Viola III knuckling down to revive career
Plagued by injuries, pitcher has Dickey, father as support
JUPITER, Fla. -- R.A. Dickey calls the knuckleball a "desperation pitch," a last-ditch effort to save a career.
Earlier this week at Port St. Lucie, Fla., Dickey watched as Frank Viola III climbed atop a bullpen mound and began throwing desperation pitches one by one. Some knuckled. Some did not. But enough of them fluttered with enough potential to catch his mentor's eye.
"He was really impressed, and it's really cool to have a guy like him be even slightly impressed," said Viola, son of the former Cy Young Award winner and Mets Minor League coach. "I really do feel like I'm close. At the rate I'm going, I really feel like in the next year or so it's going to be something special."
The roots of Viola's desperation began in the spring of 2006, when the 29th-round Draft pick blew out his elbow in just his second professional season. Tommy John surgery allowed Viola to return for a second season in the White Sox organization in 2007, before a knee injury ended his Minor League career. Another lost year of rehabilitation led to an independent ball stint in 2010, then tryouts in front of Major League talent scouts after that season.
"I was lights out," Viola said. "I didn't get hit in any tryouts. I was just tearing people apart and nobody really even noticed. It was like nobody cared. I was 87 to 90 [miles per hour] with a sinker, and a slider I could throw for a strike whenever I wanted to. I had a pretty good changeup. It wasn't my dad's changeup, but it was good."
The epiphany came as a joke, when some of his father's former Twins teammates began suggesting he revive his career with a knuckleball. Viola took it seriously. And so each day, after finishing his work selling timeshares in central Florida, Viola would drive to Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando to work out alongside Major League hitters Johnny Damon and A.J. Pierzynski. There, he began throwing the knuckleball.
"And it was terrible," Viola said. "I threw one out of 100 that actually knuckled. 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.'"
At night, Viola would download footage of Dickey and Phil Niekro onto his iPad, analyzing their wrist angles and release points. It was all he had to go on, until Niekro agreed to meet him at the Braves' Spring Training complex last week -- such are the benefits of having a famous father in the game.
Now, things are happening quickly for Viola, who is still just 27 years old -- several years younger than Dickey was when he first began learning the pitch. Viola has already tried out for the Red Sox and Rangers, and has spoken with the Mets and Nationals. During his ongoing stay in Port St. Lucie, he has made a point to throw off a mound with a view of farm director Adam Wogan's office, trying to pique Wogan's interest.
So far, teams are skeptical. The Red Sox, for example, told Viola they would like to monitor him for a year before committing a Minor League roster spot to him. One member of the Mets' front office asked Dickey his opinion, and Dickey was honest: he replied that while the potential for a professional career is clearly there, he needs to see Viola throw more to know for sure. And although Viola's father has a job in the organization as a pitching coach at Class A Savannah, he feels it is not his place to lobby for his son.
"He's got an opportunity that a lot of guys don't have," the elder Viola said. "My being a coach here, he does have the opportunity to be around a lot of people who will make that decision."
"I wasn't much further behind him when I started," Dickey said. "It's going to take a little bit of time. But the hard thing about being a knuckleballer is you've got to have somebody sponsor you. You've got to have somebody who says, 'I believe this can eventually be something. And we want to give you the time to do it.' Because if you don't have that, you'll never get a shot."
Since Eddie Cicotte purportedly invented the knuckleball -- or at least introduced it into baseball's mainstream consciousness -- several years into the 20th century, the pitch has always had at least one practitioner in the Major Leagues. Rarely has there been more than a handful at a time. But partially because so many knuckleballers have taught their craft to others, the line of succession has proceeded uninterrupted.
Now, that is in danger. With Tim Wakefield's retirement earlier this spring, Dickey is the only knuckleballer remaining in the league. Though a few Minor Leaguers have thrown the pitch in recent years, none have experienced any sort of consistent success with it. And so when Dickey retires -- be that in two years or 10 -- the knuckleball is in danger of going extinct for the first time in more than a century.
Viola wants to prevent that from happening.
"I am not even close to as good as him," Viola said of Dickey. "He's unbelievable. He throws one that rotates one to two times over the top when he wants to, like a tumbler. He throws it with a little side spin when he wants to. He throws it with no spin when he wants to. It's like, 'Oh my God, you're like Yoda.'"
Tigers ace Justin Verlander, whom Viola considers one of his closest friends in professional baseball, believes there is a place for pitchers like him in the game.
"The hard thing is to break in as a knuckleballer," Verlander said. "A lot of times, teams probably write you off as a knuckleballer because they're not really looking for that. But if you can get within an organization throwing a knuckleball, and can be successful, then you've got a chance."
After driving 45 minutes to Jupiter to watch Dickey pitch against the Marlins on Thursday, Viola waited the better part of an hour for Dickey to finish his workout, shower and talk to reporters, all for a brief conversation with his mentor. Afterward, Viola planned to find a mound and run through some of the knuckleball drills Dickey had taught him the day before.
"A lot of guys don't have the potential to throw it and throw it well," Viola said. "I was very blessed to be able to throw with him and impress him, and hopefully that takes me somewhere special."