Allentown Morning Call - March 25, 1980

It’s torture, but Vukovich won’t quit


By Jack McCallum, Call Sports Writer


CLEARWATER, Fla. – John Vukovich spends part of every day on his knees which, when you think about it, is not an unusual position for a 32-year-old player with a .161 lifetime average trying to stick with a major league team. 


But John Vukovich is not praying. He is learning the rudiments of catching, which just may be his ticket north when the Philadelphia Phillies break camp on April 8. 


Each day Vukovich stands about 30 feet from catching coach Mike 'Irish' Ryan. Ryan deliberately bounces the ball toward Vukovich and he dutifully scrambles on his knees to get his body behind the ball and block it. Given the somewhat leisurely tenor of most baseball drills, no one in the Phillies' camp has been working harder than Vukovich.


 "Hey. Vuke, you're supposed to catch the damn thing aren't you?" said Pete Rose, stopping to watch a few minutes of the daily torture. 


"Actually, I'm just supposed to block it…” 


Another Ryan toss, another scramble on the knees. Another Ryan toss and this one takes a wicked bounce up Vukovich's arm.


"Ooh, just listen to that bone," said Steve Carlton, lounging against the protective cage where the drill was taking place. "Hey, Vuke, I'd like to see an X-ray of your body right about now. You must be one torn-up guy." 


Vukovich just smiles… then takes another bouncing ball up the arm. 


"I had no hesitation whatsoever about catching, or trying to catch," said Vukovich after the drill had concluded. "This is something that can only lengthen my career and I'll do whatever it takes to do that." 


Though Vuke has been a pro player since 1966, he has played in only 217 major league games and has only 496 major league at-bats. His most extensive action was in 1971 when he played in 74 games for the Phillies. He lives only for the chance to do that again but, really, he has no guarantees that he will not be one of the 11 remaining cuts. 


"Nope, Dallas has said nothing to me about my chances," said Vukovich who, after a few years with Milwaukee and Cincinnati, came back to the Phillies organization in a trade with the Reds involving former major leaguer Dave Schneck of Whitehall. "The possibility does exist that I'm going through this for nothing. You know, certain people always know and have always known what they want to do in life. Me? I've always felt I should be in the game of baseball. That's why I've always felt comfortable with my situation." 


Well, almost always. 


"I guess last year at this time I was thinking along the lines of getting into coaching and that maybe my time was up," said Vukovich. "But. darnit, I went back and proved that I can still play this game. That's why I'm excited by this year." 


What Vukovich did was hit .291 at Oklahoma City, his best pro average ever on a season-long basis and his best year all-around since 1970 with Eugene. He wasn't handed the opportunity – he earned it – to come up and finish the season with the Phils after Sept. 1. 


"I guess there was some justification early in my career for the tag that I couldn't hit at all," said Vukovich. "But I think that has passed now. With all the up and down I've been doing for the past eight or nine years I've still had only about 400 at-bats. You need a lot more than that, you need to be judged over a whole season, to say whether or not you can do that job. I feel now I'm swinging the bat better than at any other time in my career. And you couple that with what I can do in the field, and I know I can help this team." 


What Vukovich can do in the field is considerable. No one has ever questioned that. Though third base is his native position, he can play any of the infield positions and, now, catcher if there were a dire emergency. 


At third, he is known as one of those players who can really "pick it."


His hands are among the best in baseball which makes the catching drills somewhat ironic. 


"My biggest problem has been getting the proper mechanics in blocking the ball." said Vukovich. "You know, when Pete came by and asked why I wasn't catching it? Well, that has always been my first reaction. To reach out and catch the ball, or pick it, like I would do in the infield. But balls you try to catch can also go through you. Balls that you just block win not get through you." 


Vukovich. who has seen live catching action for only two innings during the Grapefruit League season, says he's not worried about the throw to second. 


"The mechanics of the throw are the same as if I were playing third, I'm no Boonie (Bob Boone) back there but with the footwork I've learned in the infield, there's not going to be that much difference." 


The real difference for John Vukovich will come if he finds himself on the roster of a contending team from April right down to the bitter end. 


"Anybody who has struggled like I have has gotten down at times," said Vukovich. "But you know what? I've never once thought of giving up.