Lou Carnesecca used to say that his recruiting budget was a pocketful of subway tokens. Throw in a Long Island Railroad pass and you had the last St. John’s baseball team — back in 1980 — to reach the College World Series.
This was a talented team of New Yorkers under head coach Joe Russo that for five consecutive years either advanced to Omaha, Neb., or came within one game of doing so. The program, led by dynamic sophomore hurlers John Franco and Frank Viola, reached its height in 1980 and may have won it all if Franco, the future All-Star closer who was the co-ace with Viola back then, had been healthy enough to pitch in the Series, which began 40 years ago this month.
“If you were a really, really good player in the area, there was only one school you went to,” recalled 1980 tri-captain and pitcher Greg LaCasse. “The tradition spoke for itself and everybody wanted to be a part of it.
“The thing that I remember that was really ingrained in us is that as soon as you got there, not only do we expect to win, we expect to win every game. You either go to the College World Series or the year was unsuccessful.”
St. John’s reached the College World Series twice in a three-year span, in 1978 and 1980. The 1980 team was particularly close, because of the bond the players shared having known one another for so long and their on-field proficiency. There were 12 guys from Long Island, six from Brooklyn, two apiece from Staten Island and Queens, and one from The Bronx. That team had five different players drafted, including star center fielder Doug Latrenta, speedy second baseman Steve Scafa, catcher Sebby Borriello and of course Viola and Franco, who went in the second and fifth rounds, respectively, of the 1981 draft. That didn’t include right fielder Paul Maruffi, who batted .369 in 1980 and was on the College World Series all-tournament team.
“We had that northeast attitude of we’re better than anybody else,” recalled Viola, a three-time All-Star, 1987 World Series MVP and 1988 AL Cy Young Award winner. “We had a whole bunch of individuals who loved talking. New Yorkers, we loved ragging [on each other]. We loved picking on people. We loved wreaking havoc during a game. But we backed it up.”
“Who the hell is this guy?” Viola thought to himself. He had heard about Franco’s talent, but in his mind, he envisioned someone very different. Not a cocky guy well under 6 feet tall who loved to talk. Soon, Viola — and his teammates — realized Franco could also talk with his left arm. As a freshman in 1979, the Brooklyn native was dynamic, pitching to a 2.24 ERA while going 7-1 and allowing only 37 hits in 60 ¹/₃ innings. He no-hit Adelphi and Siena during the regular season.
“Little kid had some talent, boy,” recalled Viola, the program’s all-time leader in wins with 26. “He was the man. I was playing catch-up to him from Day 1 in my mind.”
Franco, out of Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, entered St. John’s as a bigger name than Viola. He picked the Queens school because of the strong reputation pitching coach Howie Gershberg had for developing pitchers. Viola, on the other hand, didn’t start pitching until his junior year at East Meadow High School on Long Island. He was a first baseman who moved to the mound when one of the team’s top pitchers got hurt. He was all set to attend Division II C.W. Post, the only school that had really shown interest in him, until late in his senior year. In a playoff game, he outdueled John Morris, a Seton Hall recruit who would pitch for seven years in the major leagues. Russo was at the game and offered Viola a scholarship on the spot.
“They made me into the second-round pick [I became],” Viola said.
In 1978, the year before Franco and Viola arrived, St. John’s had reached its first College World Series in a decade. Most of the pitchers from that team were back, including LaCasse, Steve Bingham and Chris Rich. LaCasse figured he would have a bigger role, after being part of the starting rotation as a sophomore. He knew of the two freshmen pitchers coming in, but he figured they were still freshmen. Soon, LaCasse realized they were no ordinary newcomers.
“On the first day I said to myself, ‘Guess what? Not only are you not No. 1, you’re not No. 2 either now,’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “That’s how good they were right from the beginning.”
The coaching staff knew Franco and Viola could help immediately, but they were still replacing older teammates in the rotation. Instead of being shunned, they were welcomed. The older players made Viola and Franco comfortable from the jump, understanding their additions would only improve the program in the present and future. Their talent was fostered, not stunted.
“That made the biggest difference in the world,” Viola said, adding he did get made fun of frequently for the way he dressed; it was as if his outfit was ripped out of the 1950s. “I took a lot of heat for that.”
The support they received, along with Gershberg’s expertise, was instrumental in elevating Franco and Viola into high draft picks and later major league stars. Even after he left St. John’s and reached the big leagues, Franco would return to school to throw in front of Gershberg, who later became a minor league pitching coach with the Angels and helped Troy Percival go from a catching prospect to an elite closer. Franco and Gershberg would routinely talk after the lefty had subpar outings.
“He was the driving force behind Frank and I,” Franco said of Gershberg, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 67.
Russo, a member of the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame who compiled a .664 winning percentage (612-310) over 22 seasons, died last May.
There was only one goal for the 1980 team: Return to the College World Series. After getting to Omaha in 1978, the expectation was to return in 1979, particularly with the additions of Franco and Viola. When Franco no-hit Nebraska to open the Northeast Regional in Annapolis, Md., and the Johnnies knocked off UConn to advance to the title game in the winner’s bracket, it seemed inevitable. Perhaps that was the problem. As LaCasse recalled, “we were counting our chickens.”
Connecticut beat them twice, sweeping a doubleheader 4-0 and 14-4, sending St. John’s home early. Adding insult to injury, the team bus was vandalized, and a chalice belonging to one of their priests was taken.
“It was a feeling of being violated,” LaCasse recalled.
He kept a newspaper clipping, with the headline: “Redmen Robbed, Beaten, Eliminated,” in his locker as a reminder of the disappointment.
“Every day I opened that locker I had to look at that,” he said. “I’m not sure that ’80 happens without ’79 happening.”
The Johnnies started 1980 by going 6-1 and won 15 of 17 at one point, re-establishing themselves as a legitimate threat. Franco went down midway through the year with a strained flexor tendon in his left elbow and it didn’t slow them down. There wasn’t a sense of woe-is-us. This was a veteran team and experienced pitchers like LaCasse and Lee, and walk-on Tommy White filled in well for him.
They entered the ECAC New York-New Jersey playoffs that year an overwhelming favorite, the tournament they had won the previous four years. But in St. John’s second game in Queens, Buffalo knocked the Johnnies off, sending Russo’s team into the loser’s bracket. St. John’s had to win three straight games. In the third contest, it entered the final inning trailing Buffalo by two runs. The bench was tense.
LaCasse took a bat and raked it against the bat rack, yelling at everyone: “This cannot end this way. This is not going to happen.”
St. John’s rallied for three runs, aided by a few errors and walks, moving on to the Northeast Regional.
“We were lucky,” Latrenta admitted.
There was no such drama in the regional that year. St. John’s won its three games at the University of Maine — freshman shortstop Brian Miller’s home run in extra innings against Harvard sealed the clincher — and was headed back to Omaha. St. John’s hasn’t been back since.
Viola came out of the bullpen, looked into the 23,145-seat Rosenblatt Stadium stands and was stunned. “Oh, my God,” he thought to himself. He had never pitched in front of so many people. He threw like it, walking four batters in the first inning of the opening game of the College World Series.
Fortunately, Arizona didn’t score a run. Borriello threw a runner out trying to steal and Viola was bailed out with a double play after he had loaded the bases. Arizona had missed its shot. Viola shut the eventual national champions down, leading the Johnnies to a big upset, a one-sided 6-1 victory in which he went the distance in a four-hitter.
“For a sophomore, he put a stamp on, ‘Hey guys I’m here and I’m going to go to the majors,’ ” Latrenta said. “You knew it.”
The Wildcats had held back ace Craig Lefferts, a future major league pitcher, thinking they wouldn’t have trouble with St. John’s. They would still win it all, winning their next five games. Viola was the only pitcher capable of shutting them down.
“Years later when I saw him in the big leagues, I was like, ‘I don’t feel so bad now,’ ” recalled then-Arizona slugger and current Indians manager Terry Francona, the nation’s Golden Spikes award winner that year, given to the sport’s best player. Asked what he remembered about Viola that day, Francona deadpanned: “I know I didn’t get any hits.”
As the game went on, the large crowd sided with St. John’s, rooting for the underdog. LaCasse remembered how loud it got when Don Giordano hit a bases-clearing double off the wall. It felt like a home game.
“The place was probably 95 percent behind [us],” he said.
But without Franco in back of Viola, St. John’s didn’t have enough pitching. Two days later, the Johnnies fell to Hawaii, 7-2, and California eliminated them the next day, 8-5.
“If you ask any one of our guys who were on that team, they would probably say the same thing: If I was healthy we had a good shot of winning it,” Franco said.
“Oh, man,” Latrenta added. “What if?”
Several members of the team remain close. They attend the annual baseball banquet and go to basketball games together. Many still live in the area. At these reunions, they relive the memories and agonize over what might’ve been had Franco been healthy. There is pride involved for being the last St. John’s team to get to Omaha, but also a desire to see another group of Johnnies reach the College World Series.
It is obviously tougher now. The format is different. The best local players don’t flock to St. John’s. It has to defeat high-caliber teams from the South and West just to get past the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and even then there is a best-of-three Super Regional that awaits.
“Well, how did Stony Brook do it that one year?” is LaCasse’s response, referring to the last local team to reach Omaha, in 2002. “It’s been way too long now.”
St. John’s has come close, reaching the Super Regionals (one step away from Omaha) in 2012. It is still viewed as one of the premier programs in the northeast, winning a record nine Big East Tournament titles. But it isn’t the same as it was four decades ago.
Asked how he feels his team would do in today’s climate, LaCasse gives an answer fitting that group’s bravado.
“We used to play anyone anywhere,” he said. “We ducked nobody. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we have to play North Carolina.’ We used to think, ‘Hey, they have to play us.’
“It’s that New York don’t-back-down attitude.”