fishing?

Kruk: There ain’t no golf course open in the summer, is there? I don’t stay here in the summer. We go up North. I gotta get out, man. But fish, I would fish. I love to fish. … Hunter Robinson, man, he takes me and my son out. We have never gone out with him where we haven’t caught food for my family, in-laws, brother-in-law, his kid. My son loves it. My son can fish man. We have a contest every time we go — first fish, last fish, biggest fish — and I get my ass kicked every week. He’s caught some big ol’ fish man.

CSI: What’s the best baseball movie of all time?

Kruk: I favorite’s the “Pride of the Yankees” with Gary Cooper, played Lou Gerhig.

CSI: Not sure where “A League of Their Own” ranks on your list, but is there crying in softball and do your outfielders hit the cutoff man?

Kruk: Yes and no. There is crying. The cutoff man, irrelevant … apparently. We’re trying to change that thinking. Well it’s still early in the season — one game left.

CSI: Speaking of movies, you’ve made cameos in a couple of baseball films — The Fan (where you met your demise at the hands of a fanatical character played by Robert De Niro) — and the third installment of The Sandlot series. Your daughter (and Seacrest softball player) Keira landed the lead role in the Naples Performing Arts Center production of The Little Mermaid and Seussical. Who’s the better performer?

Kruk: She is, no question. She just loves it. She is not ashamed to do anything. Nothing scares her really, as far as singing in front of people. Her goal is she wants to sing the National Anthem this summer at a Phillies game. A lady from the Phillies comes down here every year and visits us. She’s begging her to sing.

CSI: Let’s talk cheesesteaks. You recently opened Kruk’s Philly Steaks here in Naples. I hear you have the bread brought in from Philadelphia. Is your business mission to educate the people down here what a real philly steak should be?

Kruk: I don’t know about educate. First of all, I love ’em. They used to have a kid in the visiting clubhouse when I was with the Padres and we’d come to Philly and he’d make Philly cheesesteaks and I was like, “Man, this is unbelievable.” And then when I got traded there, they were like, “Oh you gotta go here. You gotta go there. You gotta go try these.” I’m like there are so many different places to go get ’em but all were kind of like unique in their own way, and to me, personally, it’s almost impossible to have a bad one. But there are some that are better than others. We decided to give it a shot, and so far, so good.

CSI: Pat’s, Gino’s … or is their a third option to get a cheesesteak in Philadelphia?

Kruk: Tony Luke’s is good. They actually have one in the ballpark, too. That makes it handy.

CSI: Both you and your AD Mark Marsala have restaurants in the area (Marsala’s in Estero). If Seacrest is hosting a big event, who handles the catering, Kruk’s or Marsala’s?

Kruk: Pinchers, Texas Tony’s. When we do the thing for the Wounded Warriors, we bring sandwiches during the game from Primo’s, and then after the game, he delivers ribs and has baked beans and everything for the soldiers. We did that last year, we had our varsity athletes play against these Wounded Warriors, and then afterwards we went in and ate together. I wanted those kids to see what real adversity is like, you know. Because your batting gloves ripped, really, the world isn’t going to come to an end. But these guys went through a lot. It was neat because there was a soldier at a table with four or five athletes, and another soldier at another table with four or five current athletes, and they were just talking, asking questions. I said, “You could ask them anything, they’ll answer. They’ll tell you exactly what happened to them. None of them are going to hide from it.” And they beat the crap out of them. Oh, a beating.

CSI: At Kruk’s, your menu includes items named after yourself and some former teammates. What would one of your players have to do to get a menu item named after her?

Kruk: One of our players? Well, we could name one already — The Vegetarian for Missy. She don’t eat meat. Vegan Sandwich, The Vegan, The Missy. Vegan. If people come in there, they would probably look at (the menu) and say, “What’s a Vegan?” I don’t think you’re coming in there for … there’s an idea of why you’re coming in — to get some meat. Who would we name one after? Yeah, that would be tough. Probably a vegan sandwich for Missy. Gluten-free for Jessica. We order pizzas for the kids before we go on trips, and we gotta get Jessica gluten-free.