Phils to honor loyal rehab pitching coach Arroyo
Longtime instructor to receive annual John Vukovich Award for character, efforts
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Carlos Arroyo's left elbow hurt. It was 1982 and he had just turned 23 years old. He was a left-handed pitcher and his elbow hurt. He asked the Phillies for his release, and that could have been the end of it.
To Arroyo's surprise, farm director Jim Baumer and Minor League coordinator Larry Rojas had another idea. The front office had decided to beef up the system with coaches at every level. They told the young Puerto Rican native to take the rest of the year off, try pitching in winter ball if he wanted, see how he felt. And then, if Arroyo still thought he couldn't play anymore, he could join the staff.
"They said, 'We want you to help out the young kids. You've been with the Phillies for awhile, and you know the system and you know how we teach,'" Arroyo said earlier this season while sitting in the lobby of Bright House Field. "They said, 'Next year, if you want to play, you can play. If you want to coach, you can coach. You're going to have a job no matter what.' I didn't know they liked me that much!"
He has been helping the young kids ever since.
Arroyo tried to throw that winter. The pain remained. So he's been all over the Minors -- at Bend and Sarasota, Spartanburg and Clearwater, Batavia and Martinsville, Reading and Piedmont. Arroyo has coordinated pitching at the team's academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. He spent some time with the big club in 2001 and '02 as a mentor for Vicente Padilla. Arroyo is currently the rehab pitching coach. In all, he's been part of the organization for 37 years.
And, in recognition for all he's done, before Saturday's Toyota Alumni Night game against the Cardinals, Arroyo will receive the John Vukovich Award, which is given annually to an instructor in the organization who embodies the characteristic associated with the late Phillies coach: loyalty, dedication, competitiveness, knowledge, honesty and a terrific work ethic.
It's an honor that has special meaning for Arroyo because Vukovich was a friend and teammate.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr., assistant GM of player personnel Benny Looper and player development director Joe Jordan receive nominations, review candidates and make the final decision for the award, which has been presented each season since 2007.
"It's great to be able to honor those who don't necessarily get a chance to be seen by the fans, by the people here in Philadelphia -- when many of these guys who work in our player development and scouting who are not as visible as some of the front office people who are here," Amaro said.
"[Arroyo] grew up in our organization. He's somebody who's kind of been one of those unsung heroes. He's worn a variety of different hats. He still works very closely with many of our Latin American players that come through Clearwater and other parts of our organization. He's one of those very unselfish grunt workers who had had a great impact on a lot of our young players throughout the years."
Just how special is this honor? Arroyo was signed by Ruben Amaro Sr. when the left-hander was just 15 years old.
"How about that? Now his son is our big league general manager," said Arroyo. "I remember Junior when he was just a bat boy. It's just amazing."
Arroyo's first Spring Training was in 1975, before being assigned to the Phillies' Appalachian League rookie affiliate in Pulaski, Va. He weighed just 160 pounds when he first arrived at the Carpenter Complex, and many mistook him for a middle infielder.
"I was amazed by all the big players," Arroyo recalled. "I was so skinny. Everybody else was so big. The Phillies were known for drafting big pitchers. When I first was on the mound, I looked around and said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' And they were throwing so hard. I was afraid, actually. I would cry at night because I was homesick."
Arroyo didn't speak English, either. But he took classes back home and adjusted quickly. Even when Arroyo didn't fully speak the language, he could read and understand conversations. And he always felt that the organization was looking out for him.
Arroyo never made it to the big leagues as a player, getting as close as Triple-A Oklahoma City from 1979-81. He came close, though. In 1980, he became the closer there and ended up with eight wins and 13 saves -- impressive numbers for the times. When Tug McGraw struggled early in the year, Arroyo heard whispers that he might be called up. Then McGraw righted himself, pitched brilliantly down the stretch and cemented his spot in Phillies history by striking out Kansas City's Willie Wilson to nail down the first World Series championship in franchise history.
Arroyo had opportunities to coach for other teams. The Mets got permission to talk to him several years ago, the Nationals more recently. But they were Minor League positions and, besides, he never really wanted to go anywhere else.
"I'll be honest with you -- at this point in my career, I'd feel weird if I went somewhere else and wore another uniform besides the Phillies'," Arroyo said. "That's just the way I feel. Maybe a lot of people don't feel that way because they've never been in one place that long, or they got used to bouncing around. I don't like to be bouncing around.
"I never thought I would be here all these years. I look back and I say, 'Wow.' Thirty-seven years have gone by and I'm still wearing the same uniform. It's been a long journey.
"My goal was to be a big league pitcher, and that was cut short. And as a coach, I just want to help people. Whatever it takes, I just want to help people be the best they can be. That's what I bring to the table. What can I do to make the Phillies better every day?"
Arroyo would like to retire with the Phillies -- just not anytime soon.
"I'm 53. This is my 28th year coaching. I'm hoping I can do it until at least my early 60s. It keeps you young, you know?" he said with a smile.
Today, doctors would have easily removed the bone chips from Arroyo's elbow and he could have continued trying to pitch. Maybe he would have had a long playing career. Or, just maybe, that injury turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.