Gonzo: Wall-of-Famer Kruk understands Philly

Gonzo: Wall-of-Famer Kruk understands Philly
August 13, 2011, 1:57 am
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The memories, by turns amusing and touching, came one after the other in quick succession. There was John Kruk, lashing a hit at the Vet. There was John Kruk, smiling and smirking and mugging for the cameras. There was John Kruk, rounding third base and lumbering slowly toward the plate in a too-snug uniform -- tufts of bourbon-colored mullet hair trailing behind and flapping out from under the back of his helmet.

Kruk, flanked by a handful of other Phillies greats, stood on the field on Friday night and watched the video montage with 45,762 of his closest friends. This is your life, John Kruk -- played large on the giant HD screen that looms above Harry the Ks in left field.

When it was over -- his eyes tearing a touch at the corners -- Kruk addressed the crowd as the 33rd member of the Phillies Wall of Fame. It wasnt easy, and he got choked up at times.

This is the greatest place Ive ever been, Kruk said. You got the sense, as you generally do with him, that it wasnt a put-on, that he wanted to share yet another honest moment with the fans that double as family.

Everything in my life, except for being born in West Virginia, happened right here. I met my wife here, had my children here, was diagnosed and cured of cancer right here.

The crowd cheered and clapped -- for those sentiments and lots of others. Kruk thanked the organization for taking a chance on a guy that was hitting .180, and I stunk." He targeted every athlete who ever complained about playing in Philly, calling them out for not having the guts to succeed here. And, naturally, he reminisced about an era that remains special for him and countless others.

We killed a lot of brain cells, Kruk said about his Macho Row teammates, but you all were right there with us. You all killed a bunch, too.

The assembly roared and nodded its approval, and a bond that has lasted decades was strengthened once more. It was then, though not for the first time, that so many of us were reminded why the love affair between Kruk and this town has endured: Kruk -- more than any other athlete of my lifetime, with the notable exception of Brian Dawkins -- understands Philly.

He gets us.

A few days ago, in advance of the ceremony, a former New York Times writer who now works for an online sports outlet tweeted a rather ridiculous question: Was John Kruk a good baseball player or just a fat one?

Kruk -- who hit .300 for his career and made three All-Star games -- was both of those things during his playing days, but that was never the point. Not around here, anyway. The reach of that 93 club extended beyond statistics, beyond memorable wins and even heartbreaking, life-changing losses. It defined an era.

Kruk, perhaps more than Mitch Williams or Darren Daulton or Lenny Dykstra or anyone else, best represented what that club and that time was about. On a team many Philadelphians deeply identified with, Kruk was arguably the most significant symbol -- a sort of flesh and blood reflection of our long-held collective local image: The everyman. The underdog. More guts than flash, with a look far more South Philly than South Beach. He had abilities, no doubt, but Kruks true talents were grit and charm and candor (served in a grease-covered Pats steak wrapper). The union between Kruk and Philly was right -- right from the beginning.

When I played in San Diego, it wasnt a good fit, Kruk said. I loved the city. Its a beautiful city. An incredible city. But I wasnt going to be quiet. I wasnt going to be a choirboy, so to speak. I didnt have that in me. And when I came here, it just fit. I could be who I wanted to beI remember when I got traded from San Diego. Larry Bowa told me Youre gonna love it here, and theyre gonna love you here.

And so it went. And so it continues to go.

When I walked into the park on Friday, I saw several fans wearing Kruk jerseys -- some white with red pinstripes, others of the throwback gray-and-maroon variety. I stopped one guy -- middle-aged, plump around the middle, with a hairline making the slow, painful march toward the crown of his head -- and asked why he chose to honor that particular player by draping his name across the shoulders. The man looked at me for a second, as though the answer was obvious or ought to be.

Hes John Kruk, he said. Hes one of us.

That was all he said. That was all he needed to say.

E-mail John Gonzalez at jgonzalez@comcastsportsnet.com