Viola pins remarkable return on knuckleball

Son of former Cy Young winner back in Minors for first time since '07

Frank Viola's win for Lansing on June 14 was his first victory since 2005. (Matt DeVries/Great Lakes Loons)

By Tyler Maun / | June 20, 2014 10:00 AM ET

A father's trophy case and highlight videos inspire a son's dream. Injuries and subsequent drift throw that dream off-track. A chance meeting years later, a spontaneous idea tossed out in passing, resurrects the impossible and lights a road never imagined.

Frank Viola III has no idea how he got here.

* * *

With the 869th pick in the 2004 Draft, the White Sox selected Frank Viola III -- "Frankie" -- out of Florida College, 867 picks after a right-hander out of Old Dominion University named Justin Verlander was taken by Detroit. The following summer, he reported to Rookie-level Bristol and posted respectable numbers. In 13 appearances, including 12 starts, the 29th-rounder went 5-2 with a 3.84 ERA and 59 strikeouts against 20 walks over 70 1/3 innings.

A year later, things began to turn. Frankie missed the entire 2006 season following Tommy John surgery. Back in Bristol the next campaign, he moved primarily to the bullpen and his numbers were less than stellar. In 11 appearances, eight in relief, the right-hander posted a 4.96 ERA and struck out just 10. That's when a knee injury appeared to bring a close to the dream. After just 86 innings of professional work, it appeared he was done.

Compare that to his dad, Frank Viola Jr. In 421 Major League games with five clubs, "Sweet Music" went 176-150 with a 3.73 ERA, three All-Star selections and a Cy Young Award. Shoes to fill. Rather big ones.

"I think every son wants to be just like his father," Frankie says. "I spent my entire life trying to be my dad, but I wasn't capable of doing it that way, and I was incapable of doing something great my own way. I always felt like baseball was it, but I didn't know how to achieve it."

He didn't achieve it -- at least at first. Gone from the White Sox, Frankie meandered.

"I didn't know who I was as a person," he says. "When you're young, you want to be cool. You want to be accepted. And I did everything to be cool and accepted in life, and that carried through in baseball. I never knew who I was. I wanted to be my dad. I was a sinkerballer. I wanted to be Derek Lowe. 'Why am I not getting a chance? Well, you're not working hard. That's not who you are.' I never took those little steps in life to help me in baseball, and I think life and baseball collaborate a lot. If you're not consistent in life, you can't be consistent in baseball."

Frankie tried real-world jobs that never sated his quest for meaning. In 2010, he tried to say goodbye -- one last time -- to his love, pitching a season for the independent St. Paul Saints of the American Association.

"I thought that was it," he said. "I wanted to go out and have a good time, enjoy pitching and have fun. I accomplished that. It wasn't a big attempt to come back. I wanted to go out doing what I love, and I thought that was the end of it for me."

* * *

At the start of Spring Training in 2014, the namesake of both men, Frank Viola Sr., passed away at the age of 86. His wife, Helen, mother to Frank and grandmother to Frankie, spoke to her husband of 64 years for the final time in his casket. "You behave yourself," she said, holding his hand. "I'll be there soon." Just 26 days later, she was.

In the haze of loss, there was another chapter yet to unfold for the Violas. A routine preseason physical ahead of his first year as pitching coach for the Mets' Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas dealt one more blow to Frank Viola Jr. His aorta was enlarged. He needed open-heart surgery immediately.

"Everything I'd gone through, and we'd all gone through as a family, I knew nothing was going to happen to him," Frankie says of his father's unexpected detour. "I had that feeling in my heart that everything was going to be fine. It was almost like a sign to start doing the right things for himself because he's always doing everything for everybody else. It was finally time for him to start living his life again and living it right."

That's not to say it was easy.

On April 2, doctors performed the procedure. Over the ensuing nine weeks, "Big Frank" was reborn during a delicate recovery process. With the help of his wife, Kathy, Frank learned how to eat better and treat his body properly. By the time he reported to the 51s in early June, he had lost 30 pounds. Heart surgery was in the past; Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom were in his future.

"Best feeling in the world," Frank says of his return. "Over the last couple of months with the passing of my mom and dad, to finding out in my physical that I have an enlarged aorta, realizing you're not going to be coaching at the beginning of the season, but heck, your life's in jeopardy because they're opening up your chest. It puts a lot of things in perspective. But once I got to the recuperation period, and I realized I was going to be OK, all I was looking forward to was getting out here and doing my job. The last week and a half since I've been out here has been just a fantastic time."

* * *

With the American Association in his rearview mirror, the younger Viola found himself still thinking about baseball. He worked out for Major League clubs in 2011 with good results but no offers. In 2012, he collided with his future.

"I was in fantasy camp with my dad, and we're sitting at a table with Bert Blyleven, Tony Oliva and Rod Carew," he says. "And I was telling them, 'I feel like I'm throwing the ball great, and I just don't know how to get a shot.' Tony Oliva just jokingly said, 'You should learn a knuckleball,' and they started telling stories about Hoyt Wilhelm and all these guys. And I heard it, but I didn't really take it seriously, you know? But then ... I don't know how it happened.

"I really don't know how this whole thing happened."

Frankie began the arduous process of learning the sport's most difficult pitch to master. He "started messing with it in 2012" with that year's eventual Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, then of the Mets. It wasn't immediately a match made in heaven.

"I threw one out of 100 that actually knuckled," Frankie told that year. "Then within two months or a month and a half, I started throwing it where I could get like two out of 10. I was like, 'Wow, this is kind of cool.'"

Then, for admittedly the first time in his life, Frankie applied himself to capture his goal.

"I didn't know what a work ethic was," he says. "In 29 years, it was all talent. Finally, I got to the point where I said, 'I've never tried the right way of living anything in my life, and it's worth a shot.' I started doing that. I started throwing it against the wall."

He stuck with it. For the first two months of 2014, he worked with Dickey. Then came former Red Sox star Tim Wakefield. Then came a support system of people like Verlander -- whom Frankie calls his closest friend -- and Kate Upton, who had lunch with Frankie's parents this spring, four weeks into his father's recovery from surgery, just to make sure everything was going OK.

His father didn't see it coming.

"No," Frank says. "And I didn't even hesitate -- did you notice that? I honestly thought it was just a period that he was going through, and it would be short-lived, and he would decide, 'You know what? This isn't for me.' Once I saw him make the necessary calls, go to Tennessee and talk to R.A., go to Melbourne [Florida] and talk to Timmy Wakefield, I thought, 'My god, he really is going to follow through with this.'"

All the while, Frankie continued roaring back to reclaim his dream. 

"The thing I'm most proud of is that Frankie is one of those guys that would start something, and then two, three, four weeks later, he would change avenues and do something else," his father says. "It was the first time I had seen him take the bull by the horns and run with it. It's great to see him start and keep on going and better himself on the baseball field and off the baseball field. As a family, that's what we're most proud of."

This year, destiny arrived, once more calling a Frank Viola to the stage. On March 4, Frankie worked out for Toronto Blue Jays personnel. By the end of the day, he was a professional baseball player again.

* * *

The sadness of the death of a parent and grandparent. The heartache of the loss of another within a month. The hyperawareness of mortality on an operating table with an uncertain future on the other side. Through all that darkness, the Viola family has found its light.

"It's all meant to be," Frank says of his son's return to baseball. "It's something that we, as a family, needed. When Frankie got signed by Toronto, and I was having my surgery, recovering from my surgery, it was always something to look forward to, hearing how he was doing, what was going on. Baseball is such a release from so many things in life. When he was living that, I was living it through him while I was recovering."

The game not only provided Frank a vicarious window into the world to which he was waiting to return, it provided his son sanctuary.

"It is a peaceful place, baseball," Frankie says. "It's your own little world. It's a getaway, almost. You're there to work on what you've got to work on to do these things for yourself. I changed my life around for the better, thanks to my dad and my mom and a couple friends. I think I was in a good place personally because I think my grandparents and my dad had seen me make the life changes that everybody was hoping for for so long. It gave me peace to go and focus on it."

Spring Training brought more lessons with Dickey. Extended spring brought more with Wakefield.

"I grew a lot, to the point where I came to a bit of standstill saying, 'I don't know where to go from here,' because you need that extra feedback," Frankie says. "[Fellow Minor League knuckleballer] Steven Wright helped me out a little bit, and then I reached out to Charlie Hough. He knew what I was doing wrong before I even sent him video. It was the craziest thing. He was like, 'This is what you're doing,' and I was like, 'That's what I feel like -- you're pretty smart.' He helped me take that next step."

"One thing Frankie has going for him," Frank says, "is that he's got that fraternity of knuckleballers, the R.A. Dickeys, the Tim Wakefields, the Charlie Houghs who talk to each other. They relate to each other. They share with each other their experiences, their knowledge. I think that's really helped Frankie more than anybody would imagine."

On June 9, 2014, three days after his father returned to his post in Las Vegas, Frank Viola III toed an affiliated professional rubber for the first time in seven years. He pitched four scoreless innings for the Class A Lansing Lugnuts. Five days later, he pitched 6 2/3 more, earning his first win in a Minor League Baseball game since August 26, 2005.

* * *

The knuckleball, like life, will take you where it decides to go, with little regard for your plans or wishes. There will be rough days and nights. There will be moments of baseball ecstasy. There will be slow, hanging meatballs waiting for the barrels of powerful bats. There will be head-scratching, knee-buckling satellites popping into catchers' mitts.

Jim Bouton threw it because he was "entranced by it. Because of the power of it. Because it was unhittable." The Montreal Expos' French-language broadcast team created the term "balle papillon" -- "butterfly ball" -- to capture the soul of it. Current Blue Jays Triple-A hitting coach Richie Hebner equated hitting Phil Niekro's to "eating soup with a fork."

"You don't see those guys very often, a Cy Young winner, an All-Star, just every year a superstar, a guy like my dad or like Verlander," Frankie says. "You can't teach what they do. I don't care how much you try. It's natural. It's just something that God blessed you with. With a knuckleball, I know R.A. Dickey talks a lot about 'hope,' and that's become one of my favorite words because there is hope for anybody to do it.

"I know that everybody is capable of doing it, but nobody is capable of putting the effort in to master it. That's the best part about it. I can teach somebody to do it, and it's 100 percent up to them -- or up to me -- to master it. If you put the time in, and you dedicate yourself, you can do it. You can't pitch like my dad. You can't pitch like Verlander. But you can pitch like me."

Frankie is no longer trying to be Frank. And father could not be prouder of son.

"No matter what he decided to do in life, I'm proud of him," Frank said. "That's first and foremost. You love him unconditionally, and he's the best son any father could have. But to be able to have a second chance like he has and to do what he's done with that second chance has been the biggest thrill of my life. Baseball's secondary in this. It's life, too. He finally understands that everything he's doing is for a reason. At least he knows that he's going all out and doing something, and once baseball's over, he'll be doing the same thing in life."

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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