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PostPosted: March 11 07, 5:19 pm 
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Remembering Vuke


Posted Sunday, March 11th 2007, 2:28 PM

CLEARWATER, Fla. - On Tuesday, a contingent of some 90 baseball people, from Mike Schmidt, Scott Rolen, Bobby Abreu, Terry Francona, Don Zimmer, Larry Bowa, Dallas Green, John Kruk, Jim Fregosi, Lee Elia and Greg Luzinski to umpires Bruce Froemming and Jerry Crawford, will board a plane here chartered by the Phillies and fly to Philadelphia to bury the ultimate baseball man, John Vukovich, who died Thursday from complications of a brain tumor.

Outside of Philadelphia, Vuke wasn't exactly a household name and that (combined with a .161 lifetime batting average for 10 years in the big leagues) probably had much to do with his never being given the opportunity to manage in the majors on a full-time basis. He came close - in 1987, when he was waiting to be introduced by Green as the manager of the Chicago Cubs after finishing the '86 season on an interim basis, he was left like a jilted groom at the altar when the Tribune Co. elected to fire Green as GM. At the time, Green told him he should stay on in Chicago anyway, to which Vuke replied: "Like hell, I will!" and instead went back to his original team, the Phillies, where he became the longest-tenured coach in their history, from 1988-2004.

That was the kind of loyalty that characterized Vukovich, who coached under six different managers in Philadelphia. It is no coincidence that with the exception of John Felske, whom the Phillies have lost track of, all of them will be at the funeral.

"To have coached that long under all those managers tells you everything about Vuke," said Green. "It's not like all of those guys were great managers, but Vuke, who would've made a great manager in my opinion, was loyal to all of them. And we all know there are plenty of back-stabbers in this business who want to take your job."

The mutual devotion Green and Vukovich felt for each other evolved out of the Phillies' 1980 world championship season. Green, a no-nonsense shoot-from-the-hip manager, would often use Vukovich, a third baseman who hit his lifetime average of .161 that year and was essentially the 25th man on the roster, as a foil.

"I'd get on him and he understood what I was trying to accomplish," Green said. "Behind the scenes, he helped me immeasurably. He wasn't afraid to speak out in that clubhouse and he wouldn't back down to the Mike Schmidts and the other big guys. He spoke his mind whenever he thought a teammate wasn't playing the game the way you're supposed to and I couldn't have gotten done what I did there without him. He was the most important 25th player a team ever had. That's why I took him with me to Chicago as a coach there and you can ask Shawon Dunston, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Rafael Palmeiro - infielders all - what he did for their careers."

Among today's players, Rolen, especially, credited Vukovich for having a major impact on his career. In spring training of 2002, in a story that is now legend, Rolen and Vukovich got into a very public, heated exchange in the midst of Rolen's feud with the Phillies front office. Vukovich didn't appreciate Rolen's public criticisms of the organization and let him know it. But a couple of weeks later, when Vukovich had to fly home to Sacramento to visit his ailing father, Rolen paid for his plane ticket. "He taught me a whole different way to play the game," Rolen told the Philly Daily News' Paul Hagen the other day. "It was tough love, but I respected it."
Meanwhile, looking back now on that 1980 postseason in which the Phillies beat the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, there is a tragic connection that defies explanation. Five people from that Series - manager Dick Howser, pitcher Ken Brett and closer Dan Quisenberry from the Royals, and Vukovich and Phillies closer Tug McGraw - have died from brain tumors. And from the Royals-Yankees ALCS, two Yankees, Bobby Murcer and the late Johnny Oates, wound up stricken with brain tumors. "That's just….amazing," Green said, pausing in thought. "I don't know what to think about that. You wonder if there's some sort of connection, but what? It's plain scary, is what it is. The only common thread is that we're talking about all great baseball men and great people. What a shame."

Gone Fishing

More and more each day this spring, new Florida Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez is coming to realize what a tough act Joe Girardi is to follow, even if Girardi was unceremoniously fired primarily for his insubordination to his Marlin bosses, GM Larry Beinfest and team owner Jeffrey Loria. While Gonzalez may have Beinfest's and Loria's full support as the man both wanted as manager, the Marlins will likely be hard-pressed to equal last season's over-achieving 78-win effort by the $15 million team Girardi had in contention into mid-September. When asked the other day if it was imperative that the Marlins not regress, Gonzalez carefully replied: "It's of course our goal to keep improving every year, although it's hard to improve any team 7-10 games. We may win the same number of games and still have improved, even if it doesn't look so in the standings."

That likely won't make them contenders in the NL East, where the Phillies and Braves appear to have improved in the offseason and the Mets remain the team to beat even with the uncertainty of their rotation. Two factors that may spell doom for Gonzalez and the Marlins: The failure of ownership to spend any money over the winter to address glaring needs at closer and center field and injuries. Already, the Marlins' pitching - the backbone of Girardi's surprising success last year - is beset with injuries. No. 2 starter Josh Johnson figures to miss at least the first month of the season and likely more due to an ulnar nerve irritation. No. 3 starter Anibal Sanchez, who had weight and conditioning issues when he reported to camp, has been bothered by shin splints and had offseason shoulder problems. Ricky Nolasco, who had been considered over the winter as a closer candidate but is now competing for Johnson's spot in the rotation, has had a back problem, and lefty Taylor Tankersley, another closer candidate, has also been sidelined with a shoulder problem. Right now, from a pitching standpoint, the most encouraging development for Gonzalez is the early performances of ex-Mets Yusmeiro Petit and Henry Owens. Petit, who eschewed winter ball in his native Venezuela for the first time, impressed by striking out five of 10 Red Sox in his spring debut, while Owens, who consistently hits high 90s, has asserted himself as a potential closer.

It's a Madd, Madd World...

Due to a typo in this space last week, Blue Jay manager John Gibbons' salary for his one-year extension was reported as $6.5 million instead of $650,000. The Daily News regrets the error, although not nearly as much as Gibbons.
Old school Tigers manager Jim Leyland is once again bucking a trend by hiring Bruce Tanner, son of former Pirates and A's manager Chuck Tanner as a full-time advance scout. Partly for cost savings and mostly because today's nouveau GMs espouse statistical analysis and computer technology as their primary means for evaluating players and opposing teams, advance scouts have been eliminated. But as Leyland says, "Computers can't tell you about guys who are injured but not on the disabled list, or which guys aren't swinging the bats well or managers' tendencies."
The Rule 5 draft, in which players unprotected from 40-man rosters can be claimed for $50,000, may have reaped big dividends for the Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are getting increasingly excited over the performance of Josh Hamilton, the 1999 overall No. 1 draft pick of the Devil Rays, who lost four years of playing time fighting drug and alcohol addiction but is hitting over .500 so far this spring. And the Royals believe they may have a real gem in righthander Joakim Soria, who's impressed with his velocity, command and composure. Soria, drafted from the Padres, blew out his elbow in 2003 and pitched most of the last two years in Mexico.

Say it ain't so

"You never know what to expect when you come in. You come in as positive as you can be and rightfully so, then reality hits you in the face and you have to adjust accordingly."

- Lou Piniella, who already is finding the Cubs' play unacceptable and dressed them down this past week.

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PostPosted: March 11 07, 5:22 pm 
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Location: Northern NJ-The Twilight Zone ... 866325.htm

Vukovich 'changed people's lives'


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.

After that?

"Phillie," he added with a grin.

John Vukovich: Family Man. Phillie.

Not a bad epitaph.

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PostPosted: March 11 07, 5:26 pm 

Joined: April 15 06, 6:25 pm
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Location: St. Louis
I missed your posts, fanforever! You always find interesting nuggets. Seeing you show up again reminds me baseball's right around the corner.

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PostPosted: March 11 07, 6:09 pm 
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Those were both great reads fan. Thanks for posting.

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PostPosted: March 11 07, 9:03 pm 
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Very classy of Rolen to pay for the ticket after his exchange with Vuke.

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