1/27/14

Craig Mitchell -- "Sweet Music" and the Salt of the Earth

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I'm a proud graduate of East Meadow High School, Class of 78 to be exact. A perfectly normal suburban high school and couldn’t be more typical if it had to be.  Me, I was even more typical than that. I was nearly totally invisible. I didn’t fit in with the cool kids, or the jocks or the stoners. I just lumbered through school and for the most part it was uneventful. However, in 9th grade, I tried out for the Woodland JHS baseball team and my lack of experience hitting live pitching really came back to haunt me.  I had the most disastrous tryout in history and was cut. I don't blame Coach Grey. I did suck. Bigtime.  In 10th grade I was so scarred by that attempt that I didn’t attempt to try out for my High School Junior Varsity team. But the next year, I did try out as a junior, and much to my chagrin, that was a huge no-no. Juniors while not “forbidden” to try out for JV, where only supposed to be on the team if they were sent down from Varsity. I was a year behind and I paid the price. I made the team as a 1st baseman, but I was blocked from playing because a sophomore named Joe Lent , an all or nothing long ball artist, who got the starting job. I was a better hitter and fielder, but because Joe was a sophomore I was relegated to basically rot on the bench. That was my punishment for sitting out 10th grade.  My only other option? Try out for Varsity.  That was NOT a consideration at all. Because blocking me on Varsity was a slugging 1st baseman/Pitcher who was all county. His name? Frank Viola.
Frank Viola with the Free Throw

Yep, THAT Frank Viola.  The one and only Frank “Sweet Music” Viola who won a Cy Young award and was the 1987 World Series MVP with the Twins. He was also that last Met prior to R.A. Dickey to win 20 games.  Frank was pretty much the big man on campus at EMHS.  Not only was he a star in baseball, he along with Russ Weisenberg led our Varsity Basketball team to some great years too. Russ was the Center, Frank was a shooting/power forward.  But, Frank Viola was the stud first baseman that kept me miring on the bench in JV. I used to have a locker next to him. One afternoon while both teams were dressing after a game or a practice Coach Dinkelmeyer asked Frank how he had done. Frank said  “Not so good…I only went 2 for 4!”  I was pulling on my pumas thinking, Bragger! I ate 11 salt tablets while sitting on the bench in my game. Why?  Because I was bored, and what 17 year old doesn’t like salty things? That’s pretty much when my baseball aspirations ended. Well, not quite.  I did join a Pony/Colt league that summer and batted .426 and made the tournament team, but I went nowhere. Compared to Frank that is.
Frank went on to dominate and flourish as a pitcher at St. John’s University. On May 21st 1981, Frank and another future Met from Yale, Ron Darling, hooked up in one of the most heralded college baseball games in history.   St. Johns beat Yale 1-0 in 12 innings while Darling had a no-hitter for 11 innings. Frank finished his career at St. Johns 26-2. Oh, and by the way, I really didn’t/don't know Frank that well.But his Mother did used to bring oranges for us to eat during games and I did sit next to him in 10th health class.

Frank’s star rose in the 80’s with the Twins. Being from my home town and from the same school we all followed his progress.  His early career was a little rough. By 1982, he was in the show. He was 11-25 in his first 36 decisions while he got his footing in the majors. Early on there was a sign of things to come. Viola faced the Yankees and Tommy John at Yankee Stadium on August 25 th 1982. Viola tossed a 6 hit shutout and beat the Yankees 5-0. Watching on WPIX, in the stands they showed his former EMHS team mates and schoolmates like Jim Angelino cheering Frank on. I never forgot that game. I do remember in the post-game interview they asked Viola how it felt to come back to his home town and beat the Yankees. He proudly stated that growing up he “hated the Yankees.”  Maybe not the most diplomatic thing to say about a team in your league that you just schooled, but Frank was a Met fan. Seven years later, he would get his chance to play in Flushing full time.

On July 31st 1989, The Mets sent Rick Aguilera, David West, Kevin Tapani, Tim Drummond and Jack Savage to the Twins for Viola.  Quite a hall for the Twinkies. They got an all-star closer and a pretty decent starter in Kevin Tapani. David West never fulfilled his promise…and I believe Tim Drummond was on “Different Strokes (Bad joke)But the Met didn’t get “Sweet Music” cheap; they paid for and got a winner.  Viola was 5-5 with a 3.38 era the last two months of the 1989 season.  But in 1990, Frank provided the Mets the bang for their buck.  89 saw the Mets get off to a 20-22 start, and despite sporting a roster of stars they hadn’t really won anything since 1986. 42 games into the season Davey Johnson was fired and Met legend Bud Harrelson took over the helm.  The Mets responded by going 71-49 the rest of the way. They were powered by Darryl Strawberry (37 hr. 108 RBI), Kevin McReynolds (24 hr. 82 RBI), Dave Magadan (.328 ba) and Viola, who stepped up playing for the team he followed his entire life by going 20-12 with a 2.67 era. He led the NL in games started (35) and Innings pitched (249.2 ip). The Mets ended up finishing 2nd with a 91-71 record, but Viola became only the 5th Mets pitcher to win 20 games in a season joining Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Dwight Gooden, and David Cone up until that point. (22 years later R.A. Dickey became the 6th)

May 2nd, 1990, Viola took the mound at Shea against the Reds. Viola was off to an amazing start.  He was 4-0 in April with a 1.32 era.  On that day, Sweet Music was in tune and blanked the future 1990 World Champion Reds  5-0 going the distance allowing 6 hits 1 walk and striking out 11. Viola even added a single to left field between Chris Sabo and Barry Larkin in the bottom of the 2nd inning.  Not the prettiest of swings, let’s just say the former East Meadow High School slugger stuck his fanny half way down the first base line on what looked like an outside fastball by Tom Browning…but it still brought me back to the days where I was  guzzling salt tablets on the bench and I remained the stoppable force and he was the immovable object at first base blocking my high school baseball career.

After the game, I was part of the mob of reporters that got to talk to Frank about the masterpiece he just tossed.  I debated through all the questions being asked whether I would approach Frank or not and say hi personally.  I was fairly confident that he wouldn’t remember me.  It would also probably be considered pretty unprofessional.  I had seen Marty Noble talking casually to players all the time, but he was Marty Noble. He was from a major newspaper (Newsday). I was a fly by night guy who only covered like 3 or 4 games a year.  But, I threw caution into the wind. After the mob dispersed, Frank turned his attention to getting changed and I walked up to him.  I got his attention and when he turned around I reminded him who I was and that I had sat behind him in Mr. Tarpey’s 10th grade health class.  He stared at me for about ten seconds. I thought he was gonna have me tossed out of the locker room (but that didn’t happen till 4 years later courtesy of Bobby Bonilla) he laughed and said  “I don’t remember you. Did we play together?” I said, no, but I told him that one time in a scrimmage I batted against him. He laughed again and said “Did you hit me?”  I said “Nope, 1 fastball and 2 change ups and I was back on the bench”  He said “I didn’t have a change up yet, I don’t think….Hey nice seeing ya”  and that was it.

I had my brushes with fame (acting and standup comedy) but Frank is the true superstar to come out of East Meadow High school. Actually Frank is the most famous person to ever come out of that school (If you don’t count serial killer Joel Rifkin). I’m not even a footnote. Gary Grossman (An actor from the film “Bachelor Party”) is way higher on the pecking order than me and I’m fine with it.  Whenever I see or hear about Frank these days there is a sense of pride.  School pride and a general sense of pride that I was actually pretty close to greatness.  Hey, not everyone gets to OD on Salt tablets because a future World Series MVP is blocking their progress.  I’m a lucky guy.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love Frank Viola both as a player...and even more as a coach. The club's young pitchers have thrived in Savannah over the past two seasons with Viola in the position there.

With Dan Warthen having just signed a two year extension it creates a perfect opportunity for Viola to get promoted to AAA for the 2014 and 2015 seasons before becoming the club's pitching coach in 2016 when the young guys are fully integrated within the MLB roation.

Mack Ade said...

I chose one opportunity to interview Viola in 2012 and ask him about his Savannah pitching staff.

I found him candid, very professional, and answered everyone of my questions.

Anonymous said...

Nice piece.......I really enjoy your contributions to the site!

Herb G said...

Craig -

Great article with fond reminiscences. Nice that you have no sour grapes about Sweet Music.

Mack Ade said...

Craig -

You have been an absolute breath of fresh air since you came to this site...

Craig Mitchell said...

Thank you for the kind words. The Mets and their players and fans have been a HUGE part of my life. I just am...sharing from my Blue and Orange heart :)

Michael Weinstat said...

Nice Job, I am also a EMHS graduate, class of 1980. I wrote sports for the Jet Gazette so I attended all the home basketball and baseball games so I watched Frank Viola and it was fun. I was surprised and disappointed that the hoops team didn't advance further in the playoffs. I was in Frank's business law class and I played golf with him once so I knew him, not well but he was always nice to me. He was also an intelligent person, not the stereotypical jock, that is for certain. Too bad he had elbow injuries soon after he joined the Mets, otherwise he would have had a few more pretty good years.

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