6th of Jul | Story

Timing is everything


FORT MILL, South Carolina | Tommy Viola has impeccable timing. Just six seasons into a career in minor league baseball, he already heads a department for a Triple-A team. He has climbed plenty of rungs on the proverbial ladder with probably dozens more seasons still ahead. He works hard, of course. He has a propensity to be in good places, too.

“I have found the right time to be at each organization,” he says.

Now the media relations director for the Charlotte Knights, Viola grew up a fan of the New York Mets and Gary Carter, the late Hall of Famer who helped spark the team to the 1986 World Series championship. Viola and his dad would drive from the Poconos to Shea Stadium in Queens to watch those Mets teams — and sometimes to the closer Lackawanna County Stadium to watch the old Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons.

Viola’s baseball path turned from fan and player to something else after a photography class during his senior year of high school afforded him a press pass and access to the field the night Tug McGraw fired an honorary first pitch for the Red Barons. The Pocono Record picked up his photo and story about the experience. Viola was hooked.

“Downtown ballparks have been great for their franchises. It’s the way baseball has transitioned. We’ve seen that’s what works, and that’s what you strive to do as a minor league franchise, have a location that is going to be beneficial to all of your fans.” — Knights media relations director Tommy Viola

And this is where that sense of timing starts to come into the story. Viola parlayed his love for photography and baseball into a photo internship with the Altoona Curve after he graduated from Penn State University. He spent a season with the team, then nothing. “I tried, went on a few interviews, but nothing worked out,” Viola says. Three seasons passed without another job in baseball.

Then Viola heard the Ottawa Lynx were moving to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Opening a new stadium and starting with a new franchise, even as an intern, can lend a little extra credit when building a minor league career. “The IronPigs, they gave me an opportunity,” he says. “It’s an opportunity that certainly I learned from each year and continued to make better.”

Viola worked with the Curve when they won a division championship. He was part of the first two seasons that launched the IronPigs as one of the more successful franchises in the minors. Then he moved to Reading just in time to gain experience with the Phillies as they poured $10 million into stadium renovations.

And, in five seasons, he climbed from an intern to a department assistant to a director of media relations.

“If you get your foot in the door,” he says, “make the most of it because it’s not that easy. Especially in media relations, there is only one media relations person at every minor league team. That’s it. There aren’t many of those positions to go around.”

Now in his first year with the Knights, Viola’s path has converged with another perfect time to be with a team. After a decade-long fight to secure funding, contend with the fading economy and win a handful of lawsuits against Jerry Reese — a local attorney and proponent for a Major League team who claimed that both the land swap for the site and the means of city funding were illegal — the Knights recently broke ground on their new downtown ballpark. Their mascot Homer was even on hand to watch the ceremonial shovels dug into the flattened dirt BB&T Ballpark is expected to open on for the 2014 season.

Viola calls the next few seasons “probably the most exciting time in this franchise’s history.” The Knights will move 18 miles north, across the state border from Fort Mill, South Carolina, to Charlotte’s Third Ward.

It’s possible to pass Deerfield Drive and have no clue Knights Stadium, a 23-year-old ballpark, is tucked back behind otherwise-vacant land. The $54 million BB&T Ballpark will be the centerpiece of a downtown district that will include a 5.4-acre urban park, outfield hotel and year-round stadium restaurant.

“Downtown ballparks have been great for their franchises,” Viola says. “It’s the way baseball has transitioned. We’ve seen that’s what works, and that’s what you strive to do as a minor league franchise, have a location that is going to be beneficial to all of your fans.”

Finally, the mechanics were in place and the timing was right for the Knights to build a new ballpark. Viola certainly understands what that takes. He’s prepared for this transition, the excitement, the responsibility and the work that will go in to help open the new stadium and usher in a new era for the team.

As someone who hopes for a long career in minor league baseball, Viola knows his move to Charlotte was impeccable timing.

“I’ve found myself in the right spot,” he says. “This is a perfect opportunity.”

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason 

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