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Frank Viola knows all about the impact a big-leaguer can have on a young player, ever since that day in 1969 when he went to a baseball clinic at Eisenhower Park in his East Meadow, L.I., hometown and sat starry-eyed, listening to Jerry Koosman.
Koosman said young pitchers should not throw curveballs until they were well into their teens and Viola took Koosman's advice. He's so convinced it had an impact on his own terrific career in the majors that he preaches it himself now.
"I'm 50 years old, but I'll never forget that day," Viola says. Viola, a two-time 20-game winner who won the 1988 AL Cy Young Award and pitched from 1982-96, also knows that lessons learned from a baseball career can help young players, which is something he can use as he returns to professional baseball this year as the pitching coach for the Mets' short-season Class-A team in Brooklyn, the Cyclones.
It's an opportunity that Viola, who has spent much of his time since retiring as a high school coach in his adopted hometown of Orlando, and coaching college players in a Florida summer league, relishes. He'll start spring training with the Cyclones in Port St. Lucie on March 2 and, once his new players "Google me," he says, he'll have instant credibility.
"I think the difference between a kid staying in A-ball and getting farther is the mental part of the game," Viola says. "That's the strength of what I bring to the table. The stuff I went through going up to the big leagues, kids just don't think of any that. If you can get insight from someone who's been through it, it helps."
So Viola, who once referred to himself as "the crybaby of the 80s" in a Sports Illustrated article, will talk openly about the days he was "very competitive, but competitive to a bad degree.
"I always thought I knew the (strike) zone better than the umpires. Talk to any umpire — I was the nicest guy around, but I was a butthead to them. I let errors bother me. I remember a teammate told me once, ‘Why don't you man up and take responsibility?' and I thought, ‘It's about time I did that.' That helped me. I'm still trying to figure out full maturity, but growing up did make a major difference in my career. It really made a difference with my teammates, too. There were some who didn't want to play behind me because of my attitude."
As a coach, Viola says he finds it easy to talk to young players about any kind of problem. "I can spot it really easily, because I did it all," he says. "I've been through it, so I can relate to these kids."
Viola met with several teams at baseball's winter meetings last December, gauging their interest in him as a pitching coach. He wowed Met executives there and the Mets, aching for good news in this Age of Madoff, believe they have found an ex-Met who can help build the team's next generation of pitchers.
"There's a real passion there," says Paul DePodesta, the Mets' VP for player development and amateur scouting. "The idea of working in Brooklyn, and having that age player - from 18 to 22 or 23 - he really felt was in his wheelhouse. That's not something you always hear from prospective coaches, that they want to work with that level.
"Despite everything he accomplished as a player, he's a humble guy. He's got a real physical presence to him and with all he accomplished, you'd expect bravado, but that isn't there. The maturation process he went through as a player will definitely help and here's this big guy who had one of the great changeups, not known as the most macho pitch. He was a pitcher more than a thrower. When we draft kids, they are interested in lighting up the radar gun. We are interested in that, too, but at the end of the day, we're more interested in them getting outs and Frank will help them."
Viola also seems like a natural storyteller, too, so he should be able to command attention with anecdotes from his career, like the time Twins' pitching coach Johnny Podres told him early in his career that the catcher was only going to set his target over the middle of the plate, an exercise that would help Viola, who was pitching poorly at the time, believe in his own talent.
"I thought, ‘Like I'm not struggling enough?'" Viola recalls. Turned out, he pitched well. As he left the mound with a lead, Viola peeked at Podres, who sat on the bench, his arms crossed. "Whaddaya think, kid?" Podres barked. "You're stuff is damn good if you trust it."
"I really believe that's where my baseball career took off," Viola says.
Viola was 176-150 in his 15-year career, made three All-Star teams and was won two games in the thrilling 1987 World Series against the Cardinals, including Game 7. He was named series MVP. Viola even got to pitch for the Mets, the team he grew up adoring, after a July 31, 1989 trade that sent Rick Aguilera, Tim Drummond, Kevin Tapani, David West and Jack Savage to Minnesota. Thirty years ago, while playing for St. John's, Viola also pitched in probably the greatest college baseball game ever, a memorable matchup with Yale's Ron Darling 30 years ago.
His tenure with the Mets did not end the way he wanted — he went 2-11 down the stretch in 1991, hampered by nagging injuries — and was gone to Boston as a free agent after the season, just one year removed from winning 20 games. "I had some positives with the Mets, some negatives with the Mets," he says. "I struggled greatly in my last bit there and I did not want to leave on the terms I did — it's frustrating as hell. Being a Met fan, I know you have to perform."
If he eventually rises in the organization now, so be it, Viola says. "We'll see how it plays out," he says. "Right now, it's the perfect setup for me, the perfect transition. I think it's great because they are starting anew, having (new GM Sandy) Alderson in there, the new front office. I really believe I'm on the ground floor here and I'm very excited."