Profile in courage: Vukovich, No. 18
Phillies coach was an all-around wonderful friend and teacher
Opening Day 2004 at Citizens Bank Park didn't exactly go according to plan. It was cold, raining and the Phillies lost to the Reds, 4-1. But for one man, it was an unforgettable day.
When Phillies third-base coach John Vukovich was introduced on the field as the longest-tenured coach in Phillies history, the crowd went wild, chanting his name. Vukovich, better known around the baseball world and to his many fans simply as "Vuke," returned to the Phillies in 1988 as the first-base coach and has remained with the organization ever since.
"It was a great feeling for me," said Vuke of the reception. "Parallel to the reaction I got from the fans when I returned after [brain] surgery. I don't care what line of work you're in, you work to be appreciated and I felt appreciated by that reaction."
Vuke has been a coach for the Phillies for 17 years, longer than anyone in the 122-year history of the franchise. The previous record of 16 years was held by former bullpen coach "Irish" Mike Ryan (1980-95), one of Vuke's closest friends. In this day and age when managers and coaches are getting dismissed by teams on a yearly basis, his record is remarkable. He's worked under five different managers -- Lee Elia, Nick Leyva, Jim Fregosi, Terry Francona and Larry Bowa -- and even served as interim manager in 1988, when he went 5-4.
At 56 years old, Vuke likes to say that a lot of luck is involved with his tenure, but, truthfully, he's being modest. He is a man who is universally respected in Major League Baseball, by players and coaches alike. His list of friends reads like a who's who, including Elia, Lou Piniella, Don Zimmer and legendary Braves manager Bobby Cox, among many others. He's a good coach, plain and simple.
Here's one player's assessment:
"I think what he brings to the table is he's a hard-nosed coach, but at the same time, he's your friend," Jim Thome said. "He's a guy that all the players value respect from. You respect him because he's a man's man. He's not going to bullcrap you, he's going to tell you the way it is. As a player, that's what you want. You want somebody to be honest, and Vuke does that for sure."
But how did he get to this point? How did he become such an integral figure in Phillies history? That is a long and winding road.
Vuke has overcome several obstacles since being drafted by the Phillies in 1966. He was a much-heralded infield prospect in the Phillies' system in the late '60s and early '70s, and he led his league in fielding among third basemen four times.
In 1970, Vukovich hit .275 with 22 home runs and 96 RBIs in Triple-A, earning him a September callup. He bounced between Triple-A and the big leagues over the next two seasons, because who could possibly crack a left side of an infield that included Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt and shortstop Bowa, he of over 2,000 hits? The answer was no one. So, Vuke came up as an extra player and quickly learned that hitting in the Minor Leagues was a far cry from hitting in the big leagues.
"In the Minor Leagues, they couldn't get that breaking ball over, and in the Major Leagues, they could," Vukovich said with a laugh.
What he lacked in hitting prowess, however, he made up for in other areas.
"He was one of the best 25th guys who's ever been around this game," said Dallas Green, his former manager and one of Vuke's biggest fans. "He had no fear of expressing his opinion. He didn't act like the 25th man, he acted like the captain of the team. It didn't matter if it was Schmitty or Bowa or Garry Maddox or whoever, he would tell them, in no uncertain terms, what he thought they were doing wrong. I just felt he brought more to the table than some guys that might give you a hit here or there. He was my co-captain in 1980 just because of his approach in the clubhouse."
Vuke was also a heck of a fielder. When Schmidt returned to the Phillies organization during the spring 2002, he was quoted as saying that Vuke was a much better defensive third baseman than he was.
Vuke, as is his style, downplayed the accolades.
"That's a great compliment from the greatest third baseman of all time," Vukovich said. "I played a pretty good third base, but I didn't play it better than Mike Schmidt."
When his playing career ended unceremoniously after only 11 games in 1981, Vuke did something not many people have been able to do, he immediately became a Major League coach without spending any time in the Minors. By then, Green was president and general manager of the Cubs, and he wanted Vuke to join him and Elia, the manager at the time, in Chicago.
"I got the rare opportunity to go right from the playing field to Major League coaching," said Vuke. "Because of that, I consider myself very lucky. Dallas really started my second career in Chicago, so I don't think I could ever measure what he means to me and what he's done for me. When you weren't a very good player, it's very easy to get lost. He and Lee gave me the break that has made my career very fulfilling."
After a disappointing 1987 season, Green called a press conference to announce Vuke as the new manager of the Cubs. When the media gathered at Wrigley Field for the announcement, they didn't get what they were expecting. Rather than hear that Vukovich had been named the new Cubs manager, Green announced his own resignation (the manager's job eventually went to Zimmer).
While it was a letdown at the time, Vuke has no regrets about never being a manager. He's been interviewed for open managerial positions, most recently with the Phillies in 2000, but has yet to be hired.
"No regrets, none," he said, and then explained his philosophy behind it. "My second career has already been more than I ever thought it would be. I don't worry about [not being a manager]. I see coaches that aren't satisfied with their job. I've seen some very good baseball people whose agenda it was to manage, and the people they worked for read that. I'd rather be loyal to the guy that I'm working for and have him know that than go one step higher."
Regardless of how he feels, the people closest to him still maintain that he'd be an excellent Major League manager if given the chance.
"There's no question in my mind," Green said. "He'd be a heck of a good manager. He's a solid baseball guy. He gets knocked once in a while for being tough and being too hard, but that's the way he was trained. I know because I trained him that way, and I still believe that that's the way you have to run a baseball team. I don't think you can be soft and be a champion."
Bowa openly campaigns for his friend.
"When there are managerial openings, I always recommend Vuke," Bowa said. "I think he'd be a great manager. He's fair, he's honest. The only thing he does that the modern player might not like is [that] he doesn't tell you what you want to hear. If a player asks him, 'Should I have caught that ball?' He's not gonna say, 'Yeah, maybe.' He'll tell them, 'Yeah, you should have.'"
It's his honesty and tell-it-like-it-is attitude that have sustained Vuke's popularity for more than 20 years in a notoriously tough town like Philadelphia.
"They're a challenge," Vuke said about the Philly faithful. "And the sooner you realize that, the easier it becomes."
Born on the West Coast, Vuke is clearly a Northeast-type of guy. You'd be hard-pressed to find a man that better represents the spirit of Philadelphia than he does.
"I like the intensity of the East Coast," he said. "Not to say there isn't intensity on the West Coast, but the daily game is very important here. I think that drives a lot of people. You gotta be perfect every day."
General manager Ed Wade, a Pennsylvania native who has known Vuke for nearly 20 years, had this to say: "I don't think there's any question that Vuke is as much of Philadelphia as anyone that was born and raised here. The other quality that he possesses is a great sense of loyalty. He wants to help the Phillies win a championship as much as anyone who wears a uniform or works for the organization."
2001 was a roller-coaster year for Vuke. In May, he had surgery to remove part of a benign brain tumor. Everyone in the Phillies family was deeply concerned for his health, but in typical Vukovich fashion, he was back on the field 10 days after the surgery.
"I could've taken more time off and no one would have questioned me," Vuke said. "But I felt a loyalty to come back as quick as I did. I think when people work together for a long time, there's a bond there that's unspoken. You just do what you're supposed to do."
Three years later, he says he's feeling fine.
A month after his surgery, Vuke's mood changed for the better when his son, Vince, was drafted by the Phillies in the 20th round out of the University of Delaware.
"I was very proud, because the only rule he's ever had when playing baseball was to play it right," Vuke said. "From Little League up to now, I've never had anyone tell me that he doesn't approach the game the right way, and I'm more proud of him for that than anything he's done or will do from this point on."
As both a player and coach, Vuke has accumulated 24 years in a Phillies uniform, which ranks second in club history, one year behind his best friend and boss, Bowa. The two have been linked together since their teen years playing against one another in California.
"Well, he's my best friend, not just in baseball, but in life," Bowa said. "We've known each other for a real long time. To be a coach under me, I can't describe the feeling. He has great loyalty for whoever the manager is. Any manager that works here with him has no worries about him going behind their back."
A smile crossed Vuke's face when asked about working for Bowa.
"It is neat, except some days he's not my best friend," he said with a chuckle. "But he will be again the next day. We've been together for 40 years, and I know what he's thinking all the time. After all these years, there are no surprises."
After all this time in Phillies pinstripes, Vuke has made several long-lasting relationships, not just with those on the field, but also with those who work off it. Phillies president and CEO David Montgomery, who started with the club in 1971 in the sales office, calls Vuke a "special friend."
"He's somebody you know that if you go to, he's not without an opinion," laughed Montgomery. "He'll give you his view of the world and that's always a viewpoint worth hearing. That doesn't mean I always agree with it. What's great about anything that comes out of Vuke's mouth is that you know he's trying to do what he believes is right for the Phillies. He's a Phillie in the broadest sense."
One of Vuke's more well-publicized friendships is that with broadcaster Chris Wheeler. To watch them, you'd think they were more brothers than friends because of the way they pick on each other, but deep down, there's a friendship that cannot be described.
"People use the word friend a lot and they don't always mean it," Wheeler said. "But he's among my two or three best friends. When we got close in the late '70s, we would sit and talk the game and he treated me great, answering all my questions. He lets people know where they stand with him and some people don't like that. You don't need to guess with him, you know when he's in a bad mood."
It's hard to walk into a room at Citizens Bank Park without meeting someone who has a personal story to share about Vuke. He treats everyone the same, from the president of the organization down to the interns.
"You judge people by the friendships they develop," Montgomery added. "And he has touched so many people who have worked here."
A lot has changed for the Phillies in the past 17 years. They've had 26 different coaches, five different managers, two different ballparks and one tremendous trip to the World Series. But one thing has remained the same: No. 18 preparing for tomorrow's game.
Greg Casterioto is a media relations manager for the Phillies. This story appeared in Phillies Magazine on April 2004. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.