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In his 50th year with the A’s, Steve Vucinich has a lifetime’s worth of tales

In his 50th year with the A’s, Steve Vucinich has a lifetime’s worth of tales

By Susan Slusser
April 17, 2017 Updated: April 17, 2017 8:21pm

He has fielded phone calls from Madonna, bought a last-minute birthday cake for All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens’ wife, and packed the Boston Red Sox’s equipment truck full of beer. In his 50th year with the Oakland A’s, equipment manager Steve Vucinich has many a tale.

“He’s seen it all, up and down,” baseball Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson said. “Vuc (pronounced Voos) has got all the dirt, all the tricks, he knows everything about everybody. He knows all of it, he’s been around so long.”

Vucinich, 64, got his start with the A’s in 1968, their first season in Oakland, while he was a sophomore in high school. On Opening Day, the Oakland native sold peanuts in the crowd, but before the month was out, there was an opening for a clubhouse attendant. He got the job — thanks to one of the game’s legends.

“Joe DiMaggio was standing there when I said I’d like to work in the clubhouse,” Vucinich said of the Hall of Fame center fielder who was an A’s coach in the late ’60s. “Joe asked where I went to high school and I said, ‘St. Joe’s in Alameda.’ Joe said: ‘A Catholic. Hire him.’”

Vucinich, the son of a transportation executive and a homemaker, now has the second-longest tenure of any A’s employee, after Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack, who was with the Philadelphia A’s for 54 years. “The last time we were in Philadelphia, a member of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society came out to the park and told me I had just passed some peanut vendor who was second to Connie,” Vucinich said.

He became the assistant clubhouse manager during the team’s second season, though he was still paid a bat boy’s salary through 1973. Vucinich was the visiting clubhouse manager from 1974-93 before taking on his current role. He’s seen thousands of players come and go, 19 managers (including Jack McKeon twice) and four ownerships.

Vucinich also watched the equipment industry transform from a simple enterprise — a few sets of wool uniforms per player, one bat company — to a dizzying labyrinth of engineered performance wear, jersey options and bat models.

“Nike sends us eight kinds of shirts in six sizes,” Vucinich said. “We get short socks, long socks, different colors, pregame hat, special uniforms for all these different games, ash bats, maple bats, birch bats, there are even bamboo bats. If you’re working out of the Coliseum and you’re already out of storage space, you don’t need any more inventions.”

When Vucinich started, there were few player moves. Now he’s surprised if the team makes it through a road trip without any transactions; he always has extra jerseys, just in case.

The A’s travel with about 8,000 pounds of equipment. Occasionally, there are snafus — bags fall off trucks, opposing team’s TV gear winds up mixed in with the A’s luggage — but with overnight delivery, there are few emergencies that can’t be solved, and Vucinich has some ready workarounds. For instance, when pitcher Matt Roney was called up from the minors before a game in Toronto in 2006, he didn’t have any white cleats. Though Vucinich carries extras, he didn’t have any size 18s. So he spray-painted Roney’s black ones.

Player requests — or, in some cases, demands — are the bane of any clubhouse manager’s existence. Most are accommodated, including the time Red Sox star Clemens asked for a birthday cake for his wife “in the fifth inning!” Vucinich said. When Carl Yastrzemski and Dwight “Dewey” Evans were with Boston, Coors was unavailable east of the Rockies, so they’d have Vucinich pack the luggage truck full of cases.

“One time a couple of equipment guys in Boston drank half of it when they were unloading it; Yaz and Dewey were so mad,” Vucinich said.

Last year, an A’s player asked Vucinich to send some clubhouse workers to a restaurant in San Francisco to pick up dinner for the player and bring it to the team’s plane when it landed in Oakland. He said a firm no to that one.

Vucinich never minded answering the phone for former A’s All-Star Jose Canseco, though, especially when Canseco was dating pop star Madonna.

“Madonna used to call in to get ahold of me and her code name was Melissa,” Canseco said. “Vuc would have to come tell me, ‘Hey, Jose, you’ve got a phone call from Melissa,’ and we’d all laugh because we knew it was Madonna. He’s probably the greatest clubhouse guy ever.”

Clubhouse duties require long hours. Equipment managers are usually the first to the ballpark, at about 6:30 a.m. for day games and 10 a.m. for night games. Then they are among the last to leave, typically 90 minutes after the game. Add to that the fact that Vucinich’s wife, Valerie, and daughter, Kayla, lived in Arizona much of the time when Kayla was growing up and it can be trying from a family standpoint.

“It was tough not being able to see him,” Kayla Vucinich said. “The longest time was two months, but it made it more special when I did see him.”

Vucinich met his wife at a hotel bar during spring training in 1989 — she was the hotel manager on duty and in charge of cocktail hour. “He likes to tell people I was buying men drinks at the bar,” Valerie Vucinich, 62, said with a laugh. Their first date was at famed Scottsdale, Ariz., lounge the Pink Pony, where there was a caricature of Vucinich on the wall.

Valerie, who bounces back and forth between the Bay Area and Arizona with her husband now that their daughter is grown, knew what she was getting into with a baseball lifer.

“He is definitely married to the job,” she said. “I love to travel and I’m pretty independent, so I got it. It’s a match made in heaven.

“It’s pretty incredible he’s starting his 50th season; when I tell people that, I have to follow up with, ‘He’s not that old! He started as a bat boy!’”

Vucinich’s institutional knowledge has made him something of a confidant to the men in charge.

“He’s smart,” former A’s manager Tony La Russa said. “He has everything under control, he never forgets anything and he’s got a real solid personality. People like Vuc not because he’s a yes man, but because he’s honest with them.”

A’s vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane said he often bounces things off Vucinich and followed up by joking of one of his most unpopular deals: “That was Vuc’s idea.”

“He’s a go-to guy, one of the real constants here,” Beane said. “He’s a nice guy to have in your corner.”

Beane’s children, 9-year-old twins Brayden and Tinsley, quickly picked up on Vucinich’s standing in the A’s hierarchy — although they call him “Moose” after mishearing “Vuc.”

“Brayden was asking me if I was David’s boss,” Beane said, referring to general manager David Forst. “And Tinsley responded, ‘Moose is daddy’s boss.’”

Perhaps the most telling anecdote, though, is one about retired outfielder Mark Kotsay, who got knocked a little loopy in a home-plate collision while playing for Oakland. During the concussion protocol, Kotsay, who is now the A’s bench coach, was asked, “Who’s the president?”

“Vuc,” Kotsay replied.

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