Frank Viola back in pro ball with Savannah; Power win 5-3
Cy Young-winning pitcher Frank Viola is back in professional baseball and working for an organization he has long admired.
After his playing days ended in 1996, the former big league star spent 10 seasons coaching at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando and two seasons with the Florida Collegiate League's Leesburg Lightning.
He returned to the professional level three seasons ago, and was fortunate enough to do so with his favorite childhood organization. As the pitching coach for the South Atlantic League's Savannah Sand Gnats, he's under the minor league umbrella of one of his former teams, the New York Mets.
"My dad grew up in New York and he was a New York Giants fan," said the East Meadow, N.Y., native through a still-distinctive New York accent.
"When they moved to San Francisco, he had to find another team and that's when the Mets came into existence, so it became the New York Mets," he said.
"When I was born the first game I went to was a Mets game, so the Mets were the team I followed. This is my third year back with the Mets. I did one year at Brooklyn and this is my second year at Savannah and I'm having a great time."
Viola was the Most Valuable Player of the 1987 World Series, when he led the Minnesota Twins to their first world championship. His Cy Young-winning campaign followed in 1988, and after being traded he pitched for the New York Mets from 1989-1991. He finished his career in stints with the Red Sox (1992-94), Reds (1995) and Blue Jays (1996).
During the peak years of his career, from 1984-93, Viola won more games (163) than any other pitcher in the big leagues.
Viola said he uses his extensive experience to help teach and influence the young Mets' farmhands.
"It's all about credibility but you only have about a 15-minute window to show how credible you are," Viola said prior to the West Virginia Power's 5-3 win over the Sand Gnats Thursday evening at Appalachian Power Park.
"And then you have to take that credibility and let them know why you're doing things, for what reasons, and that it's in their best interests.
"Once you get through all that, I have a pretty good window where they've gotten to know me, they know that they shouldn't hesitate to ask any kind of question, because no question is a stupid. They know that I can answer any part of it because I've been from the lowest rung to the highest rung and everywhere in between.
Viola has also taken a few things he learned as a high school coach and applied them to the Mets' minor leaguers, some of whom are just a year or two older than his former high school players.
"The high school part of coaching was the best because it taught me patience," Viola said. "When I was playing they'd tell me something once or twice and I'd figure it out. At the high school level you can tell them until you're blue in the face and some kids will never figure it out.
"It does teach patience, though, and that's what you need more than anything else because it's not like the kids aren't trying, they just can't get it. So the more patience you have and the more in control you are, the better your chances of getting good results."
Coaching has also turned the 53-year old Viola into somewhat of psychologist in helping young prospects deal with that aspect of the game.
"At this level most of it is the mental part," Viola said. "Most of them have gotten this far because of their physical tools. Now to take it to the next levels, they've got to understand the mental part. Not to sound cocky or anything, but my strength is the mental part of the game.
"I had to learn to be mentally tough and to be able to teach them and have them understand why you have to be tough, that's the kicker."
The win pushed West Virginia to 14-11 in the South Atlantic League's second half, and 51-44 overall, while Savannah dropped to 10-14 and 53-40.
Stefan Sabol gave the Sand Gnats a 1-0 lead with an RBI single off of Power starter Clay Holmes, before the Power tied it in the third inning when Raul Fortunato doubled home Luis Urena, who reached on an error by Sand Gnats shortstop Dimas Ponce.
Savannah took a 3-1 lead with a pair of runs in the top of the fourth, only to see the Power answer with three runs of its own in the bottom half of the inning.
After a Josh Bell double staring the Power's response, Eric Wood followed with a single, moving Bell to third. A single by Walker Gourley scored Bell, with Wood advancing home and Gourley to third on a throwing error by centerfielder Brandon Nimmo.
Gourley came home on a wild pitch by Sand Gnat starter Marcos Camerena, who dropped to 4-1 after allowing four runs and seven hits in six innings of work.
Power starter Clay Holmes went four innings to pick up the win, while relievers Lance Breedlove, Clario Perez and Jhondaniel Medina combined to toss five scoreless innings to close out the contest.
Breedlove (3-2) earned the win with two innings of work, allowing one hit and striking out three. Medina corralled his second save in as many chances with a perfect ninth inning.
West Virginia will look to sweep the three-game series tonight when the two teams square off at 7:05.