ESPN duo makes perfect double play

ESPN's John Kruk and Karl Ravech at Disney's Palm Golf Course.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It’s 11 a.m. on a sunny day in late February, and nearby the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros already are starting their third week of spring training. Karl Ravech and John Kruk, the two most visible cogs on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” also are here, but not to check in on the Grapefruit League. They’re beginning the day as they usually do during the regular season – on the golf course.

Play is slow on the Palm Course at Walt Disney World, and Kruk is talking about their regular morning games.

“He’s on the phone,” Kruk says, rolling his eyes in the direction of Ravech’s cart. “That’s what drives me crazy. He’s always on the phone.”

Turns out it’s uber-agent Scott Boras, calling Ravech with an update on his mercurial client, Manny Ramirez, who at the time was still unsigned.

Don’t get Kruk started on Boras. The three-time all-star whose uniform was always dirty will give you a 15-minute lecture on what’s wrong with the modern-day game.

“It’s an honor, an absolute honor, to play Major League Baseball,” Kruk says, his voice rising. “When a high school kid (represented by Boras) is dictating where he wants to (play), there’s some dang problems.”

Kruk, 48, reaches the greenside bunker in two on the par-5 opening hole, only to three-jack from the sand on his way to a double bogey.

“That was a good hole,” Ravech says in a chipper tone when they arrive at the second tee.

• • •

When Kruk joined ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” crew in 2004, Ravech, the longtime anchor, sent him a short note: “Congratulations. Welcome to the show. Do you play golf?”

Most ESPN viewers of the Emmy Award-winning studio show don’t see Ravech and Kruk until the 10 p.m. EDT broadcast of “Baseball Tonight.” But their on-air chemistry is grounded not just in late nights on the set, but in mornings on courses near ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus.

“I’m (at ESPN) till 2 in the morning, and I’m on the tee at 7 a.m.,” says Kruk, who spends four days per week in Bristol during the regular season.

Ravech, 44, typically meets Kruk later in the morning for a round. On this day, Ravech had plenty of time to talk; he’s still rehabbing from surgery on his left knee, so he and 9-year-old son Max are keeping Kruk company.

At first blush, they make an odd pairing: Ravech, the polished, fitness-obsessed anchor, and Kruk, the old-school ex-player with a weight problem – he used to do ads for NutriSystem – and a well-deserved, if outdated, reputation for drinking during his career.

That “Odd Couple” theme, in fact, is the subject of a new ESPN commercial. The reality is quite different. The two men, both fathers of two, can wax almost lyrical describing days spent on the golf course with their children.

“I think we’re a lot alike,” Ravech says. “I don’t want to burst his image, but I think he’s an incredibly compassionate dad. He’s extremely loyal, he’s very honest, he’s hard-working. He’s all the things you like, but he’s all the things that most people don’t even know about him.”

• • •

Kruk retired in the middle of the 1995 season. For the next four years, he says, his most pressing daily concern was, “Where am I playing golf, and where are we stopping to get beer on the way?”

To many viewers, Kruk still is that guy. At the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston, Kruk recalls, fans sent beer to him in the booth, unaware he hadn’t had a drink in five years.

“It’s amazing when he goes to ballparks how he resonates with people, partly because most of them still think that he drinks like they do,” Ravech says.

During his playing career, Kruk says he would play a night game, then pound beers in the clubhouse until the middle of the night, sleep it off, come back the next day and do it all over again.

“I was drunk all the time,” says Kruk, who can be disarmingly candid.

Little changed after he retired. Golf simply filled the baseball void.

“When you’re playing golf every day, it’s great,” Kruk says. “But when you’re drinking a beer on every hole, it’s probably not a good thing – especially when you’re playing 36 holes a day. So I had to quit.

“Not golf,” he clarifies.

He changed, he says, when he met his wife, Melissa McLaughlin.

“I told her, ‘That’s it; I’m done; I quit. I’ll never have another drink,’ ” he says. “And I haven’t.”

They were married in 2000. Of Melissa, a former Miss New Jersey, the nails-tough ballplayer says simply, “I was a mess. She saved my life.”

It was around that time that Ravech was going through a personal transformation of his own. In 1998, at age 33, he suffered a heart attack during a pick-up basketball game on the ESPN campus.

Ravech couldn’t change his late hours in the office, but he now starts every morning with two hours in the gym before heading to the golf course.

• • •

While Ravech is best known for “Baseball Tonight” – well, in truth, he’s probably most remembered for roughing up Otto the Orange, the Syracuse University mascot, in a “This is SportsCenter” commercial – his best sports memory is “covering the Tiger Slam in 2000.”

You still can hear the wonder in his voice recalling the crowd at St. Andrews “running across the water to get to the fairway on 18 when (Tiger) was walking up. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

For his part, Kruk says he has lobbied the ESPN brass to let him cover golf, to no avail.

This being the first week of the regular season, Ravech and Kruk will be busy talking baseball. But come Masters Sunday, baseball will be “on the smaller monitor,” Ravech says. During major-championship weeks, golf gets top billing. And while viewers never will see it, Kruk and Ravech will give the Masters the full “Baseball Tonight” treatment.

Says Ravech: “We’ll break down golf like we would a baseball game.”

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