By Peter Schwartz
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East Meadow is your typical suburban town on Long Island. It’s big enough that there are plenty of businesses, restaurants, schools, and parks, but also small enough that it seems like everybody knows someone who still lives there, someone who used to live there or works there.
When it comes to famous people who grew up in East Meadow, there’s a few, but the name that always comes to mind for everyone, young and old, would be former big-league pitcher Frank Viola.
The East Meadow High School product was supposed to be the pitching coach for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas this season, but a problem was detected during a routine examination during spring training and he will undergo open-heart surgery next week.
“Mets physicians discovered a heart condition that needed to be corrected as soon as possible,” a statement released by the team said. “Frank will undergo surgery next week in New York. The family welcomes all prayers but requests privacy during this time.”
After a brilliant career with East Meadow, “Sweet Music” went on to star in college for St. John’s before getting drafted by the Twins. He was the 1987 World Series MVP and the 1988 Cy Young Award winner before getting traded to the Mets in 1989. He also pitched for the Red Sox, Reds and Blue Jays before his big-league career ended in 1996.
Over the course of his 15-year career, Viola was 176-150. His best year came as a Met in 1990, when he was 20-12 with a 2.67 ERA.
After his playing career was over, he stepped away from the game to focus on his family.
“I can’t trade in my last 14 years because I got to watch my kids grow up,” Viola told the East Meadow Patch newspaper in 2011. “As a family, we got so much stronger over the past 14 years because I was there.”
Viola is 53 years old and has been moving up quickly in the Mets’ system. He was named Brooklyn Cyclones pitching coach in 2011 and spent the past two seasons with Class-A Savannah. This year, he was set to make the jump to Triple-A.
The Mets are happy to have a guy like Viola working with their young pitchers.
“Kids love him,” Mets manager Terry Collins recently told The Record of New Jersey. “I talked to the minor-league staff about how the players relate to him, and they said they just take to him easily.”
But working with the Mets’ arms will have to wait a while as Viola will undergo surgery next week in New York.
Along with his heart condition, Viola has also been dealing with the recent passings of his parents 26 days apart. He lost his father, Frank Sr., on February 11 at the age of 86. His mother, Helen, passed away on March 9 at the age of 85.
“We all knew Mr. and Mrs. Viola,” said Ken Sicoli, head baseball coach at Viola’s alma mater, East Meadow High School. “To have them pass away that closely was a shock. They were huge factors in his life. Both of them were at every single basketball game that he ever played and every baseball game he ever played.”
To say that Viola is getting overwhelming support from the East Meadow community would be an understatement. People either remember his accomplishments with the (East Meadow) Jets, or they have heard of them. If you live in East Meadow, chances are you know someone who knows him or know someone from his family.
Sicoli was the junior-varsity coach at East Meadow High School when Viola was in junior high school. He would go watch him play thinking that he might have a chance to get Viola on his squad, but the lefty made the jump all the way to varsity.
But thanks to a variety of cancellations and postponements of JV games, Sicoli was able to help out the varsity team from time to time, and that gave him a chance to see Viola in action up close.
“I probably coached first base for them five or six games or whatever,” recalled Sicoli. “The games he pitched were over in an hour-and-fifteen minutes.”
Viola graduated from EMHS in 1978, four years before Sicoli would take over as the Jets’ varsity head coach. Shortly after Viola reached the majors, Sicoli had a hunch that Viola would eventually want to coach.
During a trip back to East Meadow, Viola met Sicoli for lunch at a local restaurant when Viola told him that, one day, he would want to coach high-school baseball.
“I said, ‘When you’re ready for that, you can come back here and you can have this job,’” said Sicoli. “He had said that early in his career, so it doesn’t surprise me. He was always a student of the game and worked hard. He’s moved up quickly.”
Current East Meadow students will certainly be thinking about Viola next week when he undergoes surgery. Many of them are reminded of his high-school career every day when they visit the school’s gymnasium.
When Viola became a major-league star, he was honored by East Meadow High School with a banner showing his Twins and EMHS jerseys placed on a wall in the gym. The school also named its baseball MVP award after Viola. That day, Viola spent hours signing autographs and even took stuff back to his parents’ house to sign that night so nobody was left out.
Last spring, a new banner was made commemorating his entire career and is now displayed for everyone to see.
“It’s hanging in the gym now with all of his stuff on it,” said Sicoli. “I look at that all the time. To think that it was a Cy Young winner from East Meadow High School, it was unbelievable. Everything was exciting about his career.”
With everything he’s been through, baseball is clearly not a top priority right now for Viola. He’s still grieving over his parents and he has to get healthy. There’s no doubt that Viola has plenty of support as he battles through a difficult time in his life.
As he recovers, Viola will certainly be keeping an eye on the Mets, but also on his son, Frank Viola III, a pitcher in the Blue Jays’ organization. Also, he’s going to become a grandfather shortly. His daughter, Brittany, is due in August.
So while Viola is going through a tough time in his life, he has some good things to look forward to. Here’s hoping that Viola can recover from his surgery and is able to get back to doing what he loves to do, and that’s being involved with baseball. He was a terrific pitcher back in the day and he has become a rising star in the coaching ranks.
Or maybe he’ll take Sicoli up on his offer to take over the Jets one day.
Regardless of his baseball future, I have a message for Frank: From one East Meadow High School alum to another, get well soon!
As the saying goes, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet for life!”
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