Charley Walters: Former Twins ace Frank Viola optimistic about robot umpires

The St. Paul Saints, and other Triple-A baseball teams this season, will use robot umpires to call balls and strikes.

Former Minnesota Twin Frank Viola, five years ago as a minor league pitching coach in Thomasville, N.C., got thrown out of a game by a robot umpire.

But the former Cy Young Award winner and World Series Most Valuable Player, who is pitching coach for the independent Atlantic League’s High Point Rockers, feels the improved automatic balls and strikes system could be beneficial.

Viola recalled his ejection by a robot balls and strikes ump.

“It was kind of like this,” he said. “It was the very first day of its (robot) existence, and it wasn’t working very well. So I just had it out with the (human) umpires. I was blamed for it, but it was basically me and the umpires.

“My starting pitcher was a strike thrower, and in the first inning he walked four guys. All the pitches were right there. The system just wasn’t locked in the right way – it was like six years old – and the umpire was told not to overrule the system. So when it said ball, he called ball, even if it was a strike.

“It got real ugly real fast.”

Viola, now 62 and still pitching coach in Thomasville, is optimistic about the new automated system.

“Let’s put it this way – back then, it was an old system, very unreliable, not ready to be put in effect, and they tried it,” he said. “What they’re doing now in Triple-A is using the best of the best. I really believe, if given the opportunity, new equipment and everything, it could turn out to be a really good thing.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be better than a human relationship between pitcher and catcher and umpire, but it’ll be more consistent than what I saw back in my time.”

Meanwhile, Viola remains baseball’s first coach to be ejected by a robot.

“And the problem was,” he said with a laugh, “that the robot couldn’t talk back to me.”

>> The recent on-campus mass shooting that killed three students at Michigan State was harrowing for St. Paul’s Andre Lanoue and Crystal Flint, the parents whose son Tre Holloman is a freshman basketball guard for the Spartans.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” Lanoue said last week. “We were fortunate that Tre was at his dorm. It (shooting) wasn’t too far away, less than a five-minute drive from his apartment.”

Holloman is a former Cretin-Derham Hall standout. Lanoue works for St. Paul Parks and Recreation in the adaptive recreation program. Flint coaches the Cretin-Derham Hall girls basketball team.

“I was just leaving Edgcumbe Rec Center Monday night and got a text from a buddy of mine, hoping that Tre’s OK,” he said. “I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’ He sends me a link to the story. So I called Tre right away. He was in his apartment and told me what was going on.

“Crystal is part of a Facebook group, and she got the alert right away. We were glued to the TV. It was nerve-racking, scary. I was sick to my stomach. I fell asleep after it was confirmed the (shooter) killed himself.

“We were just hoping that nobody would get killed or seriously hurt, and tragically we found out three people lost their lives. It’s heartbreaking.”

>> Holloman is averaging 9.3 minutes and 1.3 points for the 17-10 Spartans. Flint recently coached her 100th high school victory.

>> The NFL franchise-tag window closes March 7. The Vikings have no players in that category that would make sense to consider.

>> Wide receiver Justin Jefferson was a first-round draft pick, so the Vikings have until May to buy the fifth year of his contract, which they will for a guaranteed $19.7 million for 2024.

“But this summer, look for the Vikings and Jefferson, 23, to work out a long-term extension, probably five years for more than $150 million. All of that, though, won’t be guaranteed.

>> Within the next two weeks, Adam Thielen, 32, and some veteran teammates will learn whether they will be back with the Vikings. That’s when the team has to be salary cap compliant.

>>The Rams are releasing star linebacker Bobby Wagner, 32, but it’s unlikely, due to age and money, that the Vikings would be interested.

>> The Timberwolves, behind an effort of Vice President of Fan Experiencer Jeff Munneke more than 20 years ago, tried to get the St. Vincent-St. Mary boys basketball team of Akron, Ohio, which had a player named LeBron James, to play at Target Center as part of Munneke’s nationally recognized Timberwolves Shootout high school tournament.

But the price to bring James’ team to Minneapolis was nearly $50,000, ultimately prohibitive for the Wolves.

“We felt we were in on the ground floor when (James) was an eighth grader and we had a tentative agreement, most likely for his junior year,” Munneke called. “It was just one of those deals where the school was being asked to play all around the country, and every building was selling out. In hindsight, I probably should have done it, because we would have sold out (18,798) the building.”

James, 38, with the Los Angeles Lakers recently set the NBA’s all-time scoring record with 38,388 points. He’ll play against the Timberwolves on Friday in Los Angeles. Tickets range from $75 to $12,500 apiece on Ticketmaster.

>> Roseville grad Mike Muscala of the Oklahoma City Thunder was on the floor when James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record in Los Angeles. Two days later, Muscala, 31, was traded to the Boston Celtics. The 6-foot-11, 240-pounder and the Celtics – Muscala’s fifth NBA team – play against the Timberwolves at Target Center on March 15.

>> Pedro Grifol, 53, the new Chicago White Sox manager, was drafted by the Twins as a catcher in the sixth round in 1991 and played five seasons in the Twins’ minor league system.

>> Ex-Gophers football coach Jerry Kill, the first-year coach at New Mexico State, the other day fulfilled a promise to his players that he would get a tattoo if they won their bowl game against Bowling Green, which they did. The tattoo, large and on his right arm, represents the school.

>> After a brilliant 44-year college and prep basketball coaching career, including a state boys Class A championship at alma mater Simley, Ed Cassidy last week decided to retire.

>> Marquette men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, discussing his lasting relationship with then-Virginia Commonwealth athletics director Norwood Teague (who was fired as Minnesota AD), on Teague’s days with the Gophers, per the Doug Gottlieb radio show: “He obviously went through, and did, some dumb stuff at Minnesota.”

>> Reed Larson, the former Gopher from Minneapolis and the first American captain of the Detroit Red Wings, is getting significant support for election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in April.

>> Jerico Sims, 24, the Minneapolis Cristo Rey grad who chose Texas over the Gophers and now is with the New York Knicks, competed in the NBA all-star game’s slam dunk contest but didn’t get to the final round. Sims measured a 44.5-inch vertical jump at the NBA draft combine two years ago. His father is Charles Sims, who was a Gophers teammate (1971-75) of Mychal Thompson, Flip Saunders and Jim Brewer.

>> South St. Paul grad Suni Lee, the Olympic gold medal gymnast at Auburn, ranks No. 2 among college athletes’ earning potential on Instagram with a value between $15,500 and $21,000 per sponsored post, according to Former Hopkins basketball star Paige Bueckers of Connecticut ranks No. 3 with a value between $9,500 and $12,900 per sponsored post.

>> Gophers sophomore QB Ethan Kaliakmanis last week signed a name, image and likeness (NIL) deal.

>> Ex-Gophers QB Tanner Morgan was the second-round pick by the Michigan Panthers in last week’s U.S. Football League draft.

>> Max Meyer, the former Gophers pitching star from Woodbury, is in full spring training with the Miami Marlins in Jupiter, Fla., and has begun throwing again after Tommy John surgery in August. Meyer, 23, is expected to face live hitting late this summer.

>> Ex-Gopher Tom Lehman, 65, who underwent knee replacement surgery last July, is back playing a full schedule on the PGA Champions Tour. Lehman played in the recent Trophy Hassan II tournament in Morocco, winning $8,600 by tying for 47th. The tour provided a charter jet to Morocco for American players, leaving from Miami.

>> James Laurinaitis, the former Wayzata star, the other day took a job as a linebackers grad assistant at alma mater Ohio State.

>> LSU, with ex-Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson entering his first full season as pitching coach, is favored to win this year’s College World Series, per

>> Understated because he didn’t play for a Power Five football team in college, Hill-Murray grad Matt Weimann (6-4, 319 pounds) from the University of St. Thomas is getting attention from NFL teams that want him to work out at the Gophers’ pro-day next month.

Don’t print that

>> There’s buzz in coaching circles that Arizona State could be the destination for 7-foot-1 Dennis Evans, who not surprisingly decommitted from the Gophers basketball program last week.

Evans’ departure had been rumored for weeks. Don’t be surprised if pal Jaden Henley, a 6-7 Gophers freshman, joins Evans via the transfer portal.

Louisville is also said to be in the mix for Evans, who finished second in scoring for his Hillcrest (Riverside, Calif.) high school team (17-14), averaging 14.7 points.

>> The Gophers men’s basketball program isn’t expected to make a head coaching change this year, but the name that is continually whispered as a future candidate is Utah’s Craig Smith, 50, who is from Stephen, Minn., population 583.

>> Gophers basketball coach Ben Johnson’s contract runs through the 2026-27 season. Firing him after this season would cost the university $7.8 million.
Coaching, by the way, isn’t the Gophers’ problem – it’s lack of talent.

>> Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman, who had been scheduled for an interview for the Gophers job that Richard Pitino ended up with in 2013, has achieved 200 college victories in 269 games.

>> Ex-Gophers coach Richard Pitino’s New Mexico team is 20-7 this season, but 7-7 in the Mountain West Conference and a NCAA tournament bubble team.

>> The Gophers men’s basketball team is working hard with its recruitment of 6-1 Bloomington Jefferson point guard Daniel Freitag.

>> Gophers football per-game attendance last season (45,019) was down 2.43 percent from 2021 and the last five seasons has averaged just 43,683 in 50,805-capacity Huntington Bank Stadium.

>> Red McCombs (Purple Pride!) for sure was a character, but his primary reason for buying the Vikings was to sell them, which he did for a $350 million profit in 2005. Buying and selling was Red’s modus operandi with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs.

McCombs, who died last week at age 95, was a keen dealmaker who took advantage of a Congressional bill passed in 2004 that allowed sports franchises to amortize – writing off the full price of purchase over a 15-year period. That increased the value of the Vikings even more, and today the franchise is worth $3.925 million, according to Forbes.

>> Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf’s Orlando City Major League Soccer franchise is worth $420 million, per Forbes’ new valuations. That’s up from $295 million in 2019.

>> Minnesota United FC, owned by Bill McGuire, is the 16th-most valuable franchise in the 29-team MLS at $540 million. That’s up from $300 million in 2019. Minnesota’s revenue was $54 million last year, with operating income of $1 million.

>> It’s been eerily quiet regarding the baseball future of ex-Twin Miguel Sano, 29, who conducted a private workout for scouts in the Dominican Republic the other day. No teams have even bothered to check with the Twins about a background check on Sano. Without a major league non-roster camp invitation or even a minor league contract, Japan could end up as Sano’s best option.

>> With Luis Arraez traded to the Miami Marlins, Byron Buxton becomes a legitimate lead-off option in the batting order.

>> While the University of St. Thomas men’s basketball team would love to play the reluctant Gophers, the Tommies men’s hockey team will play the Gophers next October.
The Gophers, by the way, rank No. 222 by, which statistically analyzes the strength of college basketball teams. St. Thomas is No. 196.

>> From a survey of more than 600 Green Bay Packers fans, 50 percent agreed it’s time for QB Aaron Rodgers, 39, to retire.

>> Hurrah: Baseball’s new hurry-up rules mean batters no longer will be allowed out of the box to kick dirt off their cleats. Penalty: a called strike for taking too long.

>>The University of St. Thomas football team used to have players from nine states. But with the jump to Division I two years ago, it now has players from 26 states.


>> Mike Muscala, the Roseville grad, on being on the floor with Oklahoma City the other day when LeBron James set the NBA’s all-time scoring record: “I was focused on winning the game, to be honest with you. But it was really cool, an historical moment.”