http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/sports ... 866325.htm
Vukovich 'changed people's lives'
By PAUL HAGEN
JOHN VUKOVICH and Scott Rolen were having what was widely reported as an "animated discussion" under the rusting metal bleachers at old Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Fla. Which is to say, they stood toe to toe and hollered at each other until each was red in the face.
It was March 2002. Rolen was the Phillies' star third baseman who had made his disenchantment with the organization well known. Vukovich was the intensely loyal coach who didn't mind letting the player know he didn't appreciate those comments.
What wasn't reported at the time was that when the coach had to leave camp a few days later to visit his ailing father in Sacramento, Calif., Rolen paid for his first-class plane ticket.
And that sums up Vukovich, who passed away in a Philadelphia hospital yesterday due to complications from treatment for a brain tumor, as well as any story can.
He was unflinchingly honest, which sometimes made players spitting mad. But, in the end, almost all ended up loving him for it.
He was the longest-tenured Phillies coach ever, serving from 1988 until moving into the front office to become a special adviser to the general manager after the 2004 season. A black patch with the letters "VUK" will be worn on the team's uniform for the remainder of the season.
"Whatever we were yelling at each other about went away immediately," said Rolen, now an All-Star with the Cardinals. "We had some disagreements and we argued about them. He'd be [ticked] at me and I'd be [ticked] at him. And the next day it was, 'Hey, Dad.'
"He taught me a whole different side of playing the game. It was tough love, no question about it. I knew his personality, the way he came off. But I never minded. I respected it."
When he coordinated spring training, he spent hours every night mapping out the schedules, including contingency plans in case of rain. Away from the field he was just as much of a perfectionist. His cowboy boots were always polished, his pants and shirts sharply creased and his hair in place.
Nobody took losses harder, even on rare occasions when the Phillies had a comfortable division lead. Nobody enjoyed wins more, even on the more normal occasions when the team was far off the pace.
Vukovich, 59, was never accused, like T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, of measuring out his life with coffee spoons. He was fiercely competitive. Fiercely loyal. Fiercely stubborn. Fiercely opinionated. Fiercely dignified. Fiercely private. Fiercely uncompromising. Fiercely proud. Fiercely caring.
And that, in an era of increasing political correctness, gave him a unique niche in the game. He was a .161 career hitter who never managed. Yet he had a profound impact on those around him.
"He changed people's lives," said Red Sox righthander Curt Schilling, who had his first sustained success while with the Phillies. "He means a lot of things to a lot of people and there's no question in my mind he's directly responsible for a lot of what I've been able to accomplish."
Said Rolen: "There was never really a gray area with Vuke. It was black or white, right or wrong, professional or unprofessional. He didn't cheat himself or anyone around him out of a single day of baseball... or a single day of friendship. He was as passionate as anyone I've ever met."
Schilling and Vuke also butted heads at times. "We had a lot of moments, I guess you could say," Schilling noted. "I was maturing then and there were times I didn't do what I was supposed to. But he was an incredible, incredible human being.
"He was a man of the highest principles and integrity. He was a loudest-is-right kind of guy. But he cared about people in an old-school, Dallas Green sort of way. And when you earned his respect, you knew you had accomplished something."
Even after Schilling was traded to the Diamondbacks, he continued to call Vuke before every start to go over the hitters he'd be facing.
Vukovich originally was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2001. Incredibly, he was able to return before the year was over. For a time, it appeared that he had beaten the deadly disease that also claimed former Phillies Tug McGraw and Johnny Oates.
But the tumor recurred late last season. And, this time, he fought a losing battle.
If a life can be measured by friends accumulated, he was a rich man. He collected friends the way kids collect baseball cards.
But he wasn't closer to anybody than he was to Larry Bowa, whom he first met when they were both 16-year-olds playing American Legion ball in Sacramento. They later came up through the Phillies' system together, were teammates on the Phillies' only world championship team in 1980 and coached together with the Phillies.
"He was one of those guys who only comes along once in a lifetime," Bowa said. "When you talk about friends, you have a lot of friends. But there are only one or two guys who will do anything for you. And he was one of those guys."
Don Zimmer, a longtime friend and now senior baseball adviser for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, spoke similarly of Vukovich.
"We talked on the phone three, four times a week for years,'' said Zimmer, a former player, coach and manager in the big leagues. "He loved to hang up in the middle of a conversation, which would tick me off. Vuke called me every year on my birthday, including this January when he was in a weakened condition. That really touched me. In life you can count your real, real friends on one hand. He was one of my five fingers.''
Vukovich was rawhide tough and no-nonsense, traits he attributed to his father.
"He ran a little beer distributorship," Vuke recalled in March 2004. "I drove a beer truck at 16, had my own route. He taught high school, coaching all three sports, working 16 hours a day. He worked his ass off.
"From the day I was born, he couldn't see very well out of one eye. Despite that, he could have signed a baseball contract. But my grandfather was from the old country. He said, 'You work for a living. You don't play for a living.' "
Ned Colletti met Vukovich when he was working in the Cubs' public-relations department and Vuke was with Dallas Green in Chicago as a coach.
"When I started in the game 26 years ago, there were a lot of people who helped me. There were four guys that were with me that first year - Dallas, Lee Elia, Billy Connors and Vuke - who stayed close through the years," said Colletti, now the Dodgers' general manager. "He's was as good a friend as I'll ever have in the game. I could be in the game another 26 years and I'll never have another friend as good as John."
Added Jim Fregosi, one of five Phillies managers Vuke coached for: "I think of him as a brother. I loved him."
He is survived by his wife, the former Bonnie Loughran; two children, Nicole Stolarik and Vince; two brothers, Rich and Bill, from California, and triplet granddaughters: Anna, Lena and Stella Stolarik.
The family has requested a private funeral and burial. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations in the memory of Vukovich to be sent to:
Phillies Charities, Inc.
Citizens Bank Park
One Citizens Bank Way
Phila. Pa. 19148
Vukovich spent 31 of his 41 years in baseball in the Phillies organization, despite having chances to leave. He wore a Phillies uniform in the big leagues for 24 years. Only Bowa, with 25, beats him. Three years ago, Vukovich was asked to describe himself.
"Family man, first," he said.
"Phillie," he added with a grin.
John Vukovich: Family Man. Phillie.
Not a bad epitaph.