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Rest in Peace, Vuk

March 9, 2007

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.

Curt

72 Comments leave one →
  1. medfield1 permalink
    March 9, 2007 10:41 am

    Sounds like a great guy. I found in my life some of the gruff, yell at you all the time coaches are the best. They yell at you because they care and see potential. Great advice…..jsut keep on pushing. Whether a MLB pitcher like you or a Thoroughbred bloodstock agent like me……putting your head down and moving forward is sometimes the only way

  2. dlyons permalink
    March 9, 2007 12:10 pm

    Curt,
    Sorry to hear, keep up the good work

  3. March 9, 2007 12:33 pm

    Wonderful tribute Curt! Casual fans don’t usually hear about the real people in Baseball or any other major sport, just what we read or see in the media. Thanks for introducing a wonderful person to us. You were lucky to have a person like him in your life.

    Side Note: I can’t believe how well you write. I’ll read this blog every time I can.

  4. callidus permalink
    March 9, 2007 1:33 pm

    All of my prayers and condolences for your loss, Curt. I know how difficult it is to lose a mentor. Reading how you describe your relationship with Vuk reminds me of my relationship with my grandfather who passed away last summer.

    I realize that the comments you get on here from fans who have never and will never meet you or know you can ring somewhat hollow in the echoes of cyberspace. But reading your eulogy of someone so obviously dear to you allows all of us to reflect on those similar individuals in our own lives. In that way your words about Vuk can touch us all.

    Again, all my prayers and condolences.

    Scott

  5. chinmuzik permalink
    March 9, 2007 1:41 pm

    Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward, I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there.

    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air.
    Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
    And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
    — John Gillespie Magee, jr.

  6. syrioforel permalink
    March 9, 2007 5:28 pm

    Well said Curt. My wife and I send our condolences. I have not experienced a loss such as this, and it was touching to read you thoughts on John’s life. As a Red Sox fan we are all truely thankful for the mark he left on you as a pitcher and a man.

  7. bsoxfan permalink
    March 9, 2007 8:48 pm

    Curt, Great blog! Sorry about your loss (VUK). Your Dad sounds very much like my old man. Lost him 9 years ago (Single Cell Melinoma), I feel your pain. Thanks for starting this thing, as a Sox Fan in So. Cal. It can be hard to relate to the team, you will make this much easier! Never miss a game thanks to a Sat. Dish and DVR. Can’t wait for the season to start, it’s not the same without Jerry and Don nightly on the tube. Good luck this season, and please don’t make it your last. As members of the Nation, we owe you a dept that can never be repaid!

    God bless!

  8. bigdaddykane permalink
    March 9, 2007 10:49 pm

    Sorry for the loss Curt.

    BDK

  9. somerandomfan permalink
    March 9, 2007 11:18 pm

    Curt,
    I wanted to send my condolences to you, your family, and everyone who cared about Vuk. I just lost my father to cancer last month, and I know how hard the disease is on people and the people that love them. As stereotypical as it sounds, it’s so important to remember the good times. Your recollections of someone who obviously meant so much to you were touching. With your beautiful tribute, you helped to remind me that no matter how sad a loss is, memories remain and they ensure that great people never really die. Thank you, and God bless you

  10. dkennedy permalink
    March 10, 2007 12:12 am

    Thanks Curt,

    I truly admire your honesty and your accessibility to your fans.I t’s unique.

    I hope you end up in Cooperstown with a big old B on your hat. Good luck this year and I look forward to voting for you in the future and I don’t have a HOF vote. :)

  11. jasondouglas86 permalink
    March 10, 2007 3:10 am

    Growing up in southeast PA in the 90’s made me a Phils fan. As coaches and players came and went, Vuk was a constant in the 3rd base box. It was all about hearing Harry or Andy Musser say “Vuk’s waving him home!” or “Vuk tosses a souvenir to a young fan”. My first game at the Vet, I sat down the 3rd base line close enough to hear Vuk encouraging the hitters. There was a bench clearing brawl led by Darren Daulton after Mariano Duncan got hit and then buzzed his next time up. If I had to guess I’d say that was in ’93. I’ll always remember Vuk’s interactions with the Phanatic and the way he stood up for his hitters, he was never afraid of getting tossed. I’m glad that Vuk, as you’ve presented him, was a man worthy of the pedestal I have always stood him on. I’m glad he meant as much to you personally as he did to all of Philadelphia professionally. I’m sure that he’s catching up with Tugger and Whitey, if you can do that sort of thing in Heaven. All my best to you and yours,
    J

  12. renegadext permalink
    March 10, 2007 11:53 am

    Curt –

    My deepest condolences to you and the Vukovich family. It’s always tough when you lose of your biggest fans.

  13. vuk4 permalink
    March 11, 2007 12:49 am

    Hi Curt…………On behalf of John’s cousins out here in California, I want to thank you so much for your “Rest in Peace, Vuk” Blog. My husband and I own a restaurant in Amador County where John was born and raised. His brothers, Rich and Bill are in here everyday. We have set up a memorial here in the restaurant which includes pictures, articles, his Phillies warm up Jacket and your Blog. I have made over 200 copies of your Blog in the past two days for all of his classmates and friends here in Amador County. In this time of excruciating pain and loss, I cannot tell you how many soulful smiles and laughs your story of …………”I said curveball. At no time did I say the word HANGING curveball.” brought to peoples hearts. Your Blog has really helped everybody to remember “Brother”, as we call him here in Amador County, as we remember and know him.

    Thank you for helping us to focus on the joy of his personality and character in the midst of the pain in losing him. He was our family and community hero and you have helped us all. His Brother Rich just left the restaurant and is in route to the airport to fly back to New Jersey. He had your blog in his hand as he left here crying after I played the “tribute to John Vukovich” for him on our computer.

    Thank you again Curt from all the Vukovich Cousins and friends out here in California!

    Maura Vukovich Gillman

  14. kris7738 permalink
    March 11, 2007 4:20 pm

    Dear Curt,

    I’m sorry for your loss. Our thoughts are with you.

  15. slee12uconn permalink
    March 11, 2007 10:46 pm

    curt – sorry for your and baseball’s loss –
    not many people might fully understand what you mean when you said the need for an older male figure, unfortunately i do , but dont care to elaborate on a public blog – you were lucky to find someone – many of us dont find them –
    – one story that first comes to mind with you is , i remember watching the world series in 93- i was 13, you were unbelievable and i was watching with my dad, what ended ended up being the last world series we would watch together – they were doing a story on you and you mentioined that you always had a ticket in the stands that was reserved for your dad, i remember that all too vividly and from your performance in that postseason to your remarks, i was a big curt schilling fan – and was so excited that you came to boston – ive wanted to write you many times, but feared it would never reach your eyes, so i;ve torn them up –
    good luck for the 2007 season and beyond – – thanks for 2004, and all the other memories and in this day and age, reminding some of us fans that you’re a real person, with real life issues like the rest of us,

    and for some tough love- i think that if you strengthen your legs, you could pitch like you are now, well into your mid 40s- like roger clemens -

  16. March 12, 2007 7:06 pm

    Hey Curt, Vuk seemed like an amazing guy. Sox Nation is sorry for your loss. Me and you got this blog thing in common and I thought you may want to check it out, http://mdd2403.wordpress.com/, it’s all about Boston sports. I had to start one for my reporting for the web class and I figured I should blog about my passions, Boston Sports. Anyway my Professor gave us this assignment to tell someone we don’t know about our blogs, and I figured who better than you. Anyway if you got time just check it out and leave me a comment. You’re the man, and again sorry for your loss.
    Matthew DeBarros

  17. jrlexusman permalink
    March 12, 2007 9:40 pm

    Curt
    I am very sorry to hear about John Vukovich’s passing. That was an excellent story that you wrote about him and your relationship together. I had the pleasure of meeting Vuk numerous times. My Cousin, Ken Huebner, was Vuk’s roomate in A and AA ball. From time to time in the 1996-1998 season Vuk would leave field passes to get on the field at The Vet to watch batting practice and everything before the game started. and leave seats behind home plate for us. Him and my cousin were close friends in single and double A. As a matter a fact, if i am not mistaken my cousin went to Vuk’s wedding. The first time i met him he greeted me with ” how ya doing kid”. with a hand shake and i thanked him for the field passes and tickets he replied with my pleasure. I remember him talking to my cousin about how the game has changed from when they played to now. It was just a pleasure getting to meet him on more than one occasion. Just thought i would share my thoughts.
    Jim

  18. lakefred permalink
    March 14, 2007 10:38 am

    Curt, I’m so sad about Vuk’s passing. After reading your eulogy, I feel an even greater loss for you. I was born and raised a Phillies fan. I’m still a Phillies fan. I have a good friend in Worcester, Mass and we’ve attended games in Fenway Park since the mid 70’s, so I’ve adopted the Red Sox as my American League rooting interest. When you came to Philly, I became a Curt Schilling fan. When you left Philly, I remained a Curt Schilling fan. I was so happy for you in your success with Arizona and now with the Red Sox. Your writing has touched my heart. I’ll remember Vuk and his family and you in your family in my prayers. Thank you for writing this.
    Lake Fred

  19. jeffmickbake permalink
    March 23, 2007 7:00 pm

    Curt, I’m a long time Phils fan and had the opportunite to met John Vukovich . I was truly saddened to hear of the pain and suffering that this wonderful man and dedicated coach and friend had to endure. Your piece was well recieved and as a Phillies legend yourself , one can only imagine how this affected you and yours. I will always remember Vuk as one of the mainstays of a ball club I have rooted for for 47 years. He was always their. I guess that was what he was like as a friend, always there. God Bless you and your family, Curt and how ’bout comin’ back ?

  20. mattlenny permalink
    December 18, 2007 2:45 pm

    Curt,

    Thanks for sharing. This past week I lost someone that when you describe Vuk, you are describing my friend, Tom. I am a teacher and coach and Tom was retired from both. But 4 years ago he came back to be a tutor in my school. He always had great stories, but all of them had positive meanings. Sometimes you didn’t even realize it until you were alone later on. Like you dad would say, “Tom is good people.”

    I am truly sorry for your loss.

  21. carol sullivan permalink
    April 6, 2009 6:28 pm

    hi curt iknow so well the lose you feel with john gone i was his sister=in=law not really he was my brother i loved him deerly as well as my 3 kids who loved him and he loved he is such a special peron and such a great husband and father i feel he is still with me he is by far the nicest and best person i have meet in my life my prayers are with bonnie my sister who was his wife and also with his 2 children nicki and vincent he was the dream dad and wife they always came first it was bonnie, nicki, vincent and baseball and i might add his does a pair of levi.s well i always told him he wore levi’s better than anyone i love him and he had such an impact on our family’s life he was the perfect and loving man carol sullivan

  22. Marc Butz permalink
    August 27, 2009 1:01 pm

    I remember Vukovich in 1973, when he was with the Brewers. I remember that he played 3rd base. The Brewers also had Don Money at 3rd, where Money set a defensive record in ’74. Anyway, I was at this benefit basketball game in the Milwaukee area in early 1975, and John Vukovich was on the roster of local celebs. The roster indicated that he was on the Cincinnati Reds, which I hadn’t known. Earlier that year, a friend, with whom I attended the basketball game, told me that Vukovich is the best defensive thirdbaseman in the league. I believed him because he was three years older than I. At the game, I saw my friend talking to a lady, who was John Vukovich’s mother. John didn’t make that game, but I was always to think of him as the best defensive thirdbaseman…by the way, when he went to Cincinnati, the Reds put Pete Rose at third. It took some very good players to keep Vukovich out of his team’s starting lineup.

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