MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

John Kruk talks Phillies, writing country music and becoming the cheesesteak king of Florida

‘Hey man, the kids gotta eat, so I gotta watch what I say.’

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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John Kruk is one of Philadelphia’s most beloved former athletes, both for his play on the field and his penchant for telling it like it is. Kruk was one of the key players on the 1993 Phillies World Series team and is a member of the Phillies Wall of Fame. He came back this year after a stint at ESPN to call Phillies games for CSN Philly, where he also has a podcast now, too. We spoke about his time in the booth, his memories of the 1993 season, his love of country music and, of course, cheesesteaks.

We started our conversation with the current state of the Phillies. A few weeks ago, after the bullpen imploded and gave up another game that was set to be a win, Kruk spoke on the CSN Philly postgame show and seemed beyond frustrated. It was as if the bullpen had collectively killed his dog. (It was also the day I said, “now’s a great time to talk to Kruk for a story.” And so, I asked him what it’s like to cover a team with the worst record in baseball.

Hey man, the kids gotta eat, so I gotta watch what I say. It’s tough sometimes. I’ve thrown stuff up here and get frustrated like everyone else that, you have to realize that the same mistake that they’re making I made the same ones when I was playing. I hope I didn’t make them as often as sometimes we make them but — Sometimes it’s tough, you know, the team battles offensively and puts up some runs and it just goes away quickly. Sometimes it’s tough, but what choice do I have, I mean I’ve got to watch them, right?

It’s not even August, but with how the team has played this season, I asked Kruk if he looks at each telecast like he’s talking to just the die-hard fans, who are all as frustrated as the team is and, obviously, he is as well.

That doesn’t cross my mind. I don’t really think about who is watching, but thanks for putting that in my head now.

It is what it is, you know. My job is to call the game and be honest. I think we’ve acknowledged in this organization from Dave Montgomery down, that — I’ve heard Dave Montgomery say that the Phillies fans are the most knowledgeable fans in all of sports — so I’m not going to try to sugarcoat and blow smoke, you know? They see, I see what happens. I can’t make excuses. The fans are gonna call BS on me but if a guy makes a dumb play and I’m like, ‘well, it really wasn’t that bad a play.’ You can’t do that. Not with this fan base.

There has to be some silver lining to this season, and maybe it’s in the outfield, with a few young players who have come up from the minors to show a world of promise. I asked Kruk who is the most exciting player he’s had the chance to watch this year.

Sadly he’s on the disabled list, but Aaron Altherr to me was the most exciting player as far as hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, as a defender. I really enjoyed watching him. I really like watching Nick Williams compete. He seems like a great kid. He’s doing great since his call up. It’s fun to see young kids come up and perform and get a chance. That’s what’s fun to me.

I don’t think anyone coming in thought this was a Wild Card-contending team, so to see these young kids come up, you look at the future and…a couple more guys and you never know what can happen.

TRADE RUMOR ALERT! Kruk and I spoke via phone before Wednesday’s big Phillies win in Miami. So we couldn’t avoid the big trade rumor that the Phillies are interested in dealing for Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich from the Marlins. I wanted to see if the scuttlebutt with the team was as big as it is here.

I talked to some people with the Marlins and they were noncommittal of course about it, but we’ve heard they have had discussions. But you don’t know what the Marlins want. Look, if they’re going to trade Giancarlo Stanton, that’s a huge contract for a lot of years… from what I understand of his contract it’s back-loaded, so the first few years he’s playing for really good money, then he’s playing for unbelievably great money. So I’m sure that would be a sticking point with any team. How much — are the Marlins willing to eat some of that money, and if they’re not, if you’re the Phillies, they shouldn’t have to give up their top, top prospects to get him.

Now, you might have to give up your top prospects for Yelich, but I think personally if you’re going to go after just Stanton, I don’t know if that helps because you need more than one player. But if you go after Stanton and Yelich, especially with Yelich being under team control for a few more years, I think now you’ve got something working.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Miami Marlins
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The question, though, is do the Phillies have enough to get either or both of those players? And with the upcoming free agent class, some fans have suggested the Phillies would be better off waiting and trying to sign players as opposed to covering someone else’s bad contracts.

Here’s the thing: They talk about 2018, Harper’s available, Manny Machado’s available and some others, but you’ve going to have to pay them more than you’ll have to pay Stanton more than likely. And there’s no guarantee you’re going to get them. There’s no guarantee Bryce Harper or Manny Machado is going to look at the Phillies and say ‘yeah, that’s where I want to go.’ So I think they’re going to have to find a way to make a big trade like that if they want to get a cornerstone piece of the organization.

If you have to give up Hoskins or Kingery or players like that, that could be tough, but again, if the Phillies are willing to take on the entire Stanton contract, the Marlins can’t ask for a lot. And Yelich is having a good year he’s not having a great year, but you shouldn’t have to give up three of our top prospects for Yelich. And it depends on what this new ownership group wants to do with the Marlins.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates
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Kruk has a podcast for CSN Philly, where he’s had two episodes. The first was all about the 1993 National League champions, so it’s impossible to talk to Kruk without asking about everyone’s favorite boyhood team that never actually won a title.

Who was his favorite teammate ever as a player, and who was his favorite teammate ever as a human being?

Favorite teammate as a player? Probably a tie between Darren [Daulton] and Tony Gwynn. For different reasons.

Tony, we signed the same year, we roomed together in the minor leagues. Of course he got to the big leagues a lot quicker than I did. But Tony never forgot. Every year I’d go to minor league camp and there would be a glove and a pair of spikes there for me from Tony. Minor leagues back then you didn’t get nothing. You were on your own. When I got to the big leagues he was a big help in how to break down a pitcher, situational hitting, he was just unbelievable.

Of course, Darren, we kind of hit it off right away when I got traded to Philly. I had respect for what he had to go through in terms of injuries. How tough a human being he is, those are my two favorite.

As far as a human being? There is no finer human being in this world than Dale Murphy. He is an incredible person, and incredible man. A great, great teammate. He was as true as true can be.

On the list of the most beloved sports figures in Philly history that never won a title but are still revered to this day, the list is the ’93 Phillies and Buddy Ryan. That’s it. That’s the list.

I asked Kruk if he knew at the time how special that team was, and if anyone had any inkling they’d be as revered in this city as they still are today.

We didn’t realize it at the time. I just knew in spring training we thought we had a really good team. We had a much better team than all those so-called experts thought we did. Most of them had us finishing last again. We knew we had a good team going into spring training, but we didn’t know how good. You have to remember, ’93 was great, but things started to build in ’91 and ’92, I think the Phillies fans appreciated the way we played.

We played hard. We, you know — so much different than what we see now — but we fought a lot. We got into brawls with the Braves, the Cardinals, the Mets, of course. It was funny because after I retired, in talking to players who retired from those teams, a lot of them admitted they were afraid of us because at the drop of a hat we would fight ‘em.

And I think we became beloved in Philadelphia because of that. And now you throw in a team that went wire-to-wire to win the NL East. It just started snowballing. We thought we had something special, but as the season progressed you realized, the fans related to us. They knew after games they’d see us out in a bar somewhere. It was so much different than it is now, we were out and about. The people saw us as everyday, blue collar guys who just happened to be pretty good at baseball.

Kruk and Dutch

Kruk and Dutch

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Social media has not been kind to the ‘93 Phillies lately. Curt Schilling all but lost his broadcasting career because of his social media profile and Lenny Dykstra is off-the-rails with what he posts on Twitter. Then there’s the likes of Darren Daulton and Mitch Williams, who may not be saying crazy things on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t saying (or doing) some crazy-ish things.

Kruk doesn’t tweet that often, and given his profile with the Phillies he’s much more measured in what he says. So I wanted to know if the ‘93 team was as nuts back then as they seem now, or if age (and access to fans and followers directly) has changed anyone?

Yeah…we were all nuts. We had a good relationship with the beat writers who covered our team. They’d see things, they’d turn their backs to it, turn a blind eye to it. But if there was social media, iPhones and stuff like now, oh my God… Jim Eisenreich, Kevin Stocker and probably Mickey Morandini would be the only three guys playing.

On his second podcast episode, Kruk said, ‘I’m grumpy, borderline miserable.’ I wanted to know, did Philly make him miserable, or did him misery attract him to Philly?

No! You know, Philly had nothing to do with my misery. It’s funny, because we went to Disney and the kids bought me a shirt, “Grumpy.” So, it’s gone from family to everything else. I’ve always been…surly, is that a good word? I don’t think what people see when I’m not in public or whatever, I’m not too serious about a lot of things. So, Philly had nothing to do with the way I am. 

What I think I got out of playing in Philly was, don’t lie. Don’t sugarcoat stuff. If you screw up, admit it. Don’t make excuses. They didn’t want to hear excuses. I think I learned that a lot.

Philly had nothing to do with my personality. I’ve always been a little grumpy I’d say. I’ll tell you a story, I was pitching in our sectional championship game in high school in the 10th grade, and this photographer from our local newspaper…I’m warming up to pitch and he came over and he said, ‘hey you need to stop pitching for a while I need to get some pictures.’ I snapped at him, like, ‘we’ve played 20-something games, you couldn’t have come out to get them then?’ I said, ‘get the hell out of here.’ 

So that started this surliness, because I was pretty jovial until then.

Kruk spoke on his latest podcast about how having kids changed him, and made him more emotional. He used stories about his kids to share how he connected with women’s basketball star Elena Della Donne, and how hearing her story — how she gave up a scholarship at UConn to be near her special-needs sister — inspired him to do something remarkable.

It’s amazing. I coached my son for a while and you’re coaching third base and he hits a double and drives in three runs and it’s all you can do to remember you’re coaching — ’he’s not my son right now, I’m his coach’ — so you’ve got to take the emotion out of it. But whenever I see him play, it’s very emotional. And then my daughter plays three sports, she does plays and sings and all of that. When she’s on stage and she’s signing, oh my God, it’s really emotional.

I wouldn’t say I was unemotional, but after reading about Elena and Lizzie’s story, it touched me. Every girl’s dream as a great basketball players is to go to UConn and she got a scholarship and went there and then went back home. She basically said, ‘I’m giving up this dream at UConn because I want to be near my sister.’ When she saw all her teammates texting and FaceTiming their family and she couldn’t do that with Lizzie, that’s when she decided to go home to Delaware just so she could be with Lizzie. She said the only way they communicate is through touch.

I have a lot of respect for her. Look, she’s done great things, she’s an Olympian and arguably the best player in women’s basketball right now, but to almost give that up to be with her sister, that says a lot about her character.

Okay, that’s the thing. I read stories online and I’m really touched, but my next inclination is not, ‘I’m going to write a song about this.’ So how in the heck did former MLB All-Star John Kruk turn a story about WNBA All-Star Elena Della Donne into a country music song?

Like, how does something like that happen?!?!

I’ve always liked music. And Dave Hollins used to tease on the bus and say I should quit baseball to become a country singer because I would sing on the planes, thinking I was singing to myself but apparently I wasn’t.

I was doing a thing back in West Virginia it had to be eight or nine years ago and the band that was there, I was in the dressing room and they were down the hall and all I could hear was guitars playing, so I went down to check it out. I walked in there, introduced myself to them. One of them hands me a guitar and asks, ‘can you play?’ And I’m like, ‘well, no,’ and they said, ‘well, we’re going to teach you,’ so they taught me different chords and stuff. Naturally the first thing you learn [when from West Virginia] is Almost Heaven, and so we started playing and singing and I thought, ‘man this is pretty cool.’ I kept in touch with them and they wanted to get me involved.

So when I saw the story of Elena and Lizzie I called one of them. I said ‘read it and let me know what you think, I think this is a song.’ So within a half hour they called me back and said, ‘we’ve gotta write it. Let’s go.’

Kruk, himself, didn’t write the song, but he did partner with some pretty talented people to put this project together. It’s still in the works, but he has high hopes for the finished product.

I was in Nashville for the Winter Meetings and they happened to be in Nashville too, so they came up to my hotel room and they brought this other guy, Ronnie Bowman. Ronnie wrote songs for Kenny Chesney and a bunch of others.

I got a hold of Elena and her brother Gene and all I asked was, ‘tell us what Lizzie means to you.’ When they got up to my room, I started reading these emails from Elena and her brother about Lizzie and what Lizzie means to them and we were in tears. Ronnie said, ‘let’s write this thing.’

It just happened. It’s one of those things that was such an easy thing to do because of the story. We’re just telling a story of what a sister means to a younger sister and a younger brother.

I’ve gone over the video in my head, more so than I think about anything in baseball — which is probably not good for my job. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Nike commercials Elena did about Lizzie, and there’s so much great video of her after a game and hugging Lizzie in her wheelchair. The video is going to be so powerful. I thought we had to find the right woman to sing it, because even though her brother Gene had a lot of thoughts about it, basically Elena’s thoughts were the same; when they feel bad she picks them up. I thought we needed a strong female voice to sing it, and I think we’ve found one.

Last, but certainly not least, we talked about food.

krukssteaks

Kruk has a cheesesteak restaurant in Florida. In Florida. One of the great life lessons I learned, about 20 years ago, was that the key to a great cheesesteak is the bread, and the key to great bread is the water. How in Florida are they making a cheesesteak comparable to Philly, or do the people in Florida not know any different?

Because we get our bread from Philly. They send it down to us a couple times a week. And it’s delicious. Aversa’s bakery. That’s where we get them. We tried a few others and we thought as a group that…trust me, we’ve had multiple taste tests and when my wife’s family is involved, it better be perfect. They are very picky with what they eat, and they’re honest, which helped us. We tried some local stuff and they didn’t like it. So we’ve gotta get our bread from somewhere else and we did.

It’s doing really good. We’re opening up another one hopefully by September 1 down in Florida. And eventually we’re going to hopefully put one in the Clearwater area.

We’ve had people contact us and want to fund us, and want to be a part of it or pay for a store. I didn’t realize how many people from Philadelphia live in Naples, but if you put a good cheesesteak out, they’re going to show up. It’s been unbelievable. 

One story…there’s an elderly gentleman there and I walk in and I order a cheesesteak and I sit down with him. He kind of looked at me like, ‘I think I should know you,’ and then I think he’s probably looking at me like, ‘who’s this fat guy who just sit down beside me?’ 

So I just start talking to him and he goes, ‘I’m from Philly. You were a Phillie. You guys were great.’ I go, ‘we tried.’ So I said, ‘sir, you’re from Philly, so you’ve been probably been eating cheesesteaks your entire life. What do you think?’

And he said, ‘I’m not saying this because you’re sitting beside me, but this is the best cheesesteak I’ve ever eaten.’ So we’re doing something right. 

Clearwater makes a ton of sense, and I joked that Kruk could soon become the Cheesesteak King of Florida.

Well, that’s the hope. That is the hope. I hope it happens.