Rest in Peace, Vuk
Philadelphia Phillies coach John Vukovich passed away this morning around 10am. I heard the news from a friend a few minutes after I finished my outing in Ft Myers. John Vukovich was the closest thing I had to a father since my dad passed away 19 years ago. I want to take a moment to let anyone who never had the pleasure of meeting him know what a truly exceptional human being he was.
I came to the Phillies via trade on the final day of spring training in 1992 after a tumultuous year in Houston as the closer, set-up and mop-up guy, sent down for a month early in the 1991 season.
I was heading to the bullpen in St. Petersburg on that final day of camp. We were playing the Cardinals when I was told, “Hold on a minute, you aren’t going to pitch today.” A few minutes later I heard, “I think we might have traded you.” Might? When? Where? For who? The only answer I could get out of our pitching coach, Bob Cluck, was, “If you tell anyone I’ll kill you, but I think you’re going to Philadelphia.”
In addition to the shock, (and the fact that my wife was halfway home on the drive back to Houston), my mind was spinning.
A year earlier I had been part of the mega deal with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch in the trade to Houston for Glen Davis. Now I was being traded again? I soon found out that the teams had swapped “prospects.” Philadelphia was trading Jason Grimsley for me.
I arrived in Miami the next morning to meet the team and prepare for the final exhibition game of the spring. It was raining and the game was cancelled, but I went to the bullpen and threw a long session anyway. There I met John Vukovich for the first time.
To give you an idea of Vuk as a person, I’ll toss out a few words that capture him in a nutshell: old school, tough love, loud, passionate, devoted, loyal, and obsessed with winning. In addition to all of that John was the most respectful man I’ve ever met when it came to the game of baseball. He never let a day pass when he didn’t push himself at something. From hitting fungoes to working on someone’s base running to defense, John was about total commitment.
Things were rather calm early on, even though I didn’t have that fire or rage he wanted from players. What I did have was a consummate desire to be an ace, to win, and to be good. John was the scout who briefed the pitching staff before every series. We’d sit in a room, go down a team’s lineup hitter by hitter, and he’d explain how we were supposed to pitch each player. Vuk made it abundantly clear that if you listened to him no one would get a hit.
Things played out for the first few weeks of the season until Andy Ashby was hit with a line drive by Mackey Sasser of the Mets and broke his wrist. They decided to give me his starts and see how things played out.
That decision marked the beginning of a relationship between John and me that endured over the next 16 seasons. Every game we’d hold our own meeting before my start, and he would keep notes on hitters exclusively for me. I started to learn that pitching in the big leagues was far from what I imagined it to be. I also began to see how much John cared about me and my family. We talked often, a lot of times about nothing but life, but there was always some message he was trying to send whether I recognized it or not.
“Keep pushing, Schill. No matter what happens, keep pushing.”
That’s it. In his mind, life really was that simple. No matter what you were up against you just kept pushing. Whatever happened, things would work themselves out if you kept pushing yourself.
We had run-ins . . . many. Vuk was the first person to get in my face when he felt I wasn’t pushing myself. He was also one of the few men – like my father – who, if he gave you a pat on the ass or said, “Great job,” made it clear you’d really done something special. He made you earn his praise. Cal Ripken Sr. was the same way. That’s how my dad was.
I imagine thousands of former players could tell Vuk stories, and every one of them would have this same message in their story somewhere.
Two events with Vuk really stand out for me.
Marquis Grissom flat-out owned me. I couldn’t get him out no matter what I threw or where I threw it. Vuk would tell me day after day, “Fastball in Schill. He can’t hit it.” I tried, but nothing seemed to work. One day in Montreal I throw a fastball in on his hands, explode his bat, and he grounds out. I peek at the bench and Vuk stands up, bows, and doffs his cap.
We’re in Three Rivers Stadium playing the Pirates. Jason Kendall has had some success off me, and Vuk keeps harping, “He can’t hit a curveball, Schill.” We’ve argued about this at least 50 times. Seventh inning, Kendall at the plate, first pitch curveball, home run. I look over at the bench, and Vuk is shaking his head. I am so mad I can’t see straight, blaming Vuk for throwing a bad pitch. . . .
The inning ends. I walk into the dugout, pass Vuk without looking, and hear, “I said curveball. At no time did I say the word HANGING curveball.”
I was so pissed I laughed.
In 2000, after I was traded away to Arizona, I would call Vuk the day before every game I pitched. I would go over my notes and compare them with his, and we’d come up with a game plan for the next day. This went on for a good, long time. When it got to the point where I felt I had notes upon notes, I’d still call Vuk just to talk. My father’s passing had left me with a need for an older male figure to help me navigate life’s tough stretches, and Vuk was always there for me.
I learned of Vuk’s initial cancer diagnosis soon after he did. He was very stoic about it when I called. “I’ll just keep battling, Schill. This thing won’t beat me.” He had surgery, got better, and returned to the field well before anyone in the medical world wished he would, but anyone who knew John knew that was exactly how he wanted it.
He had some vision problems but nothing major. He spent a bit more time on the field, but eventually the Phillies moved him into an assistant to the GM position. This had to kill him internally; the field was his office and home and the only place other than the clubhouse he wanted to be. We spoke every time my team played the Phillies. He was always a friendly, familiar face, and his smile was infectious. “C’mere, big boy!” That was Vuk.
Late last winter I learned he’d had a relapse of cancer, and it was incurable. No one could reach him. He didn’t want to talk to or see anyone. Vuk was going through massive chemotherapy, and I heard he looked like a shell of himself. Mike Ryan, the bullpen coach in Philadelphia known to us as “Irish,” drove from Maine to see him. John refused to come to the door. Irish sat on his porch for five hours until Vuk finally opened up.
I heard from a lot of former teammates that no one could reach Vuk, so I called him. I was in the middle of leaving a long voice message, telling him that Gehrig and my other kids were thinking of him and that Shonda and I were praying, when he picked up the phone. I couldn’t even recognize his voice.
“Hey, big boy, how ya doing?” he asked. We spoke for a few minutes, and I could tell it was an immense strain for him to even talk. “I’m gonna beat this thing, Schill. No one thinks I can, but I’m gonna keep battling and beat it.”
A few days later I got word that Vuk had fallen and seriously hurt himself. He was going in and out, some good days, many more bad.
There is no doubt in my mind that my career would have been over ten or more years ago without John Vukovich. I often tried to but there was no way I could ever repay him for his commitment to me and the devotion and love he showed me throughout our 15+ years together. John Vukovich was the very person my dad was referring to when he called someone, “good people.” It was the highest compliment my dad could give. John was good people every day of his life, and the game and I will miss him greatly.
Shonda and I, our sons Gehrig, Grant, and Garrison, and daughter Gabriella want to extend our deepest sympathy and prayers to the Vukovich family, the Phillies family, and the family that is baseball.
Thanks for everything, and God bless, Vuk. Keep pushing.