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Monday, October 15, 2012

2011 Interview: Tony Ariola, Overcame Barriers

Tony Ariola on a 1988 Northwestern schedule, his senior year. Ariola strained his rotator cuff in Northwestern's first spring game that year. (Provided)

The Greatest 21 Days is away this week. While I'm away, I'm reposting previous interviews. This is the 16th interview I did for the site, Tony Ariola. The Greatest 21 Days caught up with Ariola in November 2011. This interview first appeared shortly afterward. 

And watch soon as The Greatest 21 Days main project comes down the home stretch. Only 13 players remaining. 

Part 1: Overcame Barriers | Part 2: Other Ways

Tony Ariola had a chance to get drafted and start his professional career after his junior year at Northwestern.

Ariola, though, chose to stay in school, becoming the first Ariola becoming the first Ariola to graduate from college.

It was a decision, though, that nearly wound up ending his pro career before it started. In his first spring game for the Wildcats, Ariola strained his rotator cuff.

"It was devastating mentally," Ariola recalled to The Greatest 21 Days recently. "You really, being immature at the time, you start to question, is this the end? Patience has never been one of my strong suits so I kept trying to push it."

It was one of his mentors, Ariola recalled, his pitching coach that year at Northwestern, Larry Smith, who provided the calming voice of reason through the turmoil.

Ariola was back pitching by May and by June, he was a pro, a late-round draft pick by the Athletics.

But it was another shoulder injury, suffered after two seasons of success in the minors, that ultimately led to the end of Ariola's major league dream.

Despite his the brief length of his career, and that career coming up short of the majors, Ariola credits his faith with getting him to the pros in the first place, and for allowing him to go out the way he did.

After a season of rehab, Ariola returned for five final games in the minors. In what would be his last game, Ariola credits a prayer said behind the mound with resulting in Ariola facing just one batter over the minimum, while setting down 19 consecutive batters at one point in a 1-0 win, after which Ariola retired.

Ariola sat down with The Greatest 21 Days at a Bloomington, Ill., area Panera. The Chicago-native settled in the city with his wife of 22 years, Jill, who is from St. Louis. The city, near the midway point of their two hometowns, was the logical place for them to settle down.

The two have four children, their oldest a college baseball player, like his father. Adam Ariola is a sophomore at Central College in Pella, Iowa, winning honorable mention all conference his freshman year.

Ariola is now director with State Farm Insurance, leading a team of internal consultants. He joined the insurance and financial services company after his playing days were over, with that degree he earned from Northwestern. And he's continued his connection with the game, helping pitchers at Bloomington's Illinois Weslyan University.

Tony Ariola delivering to the plate for Northwestern University. Ariola graduated from Northwestern in 1988 and was drafted by the Athletics. (Ariola photo)

Ariola's own professional dreams began like most players, as a boy playing ball with his friends in Cicero.

Ariola recalled playing a game called fast pitch, which involved spray painting a box on a brick wall and throwing "until your arm falls off."

"We did that just about every day," Ariola said. "Just in those little, silly games, you learn how to play and how to compete."

But, with those friends, also came the inevitable changes growing up. Some of those same friends started getting into things that didn't line up with what he was being taught at home, like alcohol and other substances.

Ariola recalled showing up one day with his bat and glove. His friends weren't interested in that anymore. Leaving them behind, Ariola recalled walking back home, his bat, his glove and his ball still in hand, and saying a prayer.

"I said, 'Lord, I'm going to say 'no' to this,'" Ariola recalled, " 'please bless this thing (baseball),' and I had my glove, my bat, and my ball. Some people would say 'well, that's just a silly story,' but I truly believe at that time the Lord put people in my life and He blessed me."

"From a talent standpoint, I'm not very talented physically," Ariola added, "but things worked out for me. My story is one where God, in my opinion, has blessed me at every level of my life, including my last few outings, which were, I think, miracles in and of themselves."

Tony Ariola taking a swing for Fenwick High School, in Oak Park, outside Chicago. (Ariola photo)

Ariola's family eventually moved him out of Cicero, sending him to high school at Fenwick High School in nearby Oak Park. It was there that Ariola honed his skills as a first baseman and, eventually, as a pitcher.

Ariola recalled one day his high school coach asking him if he'd ever tried pitching. A lefthander, Ariola was willing to try. It worked out And, starting at Northwestern, Ariola was slated to be both a position player and a pitcher.

Then his coach, Ron Wellman, chose one for Ariola.

"We had a conversation that sounded like, 'I don't think you can hit at this level, but I think you can pitch at this level, so we're going to spend more time pitching," Ariola recalled. And the decision was made.

Ariola considers Wellman, now the athletic director at Wake Forest, one of the most influential people in his life.

Wellman made his team run, probably more than the track team ran, Ariola recalled, and he pushed his team with challenging requirements and drills that today might be looked at as too much.

But the work, and Wellman, taught him how to be mentally tough, Ariola said.

"He taught me how to overcome self-imposed barriers that we put on ourselves," Ariola said. "I never thought I could do a lot of what I ended up accomplishing."

And what he ended up accomplishing was a lot, despite not accomplishing the ultimate goal of the majors. The game eventually took him to Cape Cod, Alaska and Venezuela. And he had success at short-season, single-A and AA, before those shoulder problems would return.

Go to Part 2: Other Ways

Part 1: Overcame Barriers | Part 2: Other Ways

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