John Kruk, the Padre outfielder who in 1988 had the most disappointing season in his professional career, said last week that he lived the season in fear.
Kruk said he was haunted by ongoing FBI surveillance amid an investigation and search for former hometown friend Roy Lee Plummer, who has been charged with beginning a spree of armed bank robberies shortly before moving into Kruk’s rented home in San Diego following the 1987 season.
Although authorities say Plummer was not staying at Kruk’s house during any of the alleged robberies, Kruk said he spent last summer being followed by the FBI as part of its search for Plummer. He said that as Plummer remained free, he was constantly warned by friends and family in his hometown of Keyser, W. Va., to “watch yourself.”
He said his summer culminated in a visit and questioning by the FBI in August during batting practice at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. Afterward, he said, he became so frightened, “I just didn’t care about playing anymore. I’m not going to make excuses for anything, but yes, all of this was on my mind. I was scared. Yeah, this guy was my friend. But if he did some of the things they said he did, you never knew what he might do to me. . . . I mean, I have never been so scared in all my life.”
Plummer was finally arrested in San Diego last Sept. 19. But Kruk’s season was shot. After entering it as one of baseball’s best young players, he finished as one of its most troubled. He hit .241 average (down 72 points from 1987), had 9 homers (down 11) and 44 RBIs (down 47), and the worst sort of moral defeat. Just when he appeared to find his swing, he would lose it. Just when he appeared on the verge of breaking out, both his ability and psyche would retreat.
“Johnny is usually able to put everything behind him when he takes the field,” teammate Randy Ready said. “But you could tell he was . . . uncomfortable.”
Today, Plummer sits behind bars at the San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center, indicted on five federal counts of armed bank robbery, four in this area and one in Maryland; he is being held without bail. Kruk sits in his custom house in the West Virginia mountains near his hometown of Keyser, wondering how to avoid future collisions of his present and past.
Although teammates have often joked about Kruk’s “hillbilly” friends when the Keyser bunch attended games in Pittsburgh, this suddenly wasn’t funny. Kruk wondered if Plummer would find him and harm him. And he felt as if authorities were following his every move.
Both fears now seem to have been unfounded. Plummer, who grew up with Kruk in Keyser and became a family friend, recently sent Kruk a letter of apology for the trouble he caused. And Assistant U.S. Attorney David Katz confirmed that Kruk was never under suspicion.
“We have no reason to believe John Kruk was involved in any way, and in fact, I’m not sure the FBI even followed him,” said Katz, who is prosecuting the case. “Kruk apparently only shared a place with Plummer and cooperated freely with us when we questioned him, and our involvement with him ends there.”
Because the case has yet to go to trial, the FBI refused comment.
According to the indictment, Plummer is accused of robbing a San Diego Home Federal Savings and Loan on Oct. 6, 1987. Plummer moved into Kruk’s rented house sometime thereafter, when Kruk decided to leave San Diego to play winter league baseball in Mexico.
“He was an old friend, a good friend of the family’s, and he had stayed with me twice the previous summer,” said Kruk, who chose not to divulge further details of Plummer’s stay in his house by request of the FBI. “We’ve spent hours together. He was a great guy, I didn’t think it was any big deal.”
Plummer eventually moved out. Kruk returned to West Virginia from Mexico to finish the offseason with his family.
Then came spring training, and the phone calls from Keyser friends and family.
“They all said the FBI was rooting around asking questions about this guy,” Kruk said. “They told me that I better be careful, that something was happening.”
Kruk says the calls continued into the spring and summer. According to the indictment, Plummer committed three more armed bank robberies in San Diego County, on May 2, May 10 and June 3. The indictment notes that he wasn’t necessarily a brilliant thief--it says he escaped on bicycles and twice lost the entire loot when it erupted in his hands because of exploding dye packs. Nonetheless, he is charged with taking more than $27,000 total. The FBI knew him as the “bandanna bandit” because he covered the lower part of his face with a bandanna.
Then in August, while he was dressing in the Jack Murphy Stadium clubhouse before a game, Kruk received a phone call from Rhoda Polley, a Padre administrative assistant.
“She said there were a couple of guys upstairs who wanted to see me,” Kruk recalled. “I told her to send them down. Then they walk in the clubhouse and flash their badges and I go, ‘Whoa.’ It was the FBI. Right in front of my locker.”
The gentlemen escorted Kruk to the bleachers, where during batting practice they scared him further.
“They told me things about myself that I didn’t even know,” Kruk said. “They told me everything I had done this year, where I went and who I was. I guess they had been following me all during the season. It was really weird.”
Kruk said he kept contact with the agents via telephone and that their association ended amicably, with one agent jokingly blaming the other for causing his bad year.
“I told them not to worry about it,” Kruk said. “But I don’t know . . . “
On Sept. 19, Plummer was finally arrested at a Mission Valley Hotel on the local charges and suspicion of nearly a dozen other robberies around the country. But because Kruk had heard that another man might have been involved, he did not rest easy. He ended the Padres’ final homestand staying in a hotel a couple of nights and then with Ready for a couple of nights.
“I didn’t know what might happen to me,” Kruk said. “If there was another person out there . . . I didn’t know what danger I was in.”
Throughout much of Kruk’s ordeal, Manager Jack McKeon said he was aware of the problem but unaware of its effect.
“Yeah, Johnny came in and talked to me about it, but it’s like a player’s marital problem or something,” McKeon said. “You never know exactly what is going on in his mind, and exactly how deep it is hurting him.
“I just told Johnny two things. One, they obviously weren’t after him, so he should stop worrying. And two, this should be a good lesson about picking your friends.”
Said Kruk: “How was I to know? He was always just a regular guy . . . “
With Plummer due to be tried and possibly sentenced by early spring, Kruk hopes he will soon feel like a regular guy, too.
“I just want all of this done, all of this behind me, by the time I get to spring training,” Kruk said. “I’m feeling healthy, I’m ready to start over.”
He added: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this last year, it’s how to deal with the fact that I’m not invincible.”