All-Star Game Memories Still Fresh For Former MLB Pitcher Frank Viola
You can tell it in his voice. Frank Viola is proud to have been selected to three MLB All-Star Games.
Thirty years ago, Viola, along with teammate Howard Johnson, represented the New York Mets as part of the National League squad in Toronto. This was the Long Islander's third time being selected for the Midsummer Classic. And like his previous two selections (1988 & 1990), Viola soaked up the experience like a thirsty sponge.
"Absolutely," Viola said earlier this week during a telephone conversation when telling of his family joining in on his all-star celebrations. "My mom, dad, my son, they were with me for all three. My son Frankie's favorite player was Cecil Fielder (Detroit Tigers). I remember this game more than the others."
"The night before the game (MLB) had a boat take the players and their families to a party. Frankie got to meet Cecil then, hang with him , and get a picture. Those are the lasting memories that are entrenched in my mind; the great times with all those players."
A native of East Meadow (NY), a 30 minutes drive to Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens, Viola grew up a Mets fan. Getting to play parts of three of his 15 MLB seasons in New York for his favorite team, and represent them as an all-star was beyond anything the lefty hurler could only dream of as a child.
Part of Viola's childhood annual routine was to tune into network TV each July for the All-Star Game.
"There was no interleague play back then. You got to see the stars of MLB on the same field, on the same night," said Viola. " That was a big deal. It was the best of the best getting to showcase their abilities against each other."
During the three All-Star Games that Viola participated in, there would be dozens of teammates, opponents, and coaching staff members who would go onto being voted into the Hall of Fame.
The 1988 Midsummer Classic held at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, Viola's first selection representing the Minnesota Twins, couldn't have gone any better. Enjoying his seventh season with the Twins, Viola was selected as the American League's starting pitcher. After pitching two shut-out innings, followed by seven other elite teammates sharing mound duties, the American League won 2-1. Viola was credited with the victory.
Sharing locker rooms with future Cooperstown hall of famers as Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs, and Paul Molitor didn't phase Viola. He recalls not being star-struck in the least, but feeling more of belonging.
I felt like I was part of the group. I had a couple good years leading up to my first selection," says Viola, who would win the AL Cy Young Award in 1988, and a season earlier led Minnesota to a World Series championship, and be selected the Fall Classic's MVP.
A bonus for those representing their teams at All-Star Games is having opportunities to spend quality time with those who are otherwise opponents. Prior to pitching two-innings of shutout ball in Cincinnati, Viola looks back at a lifetime friendship made between he and longtime Baltimore Oriole Cal Ripken, Jr.
"I sat down with (Ripken) , and we got to know each other really well. We've been good buddies through the years. The two, or two and a half days that you are teammates, this is special. Usually you're sitting in opposite dugouts but for All-Star Games, you get to know each other as people."
When Viola, who was traded by the Twins to the Mets on July 31,1989, went to the All-Star Game the following season at Chicago's Wrigley Field, he had one very familiar teammate making the trip with him from New York. With Cincinnati's Jack Armstrong selected as the National League's starter, Viola and Mets' teammate John Franco were among the nine reserve pitchers manager Roger Craig had to utilize.
The Viola-Franco connection dates back to their college days at St. John's University in Queens (NY). Teammates playing college ball from 1979-1981, Viola made his MLB debut in 1982, Franco two seasons later.
"All the stuff Johnny and I accomplished together, not a lot of people realize, unless they look it up in the record books," explains Viola. " The only thing I wish we could have done as a duo differently was to win the 1980 College World Series (St. John's lost to the California Golden Bears). If Johnny had been healthy, he was the missing link that gave us a chance to win everything."
A player of Viola's All-Star Game pedigree; the Cy Young, World Series MVP, a 176-150 win/loss record during 15 MLB seasons, you would be correct to assume that he would be watching FOX's telecast of the 91st Midsummer Classic from Denver's Coors Field.
"Probably not," answers Viola when asked of his plans for this coming Tuesday evening. "I'm not a big fan of the direction where baseball is going. I think they are trying to make too many changes, and that is disrupting the game. The changes MLB is trying out in Independent ball are farcical in my opinion. It puts a bad taste in my mouth."
Viola keeps his toe dipped in the game today as pitching coach for the eight-team Atlantic League's High point (NC) Rockers. On Tuesday, when the stars come out on one of MLB's biggest showcases of the year, the Rockers will be opening up a six-game homestand at Truist Point. Viola's baseball plate is full. He'll probably catch the highlights - maybe.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.