A Minor Leaguer’s Long Slog to the Majors and His Short Journey Back
Jack Kruger was about to start a season with another minor league baseball team, the Salt Lake Bees, a Class AAA team in Utah, when his cell phone rang.
Get on the first plane to Los Angeles, her manager said.
The Angels, Salt Lake’s parent club, were promoting Kruger to the majors to replace a receiver with a concussion. The Angels were playing the Tampa Bay Rays that night, May 6, 2021, and he had to be there.
Kruger, a 2016 20th-round draft pick who had struggled in the minors for five seasons, hopped on a plane and drove to the Angels’ locker room an hour before the first pitch.
In the canoe, everything seemed surreal. He looked around and spotted Shohei Ohtani, and next to him Mike Trout. Not too shabby for a new pair of teammates.
From the bench, he watched the game go by quickly. Fifth inning. Sixth. Seventh. Finally, in round nine, Kruger got the go-ahead. He ran to the plate, eyes focused, shin guards, chest protector and catcher’s mask.
He hadn’t had time to warm up properly. He had only made six practice throws instead of his usual 40. What if he had to make a quick throw to second base? Would the ball sail into the outfield? Would it hit the pitcher?
But everything went perfectly. The Angels got three quick outs. Final score: Tampa Bay 8, Los Angeles 3. Kruger’s team lost and he never got to beat, but at least he tasted the big time.
Here’s the thing about professional baseball: it doesn’t take long for the harsh reality to crumble.
The next day, as Kruger prepared for his second game with the Angels, a team executive waived him. Kruger thought he was about to receive hearty congratulations. Instead, the executive informed him that he was slated for assignment – a kind of baseball purgatory. If no other team wanted him, the Angels could send him back to the minors or cut him out altogether.
A day after Kruger achieved his baseball dream, he had no idea what was next. He was 26 years old.
The coming season could be another baseball year marked by a labor war between major league players and team owners. Spring training? Delayed. The regular season? Threatens.
MLB Off-Season Updates
But while billionaires argue with millionaires, minor league baseball continues. Away from the big league talks, his teams are organizing spring training. The season is scheduled to start on April 5.
Has there ever been a better time to celebrate the underdogs, overachievers, and untested talents that keep the miners humming?
I contacted Kruger after he writing on social media about his work through the miners. Hearing his story in a series of conversations, I came to see that he embodies a kind of brave perseverance that is often overlooked, with so much attention given to big league stars.
Uncertainty shrouded the days following his cut. Would the angels bring him back? Would another team pick him up? Baseball moves are often dictated by timing, and if the timing was off, would that be the end of his quest?
Kruger has always been an underdog. As a child, he developed Perthes disease, a hip bone disorder that forced him to use crutches for nearly two years in elementary school.
When he was done with the crutches and the pain subsided, he focused on baseball. The sound of a ball hitting his bat, the thrill of making a dead-eye pitch – every part of the game made him feel like it was exactly where he belonged. Because the disorder stunted his growth, he was often the smallest player on the field until mid-high school.
“The only way I could keep up was if I was really good at it,” he told me. “Also, working harder than everyone else and never listening to people who were trying to put limits on me.”
He would build on that determination after struggling as a player in his freshman year at the University of Oregon. He transferred schools and played for a junior college team, rounding up in shape.
Few could then imagine its advantage. But John Cohen, who was the coach of mighty Mississippi State, saw Kruger’s desire. His ability to lead. His intelligence. Outside of schoolwork, Kruger tried to read a book a week. He taught himself to play the ukulele. He liked to talk about science, history, religion, everything and nothing.
“Jack has what I call a ‘discovery component,'” said Cohen, now Mississippi State’s athletic director. “He’s the guy who knows how to get off the island. He could be on Wall Street right now, he could be in business right now, he could be a lawyer right now. But he loves baseball too much.
Kruger, then broad-shouldered, powerful and one inch by six feet, played a single year at Mississippi State, displaying prodigious potential. He earned all-conference honors, finishing with a .345 batting average and eight homers. But surgery on his throwing shoulder dampened interest from professional scouts. The Angels, who declined to comment on this column, saw what it could be. They lured him out of his senior year with an unusually large sum for a 20th-round draftee: a signing bonus that was close to $400,000.
Thus began Kruger’s journey through the minor leagues.
2016: Rookie Ball in Utah with the Orem Owlz.
2017: Class A, split between Iowa’s Burlington Bees and California’s Inland Empire 66ers.
2018 and 2019: Class AA in Alabama with the Mobile BayBears, who relocated and are now the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
2020: The start of the truncated pandemic season, when it bounced between minor league games in Southern California.
He remembers each stage as if he was still living it. The loneliness of being away from home and family for six, seven, eight months a year. The insanely long gaming seasons that ended around midnight, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the 10 and 12 hour bus rides to play games in small towns he had never heard of.
After paying his agent and his taxes, Kruger put his signing bonus into his savings and used it to boost a minor league salary ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 a month. He drove a battered 2002 Lexus and rented a two-bedroom apartment in San Bernardino, California, which he shared with six teammates. Sometimes a player slept on an air mattress in the kitchen.
Through it all, perhaps the hardest part has been the precariousness.
Minor leaguers sometimes fall into a way of thinking that Kruger calls “playing GM.” It’s the temptation to read the GM’s mind and focus on what every move the front office makes means for every player’s future.
You worry and worry, and then he said, “You start to feel like you have to do better and better. You must produce. Now there is so much pressure on you. And you’re away from your friends and family, you don’t make a lot of money, so that’s a concern. You are not eating well and you are not nourishing yourself properly. You are not getting enough sleep. A domino effect begins, and it may cause you to look away from the ultimate goal prize.
He needed focus and determination more than ever when the Angels singled him out for an assignment.
And this time things worked out. One afternoon a few days later, while he was walking with his wife on a beach in Ventura County, California near his childhood home, his cell phone rang again. This time it was his agent.
“Congratulations,” said his agent. “You are a Texas Ranger. Texas just claimed you.
Here we go again, thought Kruger. Another new adventure.
Kruger swears to keep grinding. It helps that playing a half innings in the majors automatically boosted his farming system’s salary: He said he’s now making about $60,000 a season.
He will most likely play this year in Texas for the Round Rock Express, the Rangers’ Class AAA team, where he finished last season on a tear.
“I see myself on Rangers, behind the plate, helping lead the team to a World Series victory,” he said. “You have to be delusional in some way. Confident where you 110% believe you’re the right person for the job. And if other people don’t see it, then they’re wrong and you have to show it to them.
“I’ve done this my whole career,” he added.
Last week, he drove an hour west from his small apartment in Mesa, Arizona to the Rangers’ spring training stadium in Surprise, Arizona.
At the stadium, he reveled in his large new locker, affixed with his name engraved on a red plate, next to the “T” symbol representing the Texas Rangers.
He put on his uniform and walked out onto the grassy field, all busy, focused on the task.