April 11, 1994: A Courageous Comeback

<i>This is the first of a series of 6 monthly columns remembering memorable Phillies games on their milestone dates. This column spotlights the Phillies 1994 home opener against the Colorado Rockies. The Phils not only received their N.L. Championship rings that day, it also marked another special occasion for one of the most beloved Phillies. Today is the 10th anniversary of that occasion.</i>

The 1993 Phillies came oh-so-close. They had Game 6 of the 1993 World Series against Toronto wrapped up, and it would have sent the Series to a decisive Game 7. But Mitch Williams served up a ninth-inning, game-ending home run to Joe Carter, and the season was over. On March 8th, the Phillies were dealt a startling blow: All-Star first baseman John Kruk was diagnosed with testicular cancer, underwent surgery and chemotherapy for the cancer, and his status for the season at the time was unknown. But the gritty Kruk worked his way back, checked with his cancer doctor, and unexpectedly made his season debut in the Phillies home opener against Colorado on April 11, 1994.

The game was played on a sparkling Monday afternoon at Veterans Stadium, and the 1993 Phillies who were still with the team were introduced one-by-one to receive their National League Championship rings. Last off the bench was Kruk, who received a monstrous ovation from the crowd of 58,627. "The Krukker" was also penciled in as the familiar #3 slot in the batting order, after Lenny Dykstra and Mariano Duncan. Danny Jackson was the starter for the Phillies, and gave up a run to the Rockies in the top of the first but retired the side, and up came the Fightin' Phils.

Dykstra led off by making an out, and Duncan follwed with a single. To the plate strode the returning warrior, John Kruk. Kruk proceeded to line a pitch from Mike Harkey into right centerfield for a double, scoring Duncan, and prompting the 58,000-plus fans in attendance to stand again to salute their hero. Kruk was later quoted as saying "I remember standing on second thinking, ‘They're pretty happy about a double; just think if I'd have hit a home run'." Dave Hollins followed with another double, scoring Kruk, and the Phillies led 2-1. They were behind 5-3 in the sixth inning when Kruk lined a single to the outfield and scored (along with Hollins, who followed with a single of his own) on Darren Daulton's 3rd homer of the young season, and the Phillies now led 6-5.

The Phils eventually lost the game 8-7 when the Rockies scored 2 runs in the eighth on Dante Bichette's 2-run home run off reliever Roger Mason. Kruk struck out with a runner on second and 2 outs in the ninth, but he was still the hero of the day, going 3-for-5 with a double, an RBI, and 2 runs scored.

For the remainder of the 1994 season, John went on to hit .302, with 5 home runs and 38 RBI's while playing in only 75 games, as the Phillies sunk to a record of 54-61. (The 1994 season was infamous for ending abruptly on August 12th due to labor unrest.) Kruk was granted free agency by the Phillies on October 15th, and signed with the Chicago White Sox on May 18, 1995. He played his last major league game on July 30, 1995, singling in his only at-bat against Baltimore's Scott Erickson. He then left the game and promptly retired as a player, ending his career with exactly a .300 career batting average.

After retiring, John briefly was a co-host of The Best Damn Sport Show Period on Fox SportsNet, was a part of the Phillies broadcast team in 2003, and was hired by ESPN last month to work on Baseball Tonight. He also holds a position in the Phillies front office in the Marketing department. There is no indication of any recurrence of his cancer.

On a personal note, I got to know John Kruk this year while I attended Phillies Phantasy Camp. John was my team's manager, and we had loads of fun playing for him. He took the time to learn all of our names, and treated each of us as equals. I consider myself lucky to have met him, and I wish him the best. His most famous quote and the title of his autobiography, is "I'm not an athlete, lady; I'm a baseball player." What a baseball player he was.

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