Reading Eagle - April 8, 1980

SportopicS: P Minus 57 And Counting


By John W. Smith


CLEARWATER – Fifty-seven days into the 1980 season, John Vukovich will finally reach the milestone which he’s stared longingly at since he rejoined the Reading Phillies in 1976.


That’s when he’ll complete four full years in the majors and put himself on the roll of pension eligibility.


In one sense, that day will be anticlimactic. “I’ve known I was going to make it, it was just a question of when,” said Vukovich after learning that he’d be going north with the Philadelphia Phillies for the first time in his life.


“My needing the time wasn’t the overriding thing. I think I made this on merit.”


Vukovich, who’ll be 33 in July, has often reminded people of Brooks Robinson near his peak with his glove. Unfortunately, he’s reminded them of Brooks well past his peak with his bat. His lifetime major league average is 29 points under his weight, which is 190.


He had his first term in Reading in 1969, when he hit .253 as the regular third baseman. He got into 74 games with the ’71 Phillies, arriving in June, but hit only .166.


Then came the roller coaster. A decent year in AAA in ’72, and a trade to Milwaukee for Jim Longborg. But going with him was Don Money, so he was still a second-stringer.


Short Stay in Cincy


On to Cincinnati in ’75, and his first April starting shot. He began well, but the team didn’t, and Sparky Anderson moved Pete Rose to third base and put George Foster in left field. Soon he was in AAA again.


The Phillies regained him in August, and in ‘76 he was back in Reading, glad to be anywhere because of the lure of the pension and his love for the game. He was especially glad to be near his New Jersey home because of the serious illness of his wife.


With that bothering him, John hit only .240, washing out any chance he had of being noticed in the expansion draft that fall. But the Phillies did bring him up in September, when the rosters are expanded, to nudge him toward that pension goal.


His hitting improved at Reading in ’77, but he missed two months with a leg injury. Again the Phillies brought him up in September.


They didn’t in ’78, when he played at Oklahoma City. But last year he was called in August when Mike Schmidt was ailing. So now he’s only two September away. He hopes to get them both by the beginning of June.


Meanwhile, he’ll keep busy in two new ways – catching in the bullpen and explaining to people that he’s not related to George Vukovich.


Catching Helped


“Last year when Timmy retired, I knew there was a possibility they might lean toward two catchers,” said John. “I approached Dallas about it. He didn’t give me a strong opinion one way or the other; he said he’d keep it in mind.


“Then in the winter he told me it would work out in the spring, and it did.”


“John Vukovich’s ability to catch certainly helped him make this club,” said Dallas Green. “But it was not the determining factor. John Vukovich s a helluva man on our baseball team – because of his approach to the game, his willingness to play any role, his willingness to enter into some clubhouse chatter that I think is necessary from our extra people.


“He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even though he is an extra man. That goes back to the character and makeup of this club that I want to have.”


“Well, this is my 15th year of playing,” said John. “I’ve always had to be the guy who had to learn the game. Because of that, I think I know how the game should be played, whether I can execute properly or not.”


Last Friday was not a day of unmixed blessing for John Vukovich. After most of his teammates had left, he sat in the clubhouse nursing his first split finger – a beauty.


But he was feeling better than the member of the Phillies usually associated with the split finger. Dallas Green couldn’t say about Rawly Eastwick what he’d said about John Vukovich.