For more great baseball stories like this one, 'like' us on Facebook -

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Interview Part 2 of 2: Tony Ariola, Other Ways

Tony Ariola on the mound for the AA Huntsville Stars in 1989.

Part 1: Overcame Barriers | Part 2: Other Ways

There was the view. There was the wild life. And there was the confidence boosting.

Attending and playing for Northwestern University, Tony Ariola also took advantage of summer leagues, first in Cape Cod, then in Alaska.

His Alaska experience was marked by ballparks with views of mountains and glaciers, 11 p.m. start times without lights and, in one game, a caribou delay, as the creatures traversed the park's outfield.

But for Ariola, a not-so-intimidating pitcher of 5 feet, 10 inches tall, the time in the Alaska Baseball League, and the Cape Cod League before that, served to reinforce the idea that he could make it as a pitcher.

"The summer opportunity gave me a chance to see if I really had what it took to be successful at a high level," Ariola recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently. "Each game kind of built confidence."

He recalled having good coaches there, with Ariola learning the intimate side of pitching, the game inside the game.

Ariola took that knowledge with him to the pros, where he played four seasons, getting as high as AAA.

It was Ariola's coach at Northwestern Ron Wellman who negotiated him a spot in Alaska, and the Cape Cod league.

Ariola found the Cape Cod league fit his style of pitching, changing speeds frequently, something that lent itself to wood bats of the summer league.

Back at Northwestern, there was that talk coming out of his junior season that Ariola might be drafted. The Royals seemed interested and maybe he'd go as high as the 10th round.

Community Field in Burlington, Iowa, in August 2010. Tony Ariola played at Community Field with the visiting Madison Muskies in 1989.

But Ariola decided to stay in school, making it clear that would be his choice. He then strained his rotator cuff, missing most of the season.

It was his pitching coach Larry Smith who helped him through the injury, and helped him get back, Ariola said. "God put him in my life at the right time."

Ariola finally got healthy and there was still some interest. The Blue Jays and the Athletics had kept in touch. Ariola pitched some local games to show scouts his progress. One scout, Marty Miller of the Athletics, thought enough of Ariola to have his team use a pick on the Cicero-native.

"Marty drafted me really on what he thought I had inside," Ariola recalled, "from a mental toughness standpoint, not from what he was seeing on a gun."

And Ariola was selected, in the 26th round.

Sent to short-season Southern Oregon, the 26th-round pick then got playing time, quickly gaining a spot in the starting rotation, despite his late-round status.

"The more I had success, the more anchored I got in the starting rotation," Ariola recalled.

And the success came. In 15 starts, Ariola went 8-3, posting a 2.63 ERA. While noting he's not an arrogant person, Ariola said he was "having success beyond my wildest imagination."

He recalled his pitching coach one day wondering how he was doing it. It looked like he was throwing meat up there. The pitching coach, though, told him not to change it.

Ariola didn't. The next year, Ariola moved to single-A Madison. There, he went 9-5 in 18 starts, with a 1.86 ERA. He also moved on to AA Huntsville, going 5-2 in 10 starts there, with a 3.41 ERA.

That was also the year he got married to his wife Jill. Ariola was never one to go out partying or drinking. When he wasn't with his wife, he could easily be found in the hotel, having hooked up the Nintendo to the hotel TV with a teammate or two.

"You're like 'pinch me,'" Ariola said. "I'm getting paid. I'm traveling all over the place. I'm doing what I love to do, which is compete, and pitch and this is, this is a blast."

His new wife Jill, whom he met at Northwestern, also soon quit her job to travel with Ariola.

"We were having the time of our lives," Ariola said. "But it changed on a dime."

Tony Ariola in Venezuela with teammate Tex Reynolds.

Ariola got an invitation to winter ball in Venezuela after the 1989 season. Before being sent there, though, Ariola recalled being told essentially not to do anything stupid, to take care of his arm and take care of his shoulder.

Ariola, though, recalled getting caught up in the moment. "That's as competitive as it gets," Ariola said.

There were no real pitch counts. Ariola essentially let his manager manage him.

He also developed a horribly sore shoulder, something he didn't say anything about. He pitched through it. That's what he had done.

"In hind site," Ariola said, "I wish I had raised my hand and said, 'you know, I'm honored to go to South America, but I think I need some time off.'"

Instead, he went straight from South America to big league camp, without layoff. His arm was toast. It was also the 1990 baseball lockout. There were chances to pitch.

"I was dying," Ariola said. "But I didn't say anything and it started getting worse and worse."

He made it to the Athletics' AAA club in Tacoma, getting into six games. He gave up 10 earned runs in 16.1 innings. Finally his pitching coach asked him what the problem was. His top velocity was down.

Ariola told him what was wrong. A series of test later confirmed Ariola already knew: This was much worse than his injury his senior year of college. The inside of his shoulder was like spaghetti. His labrum was torn.

After surgery, Ariola lost the rest of the 1990 season and all of 1991. He spent his time rehabbing and traveling with single-A Madison, mentoring young players. He also watched other players advanced, while he could do little to advance himself.

Ariola did make advances. But they weren't enough. During his rehab, he recalled realizing he wasn't coming back to the point where he had been. That was evident each time he played catch.

Ariola got back on the mound in 1992, at Madison. In three starts, he was 1-0, with a 2.20 ERA. He did well enough to get a look at AA Huntsville. He got two starts, winning both. They were his last.

By his last start, Ariola knew his return wasn't going to last. He was eating Advil like it was candy. His velocity also just wasn't there.

"I tried to enjoy the moment," Ariola said. "But when you work for something that long and you realize that it's coming to an end, you go through a grieving process."

By his second start in Huntsville, the pain was excruciating. He could barely get the ball to the catcher.

The first batter he faced, Ariola recalled, rocketed the ball off the center field fence for a double.

With the runner on second, Ariola recalled taking a moment to to kneel behind the mound and say a prayer.

"I said, 'Please bless this game," Ariola recalled, "'because I know I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life.'"

Tony Ariola in November 2011, in Bloomington, Ill.

He then set down the next 19 batters, winning the game 1-0 - all with his fastest pitch barely hitting 72 mph.

He wasn't masterful. The hitters just hit the ball to his fielders. "It was a God thing," Ariola said.

"I said 'Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Oakland. I'm done.'" Ariola said, "and I retired right after that game in locker room."

Settling down in Bloomington, Ill., with his wife and four children, Ariola said many of the lessons he learned in baseball have been transferable to the real world: treating people right, working hard, and taking work seriously, but not taking yourself too seriously.

He's also used those lessons on the baseball field, helping coach at Illinois Wesleyan, now more of a part-time consulting role.

Ariola said he always thought the game was God's way of giving him a platform to make a difference in people's lives, to reach people.

When the road said detour, though, Ariola said it took him some time to bounce back from that.

But that was long ago. He has his long-time job at State Farm. He has his wife of 22 years and their four children.

"Even though it didn't turn out the way I hoped," Ariola said of his baseball career, "when I look back, it was probably for the best. There's plenty of other ways to influence folks without that grand stage. I wouldn't trade my life for anyone's."

Part 1: Overcame Barriers | Part 2: Other Ways

No comments:

Post a Comment