West Seattle coach Velko Vitalich leaves behind winning legacy
By Lindsay Peyton
Just because Velko Vitalich is retiring from coaching baseball doesn’t mean he won’t still be a regular in the stands.
Even he admits it would be hard to change course completely -- after spending 31 years standing on the sidelines, advising in the locker rooms and discussing plays in the dugouts for West Seattle High School.
“What will be weird for me is when spring rolls around,” he said. “It hasn’t totally hit me yet.”
He still loves the game – but it’s taken a toll physically and he believes his successor Bryan Tupper is ready for his turn at bat. “I knew there were good people to take my place,” he said. “We need a young guy in there.”
Vitalich’s record counts 398 wins and 255 losses. His best season, he said, was in 2006, with 22 wins and two losses.
Another banner year was in 2013, when Vitalich took his team to finish second in state.
He’s led West Seattle athletes to Metro playoffs 26 times and 12 times in state, from 1989 to 1993 and again in 2003, 2006, 2008, and more recently from 2010 to 2013.
There were five years the team became metro champions – in 1990 through 1993 and again in 2006 – and West Seattle High was named division champion 14 times during Vitalich’s tenure.
“We packed the place in those play-off games,” Vitalich said. “Those were goosebump-type games.”
He basically fell into coaching in his home turf. “I just liked it,” he said. “It’s just what I did. Spring came on, and you went and coached baseball.”
Vitalich grew up in West Seattle – and attended the high school where he would later become baseball coach, after graduating from Madison Middle School and Lafayette Elementary.
He mainly played baseball and basketball as a child – but he is a true sports fan and loves football and hockey as well.
After earning his degree in physical education at Western Washington University, Vitalich started coaching girls basketball in 1978.
“I’ve been coaching ever since,” he said.
At the time, John Robinson was coaching baseball at the school.
“I thought he’d never leave,” Vitalich said.
To his surprise, Robinson stepped down and Vitalich took over his post in 1987.
Since then, he has only been thrown out of a game once.
“In the early years, I used to take our losses so hard,” he said. “Then I figured out, we should just do the best we can, win or lose. When I finally figured that out, I became a better coach.”
He said helping students grow as athletes has been his top priority. “It’s all about the kids,” he said. “We had great kids every year. They’re West Seattle guys, and I’m a West Seattle guy. We had pride in our school and in our community.”
Practice makes perfect was his guiding mantra. “The harder you work, the luckier you are,” he said. “You know why that guy hit doubles instead of singles? He was in the weight room all winter. If you want to be good, you have to be committeed.”
Vitalich has also served as basketball referee for 40 years and plans to continue. He will also still coach golf and continue to be a special education instructor.
He thanks his wife Karen and volunteers for helping him all these years.
“I lasted as long as I did, because I had so many guys volunteer to help me,” he said. “They were so dedicated.”
Jim Bowe, one of Vitalich’s former student athletes, has been a volunteer baseball coach at Vitalich’s side for the past 10 years.
“It’s been fun to get to know Velko as an adult,” Bowe said. “I wanted to help him out.”
Bowe said Vitalich has a keen sense of the sport. “He just understands the game,” Bowe said. “He has a really good eye. Velko earned the respect.”
He added that Vitalich’s first priority was always helping his students.
“Obviously he wanted to win, and he won a lot of games, but he gave the kids a lot of chances,” Bowe said. “He was all about development. There’s something bigger than baseball. He understood getting the kids into an activity after school and on a team was primary, and baseball was secondary.”