Longtime Phillies coach Vukovich dies
By PAUL HAGEN
Daily News Sports Writer
John Vukovich, who came to embody the Philadelphia ethics of straight talking and hard work during his career as a Phillies player and coach, passed away early this morning from complications arising from treatment for a brain tumor.
He was 59.
Vukovich was never an All-Star in the big leagues and never managed. But he spent more years coaching the Phillies than anybody, from 1988 through 2004, and earned a special niche in the team's history along the way.
Commemorative patches will be worn on the team's uniforms for the remainder of the season.
Vuke, as he was widely known, had a reputation for never mincing words. And he had a stubborn belief that his strong opinions were usually right.
"One time we were playing Pittsburgh," remembered righthander Curt Schilling, who always went over the hitters with Vukovich before his starts. "Vuke wanted me to throw Jason Kendall curve balls. So I threw him a curve first time up and he hit it out for a home run. I couldn't wait to hear what he would say when I got back to the dugout. And he said, ‘I didn't tell you to throw a hanging curve ball, I told you to throw him a curve ball.'"
Vukovich had a wide array of friends in baseball, from superstars to broadcasters. He sat with Chris Wheeler on almost every team charter for years, talking baseball.
"He was an old school baseball guy. He didn't have a lot of back-off in him," Wheeler said.
Said John Kruk: "Just like Richie Ashburn and Harry Kalas are thought of as the voices of this team, when you think of this organization, for a guy who wasn't a great player, he's going to be remembered just as much as guys that were. Because of his longevity and the fact he never wanted to leave.
"He was tough. He had that gruff exterior. But you knew that, deep down, all he cared about was making you a better player. Did he have trouble showing emotion? That he liked you? Absolutely.
"But guys who played for the Phillies and didn't like him, who thought he was too tough on them, didn't know him. And when you're done playing, the next time he saw you he was going to give you a hug and a kiss or when you talked to him on the phone say that he loved you. That's the side they didn't see.
"I think that stemmed from his playing career. He had shortcomings when he was a player. So he wanted to make sure he got the most out of his players.
"He always had that protective guard. He wasn't going to let you inside. But the last five or six years is when I realized how much he cared about the players and the organization as a whole. I care about the Phillies organization, but I'm a Mets fan compared to him. He was a diehard. He was a Phillie."
Vukovich survived a brain tumor that was discovered in May, 2001 and for a time it looked as though he had beaten the disease. But a recurrence was discovered last fall.
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti knew Vukovich for more than a quarter century, dating back to when both worked for the Cubs.
"He was an overachiever as a player in a lot of ways. His playing career probably didn't earn him a lot of respect. But his coaching career, I don't know anybody more respected than him," Colletti said. "Some players didn't like him because he was honest with them. But they always respected him."
Former Phillies All-Star, coach and manager Larry Bowa grew up playing American Legion baseball with Vukovich in Sacramento, Cal.
"He didn't tell players what they wanted to hear. He told them the truth. Some of them didn't like it. Some of them really liked it," Bowa said. "It didn't matter if you were a superstar or just a utility player. When he played, even as a utility player, he wasn't afraid to get on the big boys. Schmitty, me, (Garry) Maddox, Lefty (Steve Carlton). He didn't care. He wanted the game played right."
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.
Funeral arrangements are pending.