For Phils' free-swinging Kruk, there's no science to heavy hitting

April 19, 1992|By Rich Hofmann | Rich Hofmann,Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- You want a treatise on the science of hitting? Go talk to Ted Williams. This is a story about John Kruk. This is a story about a hacker supreme.

Or, as Kruk said: "They tell you to stay within yourself, so that's what I do -- mentally. I'm not going to out-think myself too often. I'm like Mitch [Williams]. Both of us, we just go out there and do it."

There are people in every baseball clubhouse who can tell you what pitch they hit and where they hit it when you bring up an at-bat from the middle of last July. Kruk is not like that. Forget last year; Kruk says he couldn't tell you much about anything that happened last week. On a night when the Philadelphia Phillies were facing Dwight Gooden, Kruk could not tell you that he had a career .314 average against the New York Mets' longtime hammer.

"I don't remember anything like that," Kruk said. "Some of it comes back to me every once in a while, but not too often. I'm just not that way. I'm just not. If a guy got me out on a breaking ball in a certain situation last year, I just don't remember that very often. Besides, if I ever found myself sitting on a breaking ball and a pitcher struck me out by throwing a fastball down the middle past me, I'd be really mad.

"And the other thing is, I don't try to set pitchers up. A lot of guys say that they go out there and try to look bad on a breaking ball early in the count so they can get a breaking ball later in the count. I don't think like that. I can't think like that.

"I know in my head what the pitchers do, but I don't have to think about it before I go up there," Kruk said. "I'm not capable of thinking about it too much, so what's the use? If I do, if I over-think, I just mess things up."

See the ball, hit the ball.

For Kruk, there is no other way.

And who's to argue? Going into Wednesday night's 7-2 loss to the Mets at Shea Stadium, Kruk was hitting .406. The Phillies had played eight games, and he had at least one hit in every one of them. After a spring in which he gained more notice for his waistline than his batting average, Kruk's April has silenced the fat jokes. Even after his first oh-fer of the season, against Gooden and reliever Wally Whitehurst, Kruk was still hitting .361.

And so, when it comes to Kruk, we hold these truths to be self-evident: That the guy can just flat-out hit, and that his weight isn't nearly as important as his ability to wait on pitches.

Let's talk about the weight for a second. First, he isn't that big. Second, he's never been what you call thin, and it's never made a bit of difference in his play. It has been said that the weight is a detriment, but the stats don't bear it out. Kruk is a career .285 hitter in the first half of the season and a .298 hitter in the second half, when his body is allegedly falling apart. Last year, he hit .305 in August and .331 in September and October. The guy just hits and hits and hits.

Now, would his legs hold up longer if they didn't have to carry as big a body? Certainly. But some people just have bigger bodies than others, and the Phillies figured out a long time ago that he's a better player when he carries the weight. And besides -- why would anyone fool around with such great results, even as Kruk fools around continually with his hitting style?

"I would think I'd drive most hitting coaches crazy," Kruk said. "I change my stance a lot. I mean, a lot. For me to have four different stances in four different at-bats during a game in the spring isn't unusual. This spring, during one single at-bat, I saw six pitches and used six different stances. Oh yeah -- I also struck out. I was a mess this spring."

Besides the weight question -- and he was overweight because he couldn't work out as much this off-season because basketball is now verboten in his new contract -- there also was a slight separation of the right shoulder that kept him idle for a short while. But he says his physical condition had nothing to do with it.

"I felt good," he said. "I just couldn't hit. Maybe it was all the day games. Day games and me don't get along too well."

To say that he's a throwback player is to state the obvious. Besides his slashing hitting style, he is the hilarious conscience of the clubhouse. A lot of what he says isn't necessarily repeatable, but most of it is really funny. For a sport with such a long season, the tone he sets is relaxed. It's raucously appropriate.

"There was a time when I used to take every at-bat home with me," Kruk said. "When you're a young player and you're uncertain about how much playing time you're going to get, you think you've got to get a hit every time up there. But you break out of that, over time.

"Now, I'm at a point where I know that if I have an 0-for-4, I'll still be back out there the next day. I know that I don't have to get 10 hits in four at-bats to stay in the lineup. I know that one bad game isn't going to ruin my week."

Of course, there is a fairly big void in Kruk's professional life -- he's never played on a contending team. For a guy who brings so much enthusiasm to the game on a daily basis, there still is the strong suspicion that another gear lurks somewhere beneath the surface.

"I'm into it every day," he said. "But I think a pennant race would be a blast. That would be fun. I hope to find out how much fun someday soon. Like, before I die."

Whenever that is, we will be sure of one thing, at least. John Kruk will go down swinging.

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