PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Phillies first baseman John Kruk had to make a stop on his way to Veterans Stadium yesterday morning, to undergo another in the long series of radiation treatments that is intended to speed his recovery from testicular cancer.
It was not your typical Opening Day ritual, but it didn't seem to cramp his style.
Kruk arrived at the ballpark a few hours later and made his 1994 debut with a three-hit performance that turned the sellout crowd of 58,627 into his personal booster club. The Phillies would lose their home opener, 8-7, to the Colorado Rockies, but Kruk put it all in perspective by celebrating life right there in front of everybody.
He returned to the starting lineup after playing in three minor-league games and delivered a run-scoring double in his first at-bat. It was just baseball, of course, but it was one of those defining moments in which sport becomes the medium for a greater message.
Phillies fans are not normally a sentimental bunch. They cheered Kruk wildly through a surprisingly productive afternoon that included the double, two singles, an RBI and two runs scored, but they booed when Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey threw out the ceremonial first pitch -- even though Casey is recovering from a multiple transplant operation.
The crowd erupted in a particularly deafening ovation after the first-inning double, leaving the rough-hewn Kruk a little embarrassed at all the attention.
"It was nice," he said. "I didn't know what to do -- tip my cap or just stand there and look stupid. I just stood there."
If Kruk's ordeal of the past few weeks figured to give him a new perspective on the importance of baseball, he didn't get philosophical about it.
"I'm not thinking about things like that on the field," he said. "I got it [cancer]. The doctors are trying to get rid of it. Now, it's time to think about playing baseball."
Kruk has been given the go-ahead to play regularly, but the team's medical staff will be watching him closely for any sign that he is doing too much.
"Basically, John is aware of what we don't want to happen as far as having a chronic fatigue problem," team physician Phillip Marone said yesterday. "He's going to have to be honest with us, and I know he will be honest with us."
It is in Kruk's best interest to be cautious, but it is his nature to be reckless. The Phillies have gotten a lot of mileage out of their too-tough-to-care attitude, so the club will have to make sure that Kruk does not let his reputation as a gamer get in the way of his recovery.
"The basic concern is fatigue setting in," manager Jim Fregosi said. "I will monitor him very closely -- if I can get him to tell me the truth. As of right now, until we see how much stamina he has, I won't play him in a day game after a night game, and I'll probably only play him four or five games a week."
This is the equivalent of early spring training for Kruk, who played in a couple of exhibition games before cancer was detected. He came back to play in three games for the Phillies' Double-A club in Reading, Pa., before proclaiming himself ready to rejoin the major-league lineup.
"It's great to have John back," said catcher Darren Daulton. "He's a great hitter, a great first baseman and a great leader. He's glad to be back. He is a very big part of our team. If you take that off your team, you're going to notice the difference."
The 33-year-old first baseman gets a lot of mileage out of his gruff persona, but he has not lost his sense of humor. He was asked what he missed most when he was away from the team the past few weeks.
"The guys in Reading were great," he answered, "but they aren't Dykstra, Daulton or Hollins. I just missed the male bonding."
Kruk has come back about three weeks ahead of schedule, but Marone said that the timetable for his return was based largely on guesswork.
"What we talked about in Clearwater was all conjecture," Marone said. "We didn't know how many rads [the intensity of the radiation] he would require. Beyond the first couple of days, he didn't experience any nausea, and he has been able to remain relatively active."
The minor-league assignment went well. Kruk had three hits in his first six at-bats and got a workout on the bases. His name even showed up among the Eastern League batting leaders two games into the minor-league season.
"He did well," Marone said. "He was pushed a little bit. He had to go from first to third on a single. All he had at the end of the game was a little tightness in his legs, which is to be expected."
Kruk was no lock to start yesterday's game. He had to do a selling job on Fregosi and general manager Lee Thomas to get them to remove him from the disabled list.
"We had discussions," Kruk said. "Their concern was, if I play one game and can't play the next two or three, why take me off? I had to do some convincing that that wouldn't be a problem . . . and they bit."
The radiation therapy is nearly complete. Kruk has undergone 16 of the 18 treatments and is scheduled to finish the regimen this week. But he knows that there is the possibility of a recurrence.
"I'm happy," he said, "but just because the radiation is almost over, that doesn't mean I'm in the clear. I'll have to get checked periodically for the rest of my life."