Jack Kruger is a nerd.
He’s a 6’1”, standout catcher who has started 52 games for Mississippi State’s SEC Champion baseball team. He bats .350, owns a slugging percentage of .562 and has forearms that could earn him a lifetime gig in Hollywood playing a mob henchman. He’s got 71 hits, zero errors, and after spending an entire game squatting as a catcher in the middle of a hot, Mississippi day last Friday, he managed to hit an inside-the-park home run in the eighth inning to ensure his Bulldogs won game one of their Regional.
And he’s a big ol’ nerd.
“I just love learning,” Kruger spouted with a smile when asked what he does in his free time.
That question came, on a hunch, about seven minutes into a group interview that really should’ve ended at about the five-minute mark, and turned out to continue for another 30.
A few days in advance of MSU hosting the Starkville Regional last weekend, the dozen or so reporters who typically cover the team were gathered to talk to MSU’s players about the baseball games to come. Whatever some of our lengthy stories may indicate to the contrary, previewing games is not a subject on which that many questions can be asked and get any kind of different answer.
That’s why I say the interview probably should’ve ended within five minutes, once all the baseball questions had been asked, some more than once, each answered in suitable fashion. And that’s why, remembering something his teammate Dakota Hudson had said in another baseball-centric interview a week prior, I took a flier on a question about Kruger’s hobbies once all the ‘How excited are you to play in a Regional?’ questions had been exhausted.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to him,” Hudson, the All-American pitcher, said with a knowing look and sneaky smile last week, “but Jack is extremely smart. I feel like he’s on another wavelength sometimes.”
When I told head coach John Cohen I was working on a story about Kruger, the response was similar.
“He’s exceptionally bright, isn’t he?” Cohen asked, checking for agreement. “He’s intellectual. He’s so bright. He’s so inquisitive about everything that’s going on in the world around him.”
Not only is he exceptionally bright, but he’s exceptionally interesting and exceptionally interested in everything that crosses his path. So finally, as the other reporters slowly turned off their recorders and walked away when they sensed I was about to go on a run of questions whose answers they didn’t care to hear or write about, Kruger got to talk about, well, everything.
“These are the kinds of interviews I was always hoping I would have,” he told me after about 15 minutes as I apologized for keeping him there with questions about chess, documentaries, drummers and George Orwell. “[Reporters] can ask, ‘How did it feel to hit a home run?’
Here, he paused for a laugh.
“’Awful,’” he sarcastically pretended to answer the fake question. “’It was really bad. I hated it.’ I mean, I can answer those questions, but those are one-dimensional questions that are going to get one-dimensional answers.”
And Kruger is anything but one-dimensional.
He plays the piano, the guitar and the ukulele – the latter of which simply because a friend once bet him he couldn’t.
He’s an accomplished juggler.
His Netflix and cable habits run from things like The Office and Lance Armstrong documentaries to crime dramas about subtle lie detecting and features on the world’s best drummers.
“Do you watch Lie To Me,” he asked.
I don’t, I replied.
“It’s based on a true story of a professor who went to Papua New Guinea and started studying micro expressions and facial expressions to tell when people are lying,” he explained. “He reads people. I think that’s fascinating. I try to do it and I’m wrong all the time. But it’s really fun.”
Just 18 or so hours before this interview, Kruger had ordered a mess of poker books online, intrigued after reading about people making millions off a card game. He’s not so much interested in the money, but the idea of keeping track of cards and odds and possibilities appeals to his often-analytical mind.
That’s part of why he spends countless hours playing online chess, too. It’s the same reason he up and drove to a Toys-R-Us one day for the express purpose of buying a Rubik’s Cube.
It’s also – back to the game – a large part of why he’s so good at baseball, and it’s one of the main reasons Cohen wanted him on the team in the first place.
“The other thing we look for in our catchers is the ability to make decisions on their own with what they’re seeing,” Cohen explained. “’Can we go fastball in on this guy? Does that guy have his stuff? What pitch is he able to locate on that day?’ To give that responsibility to somebody, they really have to be wise beyond their years. In the recruiting process, I was convinced that he was going to be one of those guys.”
Hudson confirmed, “He’s got a great baseball mind.”
It’s in those interactions and decisions that Kruger really shows his worth. He only has concrete numbers to back up his value as a hitter – and those are great numbers, obviously – but the subtleties of his relationships with pitchers, his ability to read them and communicate with them, is a significant piece of what’s made MSU’s pitching staff so effective in 2016 and what’s made Kruger so important to the team.
Not only is he sizing up batters and calling pitches, but he’s playing in-game psychologist to help his pitchers maintain focus and lengthen appearances.
“You can’t always take a mound visit and light into a guy,” Kruger said. “Different guys respond differently. That is all learned off the field. That’s all learned when you hang out together, or you go out to lunch. There’s so much that people don’t see, and that’s getting to know your pitchers and saying the right things when you go out. A mound visit can be extremely helpful, and it can be extremely detrimental, and you have to take those with care.
“Leadership is a lot about trust and a lot about serving.” He continued. “Being a catcher, especially, serving your pitcher first … If you’re a leader, you want to be feared or loved. I love The Office. [Michael Scott] says, ‘I want people to fear how much they love me.’ To be honest, I’d rather be feared. They can love you all they want, but if they respect and trust you, it’s kind of like a parent-type thing … I’d rather be feared and have them take seriously what I have to say.”
Under the Knife, Onto the Page
“I remember telling him, ‘This anesthesia is going to wear off. Make sure you have a get-sick bag.’ And, I mean, like, eight seconds later, he was throwing up.”
Last fall, during an off weekend when the entire team, training staff and assorted members of MSU’s baseball program were out of town, Kruger had his first surgery. With his family in California, his roommate at home for the weekend and his team trainer on a honeymoon, Kruger had no one to watch after him as he recovered. No one except for Cohen and his wife Nelle, that is, who took him into their home for the weekend.
His memories may be fuzzy, and theirs entertaining, but the Cohen house was a perfect escape for Kruger. That weekend was an example of why MSU was such a natural fit for him, and why he’s loved so much being in Starkville for the past year, the last stop of a collegiate journey that’s taken him from Oregon to junior college and now here.
In John Cohen, Jack Kruger has a kindred spirit. Nelle Cohen sees the similarities as she remembers her husband at the same age so many years ago. They are anything but aloof, and neither necessarily in their own world, but each can be hard to read as their wheels are always turning, their synapses always firing, connections being made across various universes of experience and knowledge. In both, an obsession with baseball is complemented by a love affair with the world around them.
“I like talking to [Cohen]. He’s similar in that he likes just talking about the phone book,” Kruger said. “[Nelle] is awesome. At their house for surgery, I got to spend time with her. It’s really fun to talk to them because they both love talking about everything. They know at least a little bit about everything. It’s not one-dimensional, which I love. I love talking to people who aren’t one-dimensional.”
“You could tell he was exceptionally bright,” Cohen said. “He’s so well-read. Most kids his age don’t read the way he reads. He sat in my office one day and said he tries to read a book every week or so. I was like, ‘OK, wow.’”
It’s because of conversations like those that Cohen now expects more from Kruger not just in baseball, but in all topics covered. The head coach often calls out his junior catcher in team meetings when, the Socratic-styled teacher he can often be, he’s looking for someone to answer a question.
Kruger shared an example.
“He’ll be like, ‘In 1901 at the World’s Fair in New York, does anyone know who the President was?’ And for some reason,” Kruger said with his usual grin, “he always looks at me, like, ‘You must know the answer because you enjoy reading.’”
And Kruger really does enjoy reading. He loves it, mowing down books like his pitchers mow down batters. His biggest gripe about college is being so far away from his personal library at home. The entire last half of our “interview” – more of an off-the-rails conversation by that point – was about reading.
Kruger, a devout Christian, reads a lot of faith-based books and authors. Books about hobbies pique his interest, too. He loves fiction as well as biographies, reading up on Nelson Mandela and the Navy SEALs in the same weeks he devours books about astronauts on Mars and wizards attending schools of magical learning. Although, despite an affinity for dystopian future stories (George Orwell’s classic 1984 is among his favorites), he avoids most science fiction and fantasy novels.
“The only truly sci-fi book that I’ve truly loved is The Martian,” he said.
“Dude,” I responded professionally, “I love The Martian. It is technically sci-fi in that it is fiction, and it is based on science, but it’s just a good book. His character is hilarious.”
“So funny,” he confirmed. “I haven’t read it recently. I’m getting our trainer to read it. I’m going to re-read it after him. I love that book. I don’t know what it is. I liked the movie. It was an entertaining movie, but the book – it doesn’t compare. It never does. And people who aren’t readers will never understand that.”
Maybe we’ll start a book club. It’s the kind of thing Kruger would do. He’s always finding new projects, new interests that spark his curiosity and engage his desire to learn everything he can.
A great deal of his waking hours are taken up by baseball, naturally, but he believes the greatest mistake people can make is to not use whatever free time they have to try new things and explore fresh avenues of experience.
“I’ve found, a lot of times, the best things in my life have come from pursuing something that I impulsively had a desire for. I think a lot of people miss out on so many great opportunities.
“How many people have said, ‘Oh, I want to learn to play the guitar,’ and then they never do it? I learned to play the guitar because I was in a shop getting piano books and I told my mom I wanted to play the guitar, and so we impulsively bought a guitar. I play the ukulele because a friend told me I couldn’t … Got a Rubik’s Cube because, as soon as I saw someone do it, I drove to Toys-R-Us and I bought a Rubik’s Cube. I mean, everything. Even poker. I saw someone made a lot of money off of it, and it’s not something I want to make a lot of money from, but I thought, ‘Hey, that sounds really cool.’ So, I bought poker books last night online.”
With so many interests, it’s easy to wonder what it is Kruger actually plans to do with his life. Unlike Michael Scott (and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James), Kruger will have a business school degree, so that’s a good starting point. His baseball career is quite promising, as well, and the odds of him continuing his career on the diamond in some fashion are quite high.
If that doesn’t work out, Kruger loves the idea of working in the non-profit world, as well. Perhaps, he mentioned, doing something with the International Justice Mission, which fights slavery, sex trafficking and other human rights violations around the globe. Perhaps, he joked, he’ll be an astronaut. Who knows what world might permanently lay hold of his time and devotion.
Even politics, MSU pitching coach Wes Johnson remarked, could be an option, if he so chose.
“I call him President Kruger,” Johnson said, “because he’s got the makeup and the mindset that he may be President of this country one day, if he wants to be.”
His 21 years of life so far are only the first chapters of a book that is far from finished and whose ending none have yet determined.
In the meantime, Kruger will continue playing baseball. He’s got a Super Regional this weekend, something he’s determined to win and will use all of his wits and experience to accomplish. If things go right, Kruger and MSU have the College World Series after that. Books, movies and music are fun, but baseball is his passion, the constant in his life.
The emphasis on learning and education formed a natural tie between Kruger and Cohen, but the head coach said it is his catcher’s desire to be part of something special with this baseball team that impresses him the most. The fact that his variety interests often translate to the game only makes his presence that much more enjoyable for Cohen.
And if he can master the ukulele along the way, even better.
“We’re not here for that long,” Kruger observed. “We’re just renting time and it’s fun to learn new stuff.”