I had caught what I believed to be the third out of the inning, and as I galloped off the field with my prized possession tucked away, Steve Finley was tagging up from second to third base. He then realized my miscount and continued on to round third and score what amounted to the winning run.
A distressed Robert Person stood on the mound in utter confusion, trying to understand how an outfielder could think that the first out of the inning was the third.
I suppose I had a pretty good reason why I was completely distracted. My father had suffered the first of many debilitating strokes, and the powerlessness of knowing that, in a town more than 2,500 miles away, he could not remember how to say his own name.
After the game, I dragged myself into the locker room, knowing that in about 15 minutes, I would have to discuss this mental lapse with a fragile heart. To regroup, I headed toward the back room and en route, I ran into Vuk. And it was at that moment, I knew I had a confidant, a friend and a father figure to lean on.
He saw the anguish in my face, and he whisked me off into some back office and gave the hug that only a father can give a son. One that says to you, "I will hold you up for as long as it takes until you can hold yourself up again." And he did.
Then he proceeded to run around like a banshee demanding a meeting with our GM Ed Wade and manager Terry Francona. Within minutes, I was sitting in front of them with an offer to fly back to New Jersey to be with my father.
Vuk was family in the truest sense, and not just to me, but to everyone around him. He had an inner circle that he formed where once you were on the inside, he would lay in front of a train before he would allow harm to come your way. Only then did you realize that the exterior of a weary baseball road warrior was hiding this heartfelt, emotionally connected marshmallow center who knew by radar when something or someone was messing with his family.
He shunned the poison of complacency away from this family at all times. Whenever we played in the state of California, he would always say, "Don't get caught in the trap of LaLa Land," warning us that great weather, beaches and Hollywood parties don't win ballgames.
Day in and day out he would hit a million popups to Kevin Jordan, smack dab in the middle of batting practice. There were balls flying from every direction, and he still could manage to hit the ball into a space that took the accuracy of an Olympic archer. He would hit them while he was cursing at the ball and at the same time it would land like a pillow in the glove of a moving target a couple hundred feet away.
The service honoring Vuk did him justice as it was regal and moving like the Changing of the Guard. Generations of baseball players and history in one room all feeling a sense of "there is something I have to carry on for him." Almost like a fallen general.
The game lost a piece of its heart in losing John Vukovich. It lost a father who, at his root, was loyal to this game of families.
Baseball should make an exception to its rule this day and shed a tear for this loss. In fact, it would not make sense any other way.