All—Star Advantage

Former major leaguer John Kruk now coaches the softball team at Seacrest Country Day School with savvy, wit and a big heart.

Google Maps. It is carved out of a parcel of the Seacrest athletic complex, with the track just beyond the left-field fence, a patch of preserve land behind the third-base dugout and the baseball field a quarter-mile walk away just beyond some tennis courts.

At Phillies games, tens of thousands of people spend enormous amounts of money to sit in a mammoth structure.

At Seacrest, fans sit in aluminum bleachers or lawn chairs. Most of the fans seem to be parents or grandparents, or maybe younger siblings scampering around, chasing foul balls.

There is no roar of the crowd here. When Kruk ambles from the first-base dugout to coach third base, his stroll is often accompanied by the chirping of birds, sighing of palm fronds, and squawking and squeaking of lawn chairs on concrete.

The ambiance is the same at road games, such as across town at St. John Neumann, where fans sit in one of three sets of aluminum bleachers, two of which have five rows and the other has three.

When one of his players stole second base in the first inning of the game at St. John Neumann, he shouted from the third base coaches’ box, “Right there, right there.”

He meant he wanted the player to stay put, right there at second base. Instead, the girl scampered to third and made it.

Kruk handled it well and said as he pointed at the base, “Right here.”

 

Looking Here

John Kruk’s sports journey began in West Virginia, and stops along the way included playing minor-league baseball in Walla Walla, Washington; Reno, Nevada; and Beaumont, Texas.

Then came the majors, playing for the Padres, Phillies and Chicago White Sox. He was introduced to Florida because the Phillies hold spring training in Clearwater.

When Kruk’s children were very young, he and his wife took the family to Clearwater for spring training. But once they started school, spring break often was in February, Kruk recalls.

“Clearwater in February can be hit or miss,” he says.

There is a small climate difference between Clearwater and Naples in February. The average high temperature in Clearwater in the month is 73, and the city receives an average of 3.03 inches every February. The averages in Naples are 78 degrees and 2.32 inches.

Friends invited Kruk to play golf in Naples. He and his wife, Melissa, and extended family discussed a move.

“My wife is a big believer in ‘If it’s meant to be’ kind of thing,” Kruk says.

The move was made, and then came a decision on selecting a school.

“I think we liked that it was the right fit for my son at the time,” Kruk says of his son Kyle, who is now a junior on the Seacrest baseball team. “My son at the time was very introverted, very shy, very kept to himself. Now you can’t keep him quiet.”

At the time, Kruk says, the school didn’t have a softball field on campus. Now he and co-head coach Jackie Traina, a Naples native, former standout pitcher at Naples High, All-American at the University of Alabama and MVP of the College World Series, are turning around the program.

“She’s one of the biggest names in softball,” Kruk says of her bigtime pedigree.

Kruk, though, gets most of the attention because of his higher profile in the sports and media world.

“Just having his experience is invaluable,” says Seacrest Athletic Director Mark Marsala, who doubles as the school’s baseball coach. “He competed at the highest level and was one of the best at the highest level.”

Marsala raves about his softball coach.

“He’s funny, no question,” Marsala says. “He can lighten up any kind of situation, and the girls love him. Does a tremendous job with them. He’s turned that program around in no time and made them competitive with the top teams in our area with a young team.”

At one point, Marsala says, he thought about making Kruk an assistant baseball coach. But the softball team needed a softball coach.

“Like I said to him, the baseball program is on solid footing,” Marsala says. “I’m going to step down someday. It’s easy to get somebody for baseball. … I said we needed somebody in house that really knows these girls and loves these kids.”

Kruk said he needed to think about it.

“He called me back later that afternoon and [said] he’ll do it,” Marsala says.

From the beginning, according to Marsala, there was no question about Kruk’s commitment.

“If John’s going to do it, he’s all in,” Marsala says.

Although Kruk played in the 20th century and his players were born in the 21st century, Marsala says they know about him.

“A lot of these kids know how to use Google,” Marsala says.

Kruk is well-aware his players were born after his career ended in 1995.

“Some of their parents were born after I was done playing,” Kruk says.

Kruk is retired as a player, but he hasn’t retired from everything. In addition to his coaching and broadcasting, his is the eponymous name behind Kruk’s Philly Steaks, a chain that boasts it has the best cheesesteaks south of Philadelphia’s South Street. Kruk’s has six sites scattered along Florida’s west coast from Naples to Tampa. Another one is on the way for Fort Myers.

“That’s what they tell me,” Kruk says. “I’ve been so busy with this I haven’t had a chance to talk to those guys that much.”

Those “guys” are the people who handle the restaurant on a daily basis. Kruk’s menu includes a sandwich called The Kruker, which is cheesesteak, with, as the menu says, “American, fried onions, ketchup, mayo.”

 

Looking Back

Kruk’s big-league career began in 1986. Along the way, he played with Hall of Famers such as Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn and talented players such as Dale Murphy. Both are among his favorite teammates.

“He’s just an unbelievable person,” Kruk says of Murphy. “You come up through the minor leagues and everything and guys claim to be religious people, and he was one of the only ones. I ain’t going to say that. A pretty good number were, but he was like so true to his faith, and he was just an awesome individual.”

One of his teammates he grew to like was Hollywood-handsome catcher Darren Daulton.

“I played against him in the minor leagues,” Kruk says. “I hated him. I thought he was just another pretty boy, and even after I got traded to the Phillies I thought the same thing when I first got there.

“But over time I found out he and I were the last two to leave the locker room. So we had to talk. There was no one else to talk to and so we started talking baseball, baseball, baseball. Then it turned into life.”

Daulton eventually became one of Kruk’s favorite teammates, along with Murphy and Gwynn.

“I consider Tony Gwynn a brother,” Kruk says.

He also considers Daulton a brother, one nearly as close to him as his three blood brothers.

“He would have been the fourth brother,” Kruk says.

That was now a long time ago. Gwynn and Daulton have both died from cancer since their careers ended.

 

Looking Ahead

When Kruk took over the program, it had gone through, he says, a different coach every season for four or five years. From the beginning, he instilled pride.

“We told them, ‘We want you, when you walk around campus with a Seacrest softball shirt on, [to] be proud,” Kruk says. “And we’re going to figure out a way to turn this thing around.”

He’s building the program through drills and leadership.

“He’s just so honest with all the players,” senior Emily Wisser says. “He truly does care about your well-being like as a person and teenage girl in general. He helps you with stuff on and off the field.”

This is Wisser’s seventh year in the program.

“I’ve seen a tremendous change,” Wisser says.

Scott Angelico is the father of Haelee Angelico, one of the team’s many outstanding players. As the Stingrays prepared to play St. John Neumann, Angelico stood in the shade of trees and talked about his daughter’s coach. He likes that Kruk is doing more than merely lending his name to the school.

“He doesn’t just show up at the last minute,” Angelico said.

No, Kruk arrives well before game times. Angelico points out many games start at 4:30 p.m.

“He’s there at 3 o’clock,” Angelico says. “There’s times he’s there at 2 and he teaches the right way. He’s all business and that’s the way it should be. The girls respond to that. They respect that.”

The players also like Kruk’s humor.

“He’s really funny,” junior catcher Annabelle Melo says. “His humor keeps us calmed down a lot, definitely.”

Seacrest softball is getting better. But the program isn’t yet where Kruk wants it.

“The first year I was here, I told them, ‘Before you all graduate, I want to win a state championship,’” Kruk says. “They looked at me like I was crazy. I thought I was crazy.”

But the program is improving. This year, their season record was 19-5-1, compared with 10-9 last year and 2-12 in 2017. They made it all the way to the regional championship, falling one game short of qualifying for that state tournament.

“Like I told our coaches, like I told the kids, we want to build something to where we don’t want people to look at us when our bus pulls up to an away game and they’re happy we’re here,” Kruk says. “I told them, when we get off that bus all of them say, ‘Holy crap, here comes Seacrest.’”