Blue Jays prospect Viola thankful for second chance

After four years away from pro baseball, right-hander makes return as knuckleballer

Blue Jays prospect Viola thankful for second chance

TORONTO -- Frank Viola III steps to the mound and prepares to throw his first pitch in a professional baseball game in four years.

It's been nearly seven years since he last played affiliated professional baseball after his career was derailed by injuries and personal struggles. But there he stands, as a second chance incarnate.

A lot has happened in the 30-year-old's life since he walked away from the game and searched for his place away from baseball. After working a slew of non-baseball jobs, including selling timeshares, Viola soon realized he didn't have one.

Hungry for a second chance, Viola set out to repurpose himself as a knuckleballer, and two years after committing to the pitch, he finds himself staring toward home plate at Cooley Law School Stadium.

The day is June 9, and Viola's Lansing Lugnuts are facing the visiting Great Lakes Loons.

"Just throw strike one," Viola told himself as he stared towards home plate, where the Great Lakes leadoff man was digging in.

Viola grips the ball, winds, fires and lets loose the first knuckleball of his attempted comeback.

The pitch starts right, turns left, bobs and drops down before landing for a strike. And with that, a comeback was born.

Now four starts into his new career, which began when the Blue Jays signed him to a Minor League deal in March, Viola owns a 2-1 record as the "old man" playing a young man's game at the Class A level.

Growing up with greatness

As the son of a former American League Cy Young Award winner, the brother of an Olympic diver, and the close friend of several future Major League baseball players, Viola was surrounded by success.

It was only natural that Viola saw himself one day rising to the big leagues after he was drafted by the White Sox in 2004. Viola thought it would come swift and easy, but success, he soon learned, was anything but.

"All of my friends, they're highly successful athletes, and my family is too, so you think you're going to be just like them," Viola said by phone from Lansing, Mich. "Without putting in the effort, it's just going to happen. I couldn't have been more wrong."

After injuries plagued Viola early in his Minor League career, he blew out his elbow in his second professional season, before a knee injury in 2007 appeared to derail him permanently. Viola resurfaced at age 26 in independent ball. He earned himself some tryouts in front of Major League scouts following the 2010 season, but failed to gain any traction.

Viola thought his career was over. Arrogant, entitled and maybe even a bit lazy at that time, Viola admits to having a bad reputation that he believes played a role in his getting passed over.

"It's not very often that anybody in life gives you a second chance, especially when it's out in the world that you're not a hard worker," Viola said. "Once you establish who you are, it's likely to stick with you for life."

Enter the knuckleball

The great realization was initially posited as a joke from some of his dad's ex-teammates. They half-seriously suggested he might make a comeback as a knuckleballer.

The joke served as an epiphany for Viola, who decided then and there that he was going to fully commit himself to the mysterious knuckleball.

Thanks to YouTube, Viola was able to study the greats like Phil Niekro, R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough at length. And soon after, he found himself at the Mets' Minor League complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., throwing the pitch in front of Dickey himself. The Blue Jays starter and the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner admits he was not initially optimistic that Viola had the stuff to become a big league knuckleballer.

"I watched it, and at that point I wasn't as optimistic as I have become, because he just wasn't in the same place," Dickey said recently.

But two years removed from that meeting, Viola had stuck with it. And this past January, Viola visited Dickey in Nashville,Tenn., where he spent a month working out with the 39-year-old right-hander and Triple-A Buffalo catcher Erik Kratz.

They worked out every day starting at 8 a.m. They trained, pitched and philosophized about life and the knuckleball.

By the end of their month of training, Dickey said he had become a believer.

"The second time I saw him was when he came to Nashville to throw with me and we played catch together, and I was able to see firsthand that I thought he could repeat a delivery mechanically," Dickey said. "He could take spin off the baseball, and if you can do those two things, you've got a shot."

A second chance

Viola let out a long sigh when asked about his first run at professional baseball. He says he couldn't understand why he couldn't perform to the level of his peers. For one, Viola didn't notice the work ethic. He said he didn't see his dad train all that hard growing up, and he simply assumed he'd been blessed with the same talent as his father. By the time Viola realized that wasn't the case, it was almost too late.

So instead of relying on lights-out talent he doesn't have, Viola has committed himself to being the guy who's good enough but works his butt off and "shows up first and leaves last" every day. He's still working to harness the knuckleball, something that will require constant practice, patience and studying, but it's a challenge he's prepared to endure.

With a pair of wins, a big loss and a 3.54 ERA over 20 1/3 innings this season with Lansing, Viola is on his way, though he knows he still has a long way to go if he hopes to eventually climb to the Majors.

"In my mind, I know what I'm capable of doing. I really believe I'm going to be there," Viola said. "Call it whatever you want, but I believe in my heart I'm going to be in the big leagues, and that this is a step to get better. How many guys get the chance to do this at a pro level at any point, let alone get a second attempt at it?"

Jamie Ross is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.