Seven Questions For Frank Viola

The 51s pitching coach and former World Series MVP on connecting with today’s players, his recent health scare and how he would pitch to Bryce Harper

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

After a 15-year major league career and stints coaching high school, college and Single A, how do like dealing with players in Triple A?

The younger kids are more apt to not only learn but also to pick your brain about how to move up in the organization—what do I need to do to be successful? At this level, they’re one step away. They pretty much know what they need to do. The question is the mental hurdle of understanding what it takes to get from being a Triple-A pitcher to a big league pitcher. And that’s my biggest strength: If you were to ask me to break down a [pitcher’s] delivery and start all over again, I probably wouldn’t be able to do that. But I’ve been through all the highs and all the lows of baseball, so if a scenario plays out, I have an answer, because I’ve been through it myself.

You were inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame last month, and you were the World Series MVP in 1987 and a Cy Young winner in ’88. Does that mean players give you respect from the get-go?

Short-term, yes. Once they Google you and realize, “My God, you were able to do this,” you have a window of opportunity. Within that window, you better make a statement that says to them, “I’m in it for you.” If you don’t do that, they’ll lose you just like they’ll lose anybody else, and then you’ll have no chance. Fortunately, I like talking, I’m outgoing, I’m all about having fun if you do your job. So it’s real easy for me to be able to click with the young players.

How do you measure success beyond wins, losses and ERA at this level?

Just seeing what effect we have on the big league club. By mid-June there were 10-11 players who started here who were off to the [New York Mets, the 51s’ parent club] and making a difference. We have no control over a lot of the [promotions]. The kid has to be in the right place at the right time, or you have to be looking for a specific person for a specific role at a specific time. … It’s [about] keeping these kids above water, keeping them even-keeled and letting them know that even though they’re not getting an opportunity now, that opportunity will come if they keep on working hard.

Describe the sense of satisfaction of working with a pitcher like Noah Synderguaard (who advanced to the Mets this season) or even somebody less prominent.

It’s more satisfying than when I did it myself. I’ve already accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish on the baseball field. I don’t have to worry about me anymore; it’s all about them. So if I’m able to say the right thing, do the right thing, put something in place that helps them get there, sure, I take great satisfaction in that. And I don’t need to have somebody come up to me and say, “Frank, thanks a lot.” I know when they know it’s a mutual understanding—I’m not here for the kudos; I’m here to give the kids an opportunity that I had, and that’s to play in a major league uniform. There’s nothing better than that.

How do you help the players get through the challenges Las Vegas presents?

If you can survive not only Vegas but the Pacific Coast League, you can survive anywhere. From the travel to the ballpark to the heat to the obstacles that you have to overcome in the city, there’s always something to get yourself into trouble. You have to learn to understand what your first priority is and stick to it. If you want to be a major league ballplayer, you have to overlook all this stuff, suck it up and keep going. … It is incredible the trials and tribulations they go through [in travel], but when you get through it, you realize, you know what, that might have been the best thing that ever happened to me. A lot of these guys have never struggled.

During spring training last year, you were diagnosed with an enlarged aorta. What was your reaction?

I could have been throwing batting practice tomorrow, had an aneurism and died on the spot. Or it could have been 5-10 years from now. Eventually it was going to show its ugly head. So I stopped everything, and within a week I was under the knife. It was a hell of a wake-up call. One [minute] I’m concerning myself about how I’m going to handle these Triple-A pitchers and the next thing, it’s life and death.

You take for granted a lot of things. You don’t realize how important people are to you. My wife has been around for 30-plus years, and what she helped me get through is mindboggling. I wouldn’t be able to have the patience to do that for her; she was incredible. Your true friends come out, and you realize that you do make a difference in a lot of people’s lives. I hate to say it, but it’s like going to a funeral—you don’t know until after the fact how much people care about you. It’s nice to know that when you’re [still] around you see all this love and compassion.

What’s your fondest memory of the ’87 World Series in which you started three times for the Minnesota Twins, including Game 7, when you beat the St. Louis Cardinals?

When the third out was made, all I wanted my legs to do was get to the bottom of the pile. My biggest thought was, “Don’t collapse before you get to the pile.” It was just an amazing feeling, because when you win a world championship, you do it as a team—25 guys, coaching staff, front office working together. Out of my 15 years [in MLB], that was the only time I made the playoffs.

You followed it up with the Cy Young in 1988. What was working for you that year when you won 24 games.

The changeup made a big difference. When you come off a year like we did in ’87, when there were no expectations and at the end of the year you win the world championship as a group, you feel that confidence that nobody’s going to beat me.

That just carried into the ’88 season for me personally. Every time I stepped out there, I felt I was going to give the team a chance to win. The team knew that, they scored the runs for me, they made the plays for me, and they made my job so much easier because they had the confidence in me.

Why are there so many Tommy John surgeries?

1. We baby the kids too much. 2. The mechanics are awful in some of these kids, and it’s just a matter of time. 3. The heavy lifting, the strength and conditioning part of the game, has gotten to the point where you’re bulking instead of staying free and easy with range of motion.

I went more than 11 years without missing a start. Did I have aches and pains? Absolutely, but I didn’t think anything of it. Now if you go in and tell the trainer you have an ache or a pain, they shut you done for a period of time because they’re protecting you. In reality, they’re softening you instead of toughening you up. You’re shelling out so much money to these kids that you want to get as much out of your investment as possible, so you protect them instead of letting them try working through the stuff.

The worst thing they ever did was [create] club teams and stuff like that. If I had to play baseball today at the age these kids are playing, 12 months out of the year, I don’t think I would have had the career I had. And I sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you as a coach, because I would be so sick of the game of baseball. I couldn’t picture playing any sport for a 12-month period. I couldn’t do it. I grew up [also) playing basketball, and it’s totally different from baseball.

So if you had a youngster, your best advice would be what?

I’d have him play three or four sports, do some Cub Scouts, do something totally away from the game. You might think you’re going to get scholarships [by playing year round] at 12 years old, but it’s not going to happen.

If you love the game, if you don’t have parents pushing you, you can play eight or nine months out of the year. You can play 12 months out of the year if there’s no pressure on you. But there’s always pressure from somebody. My biggest saving grace in the game of baseball was my dad. He loved the game and taught me the game, but he couldn’t play the game worth a damn. Because he couldn’t play the game, he couldn’t push me to play the game. So he always stayed in the background and let me do what I needed to do and that’s why a) we had the friendship until he passed away like we did, and b) I love the game because I knew my dad was proud of me no matter what I did. If I struck out or gave up 10 runs, he was not going to go, “Holy cow, you stink.” I’m his son, he’s my dad, and that’s all that matters.

What was your funniest moment on the mound?

I’m  pitching for the Twins against the Texas Rangers in 1984, and it was the first time we were in a nationally televised game because we were in a pennant race. We’re winning 1-0, I’m throwing well and I don’t want to be bothered. I just got the leadoff hitter out in the seventh, and all of a sudden catcher Timmy Laudner starts walking to the mound. Halfway to the mound he took his facemask off, put it on top of his head and starts smiling. I’m thinking, “What the hell are you doing? I’m in a groove. Get back!” He keeps on walking slowly with a smile on his face. When he finally got to the mound, I go, “What’s this all about?” He says, “You’re pitching too well—I want to get some national TV coverage.” So he just walked out to have the camera pan on him. To this day that’s one of the priceless stories, because who would think about doing that in the heat of the moment? It was beautiful.

You’re a southpaw who had a wicked circle change in your prime: How do you get left-handed hitting Las Vegan Bryce Harper out?

I would work hard stuff away and mix in the changeup when I go ahead in the count. But you have to have enough confidence in your secondary pitches to throw [the changeup] when you’re behind in the count, and I would do that. If I fall behind Bryce Harper 2-1, everybody and their mother would think, “Here comes a fastball”; that’s when I would throw him my changeup. I would pitch him backward, because he’s such a quality hitter. It would be a good matchup; I’d take my chances with him.

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