CLEARWATER, Fla. -- There are many funny, sad and heartwarming stories about John Vukovich, as there should be for a man who touched so many lives.
A person who spends 41 years in baseball, on back fields, dugouts, buses, airplanes, restaurants and hotel rooms, is bound to earn tremendous respect and pick up a lifelong friends along the way.
That's what happened with "Vuk," who lost a second battle with cancer and passed away on Thursday at age 59.
"He was a Californian who married a Philly girl and never left," said broadcaster Chris Wheeler, who joined the organization in 1971 and considered Vukovich among his closest friends. "He loved Philadelphia because he kept saying these people are tough. He loved the area for that reason."
Vukovich, a former Phillies player and coach whose ties with the club dated to 1970, when he debuted as a Major Leaguer, was tough, too.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2001, he appeared to have recovered, proudly returning to the coaching box within two months. After more than five years of relatively good health, doctors discovered that the illness had returned after Vukovich experienced headaches and impaired vision.
In true style, Vukovich kept the news private from even his closest friends, saying everything was going to be fine. Word filtered out when he missed the Winter Meetings in Orlando in December. The family asked for and was granted privacy.
Despite recent optimism, news circulated on Wednesday within the organization that his condition had worsened, and none could hide their extreme sense of loss.
"He was a second father to me," said Greg Casterioto, the Phillies' manager of public relations, likely echoing the sentiments of his generation.
"He was like a brother to me," Wheeler said, echoing the sentiments of his generation.
A passionate man who always listed family first and baseball second (a really close second), Vukovich honed the fielding of a generation of infielders and wasn't afraid to tell players how they should wear the uniform.The term often heard was "old school."
A fixture in the organization, Vukovich spent 31 of his 41 years in the sport wearing red pinstripes. The most important were the 17 straight -- from 1988-2004 -- that he spent as a Phillies coach, working with six different managers and showing extreme loyalty to each. Vukovich will be remembered this season with a black patch sewn onto Phillies uniforms.
In 2004, he passed former bullpen coach Mike Ryan to become the longest tenured coach in team history. A career .161 hitter over parts of 10 seasons in the Major Leagues, Vukovich often joked that his "second career was much better than the first."
Though the statistics won't lie about the first, Vukovich was the embodiment of a player who survived on sterling defense, personality and heart. He knew so much about the game and how it should be played.
"It would be the greatest second career for a .161 hitter," Wheeler said. "He was a great baseball man. He was a throwback. He felt there was a way to play and wear the uniform and didn't bend."
A third baseman selected by Philadelphia in the January 1966 draft out of American River Junior College in Sacramento, Calif., Vukovich received a $10,000 bonus when he signed hours before the deadline that would've thrown him back into the pool of eligible draftees. That summer, he tooled around his sleepy hometown in a sleek new Dodge Coronet 500, his one indulgence.
"I paid $3,400 cash for it," he later said. "My dad got a new truck."
In the Minors, Vukovich tasted winning as a member of three league champions: Spartanburg, 1967; Eugene, 1972; and Oklahoma City, 1970. He led his league in fielding by a third baseman four times. With Triple-A Eugene in 1970, he reached professional highs with 22 homers and 96 RBIs in 138 games.
He made his debut in 1970 and played parts of seven seasons with the Phillies, including the 1980 World Series championship team. He was also a member of the 1975 Reds, who won the World Series that season, and often recalled a story of how he was once pinch-hit for by manager Sparky Anderson in the first inning.
"He loved that story," Casterioto said.
On June 23, 1971, Vukovich played third base and caught the final out of Rick Wise's no-hitter.
He made a seamless transition to coaching after retiring as a player in 1981, beginning with the Cubs in 1982 and serving as a first base, third base and bench coach until leaving after the 1987 season.
While his departure created an opportunity in Philadelphia, the story of why he left is a testament to his loyalty. In fall of 1987, then-Cubs GM Dallas Green, whom Vuk had followed to Chicago, was preparing to name himself manager/GM and wanted Vukovich as his bench coach, with the intention of making Vuk the manager the following season.
Except that a funny thing happened.
"I flew into Chicago at 9 that morning and Dallas told me I was going to manage," Vukovich recalled. "I went to Tribune Tower and met with [CEO] John Madigan. Then we went back to Wrigley Field for a 5 o'clock press conference."
Less than five minutes later, Vukovich was unemployed.
"Dallas called me in and said, 'I resigned,'" Vukovich said. "He wanted me to stay and I said, 'Like hell I will.' I listened to the press conference [of Green's resignation] on the radio going to the airport."
Vukovich flew back to his home in Voorhees, N.J., and eventually landed again in Philadelphia. His coaching role with the Phillies included first base, third base and bench coach, plus coordinating Spring Training and working with the team's infielders. Vukovich got to manage the final nine games of the 1988 season, when Lee Elia was dismissed, and he went 5-4. In 1994, he was a coach for the National League All-Star team.
In 2000, he served as a coach for the MLB All-Star team that traveled to Japan, and in 2004, he was named the winner of the inaugural Dallas Green Special Achievement Award, presented by the Philadelphia chapter of The Baseball Writers Association of America for his coaching tenure.
Vukovich left the field after the 2004 season and became a special assistant to the general manager, working under Ed Wade and Pat Gillick. He and Larry Bowa are the only two men to wear a Phillies uniform at Connie Mack Stadium, Veterans Stadium and Citizens Bank Park.
He is survived by his wife, the former Bonnie Loughran, whom he met at Veterans Stadium; two children, Nicole Stolarick and Vince, and triplet granddaughters, Anna, Lena and Stella Stolarick. Vukovich is also survived by two brothers, Rich and Bill, of California.
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.