Phils, fans pay tribute to beloved 'Vuk'
Ex-teammates gather to see Vukovich join Wall of Fame
PHILADELPHIA -- John Vukovich, while looking at the sea of former Phillies teammates and fans gathered at Citizens Bank Park to pay him tribute on Friday night, likely would have had this thought:"He'd wonder what all the fuss was about," said Bonnie Vukovich, his widow. The fuss was for a man who bled Phillies red for most of his 41 years in baseball, before succumbing to a brain tumor on March 8, 2007. His family -- his wife Bonnie, son Vince, daughter Nikki Stolarick and her triplets, and brothers Rich and Bill -- flew in to see the most beloved .161 career hitter enshrined into the team's Wall of Fame before Friday's 5-4 victory over the Braves. After a 20-minute pregame presentation, broadcaster Chris Wheeler and Frank Coppenbarger, the team's director of travel services, unveiled Vukovich's plaque along the Wall of Fame, just off Ashburn Alley beyond the batter's eye in center field. His plaque will sit forever among other Phillies greats Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Bob Boone and Dallas Green, all of whom attended the induction. The Phillies and Braves all watched the presentation from their respective dugouts. Vukovich touched that many people. "We talked a lot," said Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, who remembers many conversations he had while Vukovich coached third for the Phillies. "He was one of those guys with a real dry sense of humor. He was a little moody and you could tell right away whether to joke around or just say, 'Hey Vuk,' He's one of the few guys who I'll remember very fondly." Jones, like many opposing third baseman, loved to take jabs at Vukovich when the Phillies played particularly poorly. "Vuk would take it really hard when he got somebody thrown out at the plate," Jones said. "It was fun to get on him about that. The guys who didn't take well to needling were the guys you loved to needle ... Vuk was one of those guys. I can't speak enough good words about him." Many good words have been spoken about a man who touched players throughout many organizations. More than 700 of Vukovich's closest friends attended his March memorial service in Voorhees, N.J. Before the game, Phillies alumni swapped stories about their favorite 25th man, who was an integral part of the 1980 World Series championship team. "It doesn't seem that long ago that John Vukovich was signed to his first professional contact out of a junior college in Northern California," Green said. "I watched him battle and scrape to make the goal of his life. Because of his pride, character and work ethic, the managers that had him knew how important he was to every baseball team he played on." And to every player he ever coached. Jimmy Rollins knows all about that. "He didn't like me," Rollins said, speaking about his early meetings with the old school coach. "He told me though, straight up. 'I don't like you. You're this, you're that.' I told him, 'That's cool,' and we knew where we stood right then and there, but I told him, 'You might not like me now, but you will.' And he did." The flashy Rollins didn't appeal to a guy like Vukovich, who preferred less flash and more substance. This was emphasized constantly when Vukovich would hit thousands of ground balls to Rollins. "If you did anything extra, you had to do it again," Rollins said. "Vuk was straight up, square, keep it in the box. I was a little hot dog, and he would do his head bobbing to try to be cool or show you how you looked to him. I went out there and worked hard. He taught me that the basic play is the basic play, and that's one thing he saw over the years. I walk in, my hat is sideways, jewelry [on, it] doesn't matter. When I'm on the field, it's about getting the job done." Even after Vukovich moved to the front office after the 2004 season, Rollins tried to keep flash to a minimum when in the field. "He was always around," Rollins said. "If I look up in the sky box, I still had to make sure I did my ground balls right, because I didn't want him to say, 'What you doing?' When I made the plays routine, it was like I was doing that for him. I knew he was up there watching me. His presence was still around." The Phillies have remembered Vukovich in many ways this season, including wearing a patch on their jerseys with the letters VUK (pronounced "Vook.") and hosting Friday's ceremony. "I knew he was loved, but I never knew how much," Bonnie Vukovich said. "People in the grocery store stop me and tell me how nice he was. He had a gruff exterior, but he had a heart of gold. He was just a gentleman."
At the ceremony, she said, "I really feel his spirit with us tonight, and I can hear him walking around right now and saying, 'Alright, enough of this, let's go, we have a baseball game to play.'"
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.