Camden Courier-Post - February 29, 1980

Phillies’ Vukovich in numbers game


By Rusty Pray of the Courier-Post


CLEARWATER, Fla. – One of the most intriguing games major league baseball teams play during spring training has little to do with hitting, running or throwing. It is the numbers game, the process by which clubs trim their fat Florida rosters to 25 players for the season.


In the case of the Phillies, the numbers game will be played only selectively. Except for the pitchers, most of whom are in one phase or another of post-operative care, most every player knows exactly where he'll be and what task he'll be performing in April.


There are, however, a couple of spots open to anyone with enough initiative to take them. One of the openings is in the infield, where the Phils could use a good-hitting utilityman.


“ENTER” MUCH-TRAVELED John Vuckovich, who could always field, but – until last year – never hit. Vukovich, who has been around as much as Charles Kuralt, will be competing against incumbent Bud Harrelson to play the role of utility infielder when the Phillies' spring training camp opens in earnest Tuesday.


You might think Harrelson, a better hitter add an adequate enough fielder despite his relativeiy-advanced age of 36, would have a discernible edge on Vukovich. After all, Harrelson did rise from the slow-pitch softball fields of Long Island last season to help the Phillies, filling in well for shortstop Larry Bowa and second baseman Manny Trillo.


The situation, however, is not quite that simple. The Phillies, you see, have quietly asked Vukovich to reacquaint himself with the art of catching. Manager Dallas Green does not want to take three catchers north with the team. Thus, if Vukovich's spring hitting shows some authority, the Phils would use Bob Boone, Keith Moreland and, in an emergency, Vukovich behind the plate.


OF COURSE, that leaves Dave Rader, the long-suffering No. 3 catcher of a year ago, out in the cold... the numbers game again.


"In Vuke's situation, I just pointed out to him that it (catching) was one way to increase his value to the club," Green said yesterday. "I'm looking at a two-catcher situation. With Boone's durability, it won't happen often that we will need a third catcher.


"If somebody gets hurt, we can call up one of the minor leaguers in a day. But it would be nice to have someone to use in an emergency, someone who could finish a ballgame."


VUKOVICH, WHO served as a No. 3 catcher in Milwaukee and, briefly, in Cincinnati, is well aware of the opportunity being offered him.  


"Catching's nothing strange to me," he said. "I just have to get acclimated again. If catching's what'll put me over the hump, I'll do it.


"I know the ballclub is interested in carrying two catchers. If that's the case, I've got the talent to do it."


The rap on Vukovich, who is 32 years old, has always been his hitting – or lack of it. In his 14 years as a professional, he has spent only limited time in the majors, hitting an anemic .161. But last year he changed his batting stance and got encouraging results. He hit.291 at Oklahoma City, the Phils Triple-A farm club. The average was his highest anywhere - minors or majors – since he hit .308 in 1971 for Eugene.


"I NEVER hit like that before in my life," he smiled. "The change allowed me to stay on the ball longer and eliminated my deficiencies offensively."


The Phils could carry both Harrelson and Vukovich on their 25-man roster, something they did briefly last season. But the prospect of that happening seems unlikely and Vukovich might be asked to spend another season in Oklahoma City.


Vukovich spent the beginning and end of last season there, playing only 10 games in his time with the Phillies. Having long ago run out of options, Vukovich was released and went through a special draft in December. When no other big league club picked him up through the draft, the Phils invited him to camp.


AS A non-roster player, Vukovich knows his chances are less than good of hanging on with the Phils. And, he seems prepared to return to minor league baseball.


"Yes," he said, "I'd go." Vukovich began to explain further, then stopped. "Let's just say I'd go. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. But my thoughts right now are I'm not going."


Whether it is Vukovich or Harrelson or someone else who ultimately lands with the club will, assuredly, depend upon how the Phillies play their numbers game.


PHIL UPS – Phils have scheduled their first intra-squad game for March 13, a day after they shift the site of training camp from the Carpenter complex to Jack Russell Stadium... Green has included himself and his coaching staff in his running program for pitchers... The Phils will invite Derek Botelho to camp... Botelho was the right-handed minor league pitcher sent to the Cubs along with Barry Foot, Ted Sizemore, Jerry Martin and Henry Mack for Manny Trillo, Greg Gross, and Rader last year... The Cubs recently released Botelho.