Just beyond the rightfield fence of the University of New Haven's baseball field is a simple granite monument with a bronze plaque attached. From a distance it looks like a headstone. But this stone honors a living legend, Frank Vieira.
The inscription reads, in part: THROUGH HIS COMPETITIVE DRIVE, HE MOTIVATED HIS PLAYERS TO ACHIEVE EXCELLENCE.... The name on the plaque reads: FRANK "PORKY" VIEIRA, and therein lies the story. Vieira's entire two-act life is reflected in that name.
In Act I, he was Porky, growing up in Bridgeport, Conn., in one of only five Portuguese families in a predominantly Irish and Italian neighborhood known as the Hollow. He paid the price for that minority status on his chin, nose and knuckles, but became a local basketball hero.
In Act II, 20 years later, he became known as Frank, because his new boss at the University of New Haven told him that Porky wasn't a dignified name. Frank started the baseball program at New Haven in 1962 and built it into a powerhouse that has gone to the Division II championship series 12 times and this season appears primed for its first national title.
But no matter what folks call him, Vieira is what he has been all along: the son of Florindo and Concepcion Vieira, Portuguese immigrants who settled in Bridgeport, where they labored in a brass-works. Through years of ethnic slurs around the Hollow, Vieira became first "that little Portugy" and finally Porky. He was a tough kid but had supervision from his parents, both of whom worked the 3-11 p.m. shift.
One day Porky went with his older brother Gus to the Middle Street Boys' Club. "The second I set foot on that basketball court I knew that was what I wanted to do," he recalls. "I immediately wanted to be the best."
Porky blossomed at Bridgeport Central High, where he averaged 28 points a game as a senior. Though only 5'6", Vieira was a magician with the ball. But he lacked discipline.
Not much of a student, Vieira "bombed out" of nearby Arnold College (which later merged with the University of Bridgeport) after less than a month, and then he knocked around Bridgeport for a year. His father finally stepped in to rescue him, getting Porky a job as a crane operator's helper at Bridgeport Brass.
"It was the greatest awakening of my life," says Vieira. "I thought, Where the hell am I? God, I'm in the Bridgeport Brass. I knew my father was telling me it was time to go back to school."
This time Porky got serious. He jumped at a scholarship offer from coach Tuffie Maroon at Quinnipiac College, in Hamden, Conn. He still shares the second-best career scoring average (32.8 ppg) in Division II history. Maroon also promoted his star player in the papers and, in Vieira's senior year, got him a spot in the prestigious East-West College All-Star game to be played at Madison Square Garden. But in a scrimmage the day before that game, Vieira cracked knees with Louisville's Charlie Tyra and had to watch from the bench in civvies.
"I wanted to be the smallest guy ever to play in the NBA," Vieira says. But he never got the chance, and by the time he was able to play again, a few months later, the opportunity had passed. "That injury was devastating to me," he says.
After his NBA dream died, Vieira married, taught high school phys ed and played ball in the semipro leagues. "It was sort of a Have Sneaks, Will Travel existence," he says. Porky Vieira, the scoring machine, became so popular with fans that he formed his own team, Vieira's All-Stars. "At that time I felt I was the greatest offensive player in the world," he says. "I never was awed as a player. I was 5'6", but I would take on anybody."
One night while playing in the Catskills, Vieira went face-to-waist with Wilt Chamberlain, then a 7-foot about-to-be freshman at Kansas. Porky outscored the Stilt 37 to 33, at one point delighting the crowd at Wilt's expense. "Wilt grabbed a rebound and when he came down with it I crawled through his legs and stole the ball for a layup," Vieira says. "The crowd believed it was part of some act, but I thought Wilt was going to kill me."
In 1961 he got a call from Don Ormrod, the new athletic director at the University of New Haven, who was looking for an assistant basketball coach and head baseball coach. Vieira hung up the phone and his sneaks in the same instant.
He also hung up Porky and became Frank. "People in Bridgeport went crazy," Vieira recalls. "One guy said, 'That's like Babe Ruth calling himself George.' "
Nonetheless, Frank Vieira was to become a legend as a coach at New Haven. Not as the basketball coach, however. He was no baseball novice, having played well enough in high school to attract a $1,000 bonus offer to sign with the New York Giants as an outfielder. (He turned it down because he saw too many guys he knew, all better than he was, bombing out in the minors.)
Over the years, Vieira has relied on a combination of his father's work ethic, the promotional skills of Tuffie Maroon and the velvet disciplinary touch of a George Patton. "I am their leader; my kids don't want me to be their friend," he says. "If they know they're going to have this wacko on their wagons for four years, they've got to be tough."
"In 1977, we beat New Haven 6-2 and were scheduled to play them again three days later," says University of Hartford coach Dan Gooley, Vieira's lifelong friend. "The day before the second game, UNH practiced in freezing cold weather, and Frank saw a pitcher blowing on his hands. Frank stopped practice, took off his jacket, his sweatshirt and his shirt and hit fungoes bare-chested for two hours. The next day they beat us 16-2."
Behind the leadership there is also the threat of expulsion. Anybody who mouths off to an opponent, to an umpire or, god forbid, to Vieira, can clean out his locker. No appeals.
Between games of a 1964 doubleheader, outfielder Joe Lahoud discovered he would not be starting the nightcap and threw his glove against the dugout wall. Lahoud went on to play 11 years in the majors, but he was through at UNH.
"When I came for a visit, the first thing Coach said to me was, 'It's my way or the highway,' " says senior shortstop Jim Halloran, who had a reputation in high school for his hot temper. "He helped me decide to shut up and play baseball."
Second baseman Adrian Clark is more blunt about his coach. "Sometimes I think he hates us, but on the inside we know he's got to be human," he says. Clark and Halloran both do polished Vieira impressions. And every so often Vieira helps out, proving that he is, indeed, human.
"One game last year, Clark steps up to the plate trying to break the Division II record for most consecutive hits in a game, which was seven in seven at bats," says assistant coach John Anquillare. "So Coach V yells out, 'C'mon 32, let's go!' Clark's number is 8, so I ask him why he's yelling for 32. He says, 'That's my record. I'm rooting for the pitcher.' "
For those players who survive Vieira's boot camp, there are rewards. Through his contacts, Vieira has wangled pro contracts for 49 of his former players.
"I'll never forget the first time V saw me throw," says 1987 Cy Young Award winner Steve Bedrosian of the San Francisco Giants, who played for Vieira in 1978. "He said, 'Kid, I'm going to make a pro out of you.' "
As a tribute to their coach, 70 former Chargers attended the 1986 ceremony commemorating Vieira's 25 years at UNH, at which the school announced that the baseball diamond on campus would be renamed Frank Vieira Field. "Just because this is my field doesn't mean we'll win here," he says. "If we got spotted two runs because this was my field, then it would mean something, but we still start every season 0-0."
Wins are still Vieira's grail. Last season he cracked the 700-win mark, more victories than all but two coaches in Division II history. But despite his many trips to the championship series, he doesn't have the biggest win yet. In last year's final, against Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, New Haven was tied 5-5 after seven innings, but the Chargers' ace, Steve DiBartolomeo, was tagged for four runs in the top of the eighth and the day was lost.
"The man deserves a championship; he's done everything for the game," Halloran says. "We'd really like to win it for him this year."
And what would happen next?
"There'd be one hell of a party," says Halloran.