Frank Viola was loving life in the independent ranks. As the pitching coach for the Atlantic League’s High Point Rockers, he finally felt free of the chains of Major League Baseball.
It wasn’t that the East Meadow native and former Cy Young Award winner didn’t enjoy his eight years coaching in the Mets’ organization. Guiding younger versions of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz was as rewarding as anything he’s ever done in the sport. But the pressure and occasional annoyance at having to preach an “organizational philosophy” that didn’t necessarily match up with Viola’s beliefs had gotten stale.
“I think the big thing is that I can be myself,” said Viola, 59, who played 15 years in the big leagues and whose Rockers visited Central Islip this weekend for a three-game series with the Ducks. “I can just coach for coaching sake. In affiliated ball, you have to coach that organization’s thoughts and ideas. It might not 100 percent agree with your thoughts and ideas, but you don’t want to rock the boat because you’re with an affiliation that has beliefs.”
Alas, the chains of MLB have found Viola yet again — though in a decidedly different way.
Last offseason, the Atlantic League and MLB signed an agreement that allows MLB to test experimental rules and equipment in the independent league.
The rules in the first half included a ban on the shift, among others. Viola didn’t like the ban on non-injury-related mound visits, but he did like the idea of pitchers having to face a minimum of three batters or reach the end of the inning before leaving a game.
But in the second half, more experimental rules were set in motion, including requiring a pitcher to step off the rubber when attempting a pickoff and allowing batters to attempt a steal of first base on any pitch not caught in flight.
Viola doesn’t like these rules.
“It’s horrendous,” he said of the agreement. “It’s just a shame that these kids have to be the guinea pigs for something that will never, ever exist on the major league level . . . You know that the players’ union is the strongest union around. You tell them that a lefty can’t a pickoff move to first base and they’re going to laugh at you and say, ‘That’s not a game anymore, you’re inventing stuff.’ ”
Last week, the Atlantic League rolled out the long-awaited Automated Ball-Strike system, powered by the Trackman advanced analytics system. Balls and strikes now are called using radar and relayed to the plate umpire through an earpiece. Although Viola believes this theoretically is a good idea, he said the system was not close to 100 percent correct in the first week of official operation.
“It’s making a mockery of everything,” said Viola, who pitched for the Mets from 1989-91 and won the Cy Young Award in 1988, when he was 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA for the Twins. “We played a game night in High Point that at least a dozen pitches were missed, and this is the second week into Trackman. It’s not just my team, it’s the other team as well . . . Until they get it right, it’s just potluck guessing.”
Viola’s major complaint about the whole process is the lack of communication between the players and coaches and the people making the decisions at MLB.
“We’re not getting any feedback as to where this is going, who’s looking at it, why are they looking at it, and how are they looking at it,” said Viola, who lives in Mooresville, North Carolina — about 60 miles from High Point. “It’s like we’re out in the cold, not having a clue what’s going on, and I think that’s the biggest complaint we have. Show us what you’re doing and give us an understanding of how we can work with it instead of having to be against it right now.”
Viola also worries that the Atlantic League, considered the best independent league in the country, will suffer if the experimental rules continue to blossom in unrealistic ways.
“Hopefully this is not a setback,” he said. “The American Association is probably licking their lips going, ‘You know what? Keep on doing what you’re doing, Atlantic League, and everyone is going to want to come to the American Association.’ That’s what you don’t want if you want to be the best independent ball league.
“ . . . You watch an independent ballgame, you’re watching, at its worst, good Triple-A baseball. Now you’re watching people with their heads cut off trying to figure out what’s going on in the game.”