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Friends share stories about Vukovich

Friends share stories about Vukovich

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The picture will stay on Greg Casterioto's bulletin board indefinitely, a permanent snapshot of his second father.

The shot, taken early one morning in February 2004, shows John Vukovich laughing with Casterioto as the pair watch practice. Anyone who sees it remarks about Vukovich's wide smile and the fact that the two are dressed in coincidentally matching outfits -- white polo shirts with navy blue pants.

"He's probably getting on me about something," Casterioto said. "I love that picture."

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Casterioto, 30, loved many things about the man who quickly become a role model and father figure for the Phillies' manager of public relations. He grew up in South Jersey rooting for the Phillies, and especially Vukovich, who had been a coach with the Phillies since 1988.

"I was a fan of this guy at third who got in arguments with umpires, had a rough demeanor and was perfect for Philadelphia," Casterioto said. "Who's a fan of a coach? I was. He showed me how things are done. He rubbed some people the wrong way, but in the end, he just wanted things done right and held people accountable."

When it came to personal situations, Vukovich cared greatly about the people he considered close. When Casterioto's father, Jerry, took part in a Phillies Phantasy Camp, Vuk made sure to introduce himself.

"He wanted to see the guy who raised me," Casterioto said. "To me, that was cool. He used to yell at me all the time -- just like he used to yell at players -- because he wanted me to do my job right."

Just being a part of Vuk's world made Casterioto feel special. Like most in the Phillies family, he heard about Vuk's illness through word of mouth, but Casterioto had the good fortune of speaking to him in January.

"The last thing I said to him was, 'I love you,'" Casterioto said.

***

Ramon Henderson might not be the most famous All-Star Home Run Derby pitcher if Vuk hadn't first gone to bat for him.

Between occasional sobs, Henderson brought Vuk's character and heart into perspective. Dismissed with Francona after the 2000 season, Henderson was reassigned to the Minor Leagues.

Vukovich, who called Henderson "Mexican" despite his Dominican heritage, would have none of that and convinced new manager Larry Bowa to retain him on the Major League staff.

"Since that day, a lot of good things have happened to Ramon Henderson," Henderson said. "Two All-Star Games [throwing to Bobby Abreu, then Ryan Howard in the Home Run Derby]. I got to be a coach for the USA team [in Japan last fall]. I didn't know Bowa like I did Vuk. He talked to him about me."

John Vukovich dies at 59
David Montgomery's reaction: 350k
Bill Giles' reaction: 350k
Jim Fregosi's reaction: 350k
Dallas Green's reaction: 350k
Pat Gillick's reaction: 350k
Through it all, Vuk taught Henderson a valuable lesson.

"Tell the truth to the players," Henderson said. "Don't lie. They might not like the truth, but don't lie. That way, you'll earn respect. That's the way he was. He's going to be missed. He's the best baseball man I've ever been around."

***

At Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, where the Yankees were facing the Braves, Yanks first-base coach Larry Bowa had a difficult time. The loss was particularly hard on the former Phillies shortstop and manager. He and Vuk were teammates, coaches and later, manager and coach.

Specifically, they were best friends.

The pair grew up a few miles away in Northern California. Bowa hailed from Sacramento, while Vukovich grew up in Sutter Creek. Both were signed by Phillies scout Eddie Bockrath and came up through the organization together.

"It's a tough day for me," Bowa told Ken Singleton on the YES Network. "He was my best friend. It's like losing your own family. That's how much he meant to me. I can't believe it's so soon and he's not with us."

Vukovich did so much for Bowa, Jim Frey, Gene Michael, Lee Elia, Nick Leyva, Jim Fregosi and Terry Francona. He ran Spring Training, coming up with the schedules, and worked with the Phillies on baserunning seminar.

"I'll never forget some of those lessons," Jason Michaels said. "He helped me tremendously."

***

Fort Myers, Fla. was an unhappy place, as Francona had trouble concentrating. The Red Sox manager kept thinking about Vuk, his coach when he played for the Cubs and later a member of his coaching staff during Francona's four years managing the Phillies.

"I caught myself today starting to enjoy the game and reminded myself that maybe I shouldn't," Francona said. "It's was a hard day. You're standing out there on the field doing the job you love, wishing time could stand still for a minute. It's hard to figure out. He's a unique person. He affected so many people in the game, myself included.

"[In Chicago], I was the absolute worst player on that team and he treated me like I wasn't, which I appreciated. If you were willing to work, he was willing to try to outwork you. He liked having an effect on players."

Across town at Hammond Stadium, Curt Schilling started against the Twins, while thinking of the man he knew while with the Phillies from 1992-2000.

"He was kind of a surrogate father to me," Schilling said. "I lost my father in 1988 and didn't have that prominent or dominant male figure in my life for a couple of years. It reflected in the way I acted. When I went to Philadelphia, he got involved. There's no question in my mind that I wouldn't have stayed in the big leagues had it not been for him.

"He was the guy who taught me about preparation, to start with. Up until sometime in the 2005 season, I talked to John before just about every start I ever made when it came to pitching against National League teams. He was an incredible, incredible man."

***

Chris Wheeler never needed a bull's-eye to earn the distinction of Vuk's favorite target.

The longtime Phillies broadcaster became quite the unwilling victim over their 36-year friendship, whether he was being horrified at the sound of a loud horn honking behind him, or dodging fungoes trying to retrieve his briefcase, which had strategically been set down by second base.

"Wheels" recalled one of Vukovich's better pranks from a few years ago, when Vuk and former team president Ruly Carpenter made Wheeler believe he was the subject of an IRS audit.

"They even got the stationary and got my tax guy in on it," Wheeler said. "He had me terrified to the point where I was making an appointment to go to the IRS when we got back from Clearwater. Someone overheard that and told him, 'You better let this guy off the hook.' My tax guy laughs about it to this day. He said, 'I had to go along with it, because Vuk was so intimidating.'"

That didn't stop the friendship. When not messing with Wheels, the two often engaged into friendly heated discussions.

"We'd argue like two brothers," Wheeler said. "Once in a while, we'd get a little mad at each other and not talk for a day, but he never put the freeze on me. When I would say something, and he would nod and agree, I felt good, because I thought that he was as good a baseball man as anyone I ever met in my life. He was rarely wrong on a player."

***

When well-traveled starter Paul Byrd reunited with well-traveled reliever Roberto Hernandez this spring in Cleveland, Byrd had something new to discuss.

Since the last time they were teammates -- with the Royals in 2001-02 -- Hernandez had found his way through Philadelphia, which still holds a place in Byrd's heart.

"When someone comes from Philly, you always talk about Johnny Vukovich," Byrd said. "You have to, because he was an integral part of that locker room, that team, that Philly mind-set. He was so needed in Philly where people get on you, and the people are so passionate. There's a reason he was there for 17 years [as a coach]."

Like anyone else who spoke on this day, Byrd was devastated to hear the news. Though he hadn't worn a Phillies uniform since 2000, Vukovich's influence on him as a person and a player remains strong.

"This is going to mess me up for a while," Byd said. "He had a great heart. He was the guy who didn't have all the talent, but worked his tail off and got everything out of his ability. I was the Phillie guy who was the overachiever, who worked hard. I was similar to him. I always felt that he cared about me."

Though Byrd was in his third big-league season when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1998, Vuk made him tougher.

"I was too sensitive of what other people thought of me," Byrd said. "I didn't understand that somebody can raise their voice and care. I don't care if somebody boos me now. He made me understand that baseball wasn't played in la-la land."

With the toughening up came the ego-building.

"We were in St. Louis one night after a game, and I won after nine tough innings," Byrd said. "He came over to my parents and told my dad what a great game it was. He really built me up in front of my father. That felt great to hear that."

***

A Reds lead over the Phillies meant bonus fun for Aaron Boone, because it meant he could get under Vuk's skin.

If it also included a Phillies mental mistake, Boone was in heaven -- at third base, anyway -- and couldn't wait for Vuk to come out to the third-base coaching box.

"If they had a base running mistake, or had a guy picked off a base or something -- just something I knew really made him upset -- I'd just go over there real calmly, and stoke the fire," Boone said. "I'd say, 'That's not Philly baseball right there. That always got him going. I can't repeat what he'd say back to me, but he'd snap back. He was an intense and passionate guy on the field, and got fired up easily. I loved messing with him in that way."

Boone considers himself extremely lucky to have known Vuk his whole life. Boone ran around Veterans Stadium as a child, when his father Bob Boone caught for the Phillies. He and brother Bret was could always be found getting into some kind of trouble.

Boone signed with the Marlins this offseason after 3 1/2 years in the American League and looked forward to his three visits to Philadelphia.

"To know him as an adult, as a peer in the profession, I always looked forward to going to Philadelphia because of the many memories I had of growing up there. And Vuk was always there, and I loved seeing Vuk. He always made me laugh and he taught me a lot."

Especially about playing third base, where Boone excelled with the Reds, Yankees and Indians. Vuk's was always known as an outstanding defender at the hot corner.

"He taught me some stuff about third base, even when he probably shouldn't have," Boone said, laughing. "My setup in the field for the last eight, nine years, I got from him. I'm lucky to have known him. I loved John Vukovich. He touched my life."

***

Dallas Green, the grandfather of tough-love in Philadelphia, as the manager of the only Phillies to win a World Series, offered this glimpse as to what Vuk meant to him.

"He was my whipping boy," said Green, who now serves as a senior advisor to GM Pat Gillick. "I whipped his [butt] sometimes to get my message across to the other guys, and he took it and he understood it and he helped me battle the perception the guys had of me. I never forgot that. I never forgot how loyal he was. That was his strength. He was a very, very loyal person... There are a lot of backstabbers in this game. He was loyal to the guys he worked with."

It certainly helps explain why Vukovich earned respect the same way.

Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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