By Dylan Butler
You could sense even before you walked up the metal ramp to the bleachers at the Ballpark at St. John's that Saturday was not your average Big East doubleheader for the St. John's baseball team. There were more staff, barbecue grills heating up, more fans and, oh yeah, huge television trailers just outside the fence.Indeed, the Red Storm's doubleheader Saturday against rival Notre Dame – as well as the Sunday series finale – were special. Each of the three games were broadcast live to a national television audience. The opener was on ESPNU, the newest station in the ESPN family, the nightcap was on ESPN2 and the finale was on CSTV, which has replaced Fox Sports New York for Time Warner cable subscribers.It is believed to be the first-ever three-game series televised live from the St. John's campus.Former Major Leaguer Frank Viola returned to St. John's, doing color commentary Saturday and he wasn't the only alum in the house. Members of the 1997 Big East championship team, including Derek Adair, Giancarlo Diprima and Eddie Olsen, were among the combined crowd of 1,011 who watched the Red Storm take a pair of one-run games Saturday.Viola hadn't seen a St. John's game since he left the school in 1981, when he and another guy named John Franco helped lead the Redmen to the College World Series. He edged future Mets teammate Ron Darling and Yale, 1-0 that year and beat Arizona, which went on to win the College World Series, before getting picked by the Twins in the second round of the 1981 draft. He'd win a World Series and a Cy Young Award in Minnesota before pitching for the Mets, Red Sox, Reds and Blue Jays. He retired in 1996.”My three years here at St. John's, besides being my most rewarding, were the most fun years I've ever had,” Viola said. “Every one of us who stepped on the old field here did it because they had a dream. A lot of those guys lost their dreams after college, but I was able to keep living mine and play in the big leagues and be successful in the big leagues.”He broadcast the games Saturday instead of coaching his Florida high school team – Lake Highland Prep – in the district championship game. Viola, who has lived in Orlando, Fla. since 1983, said the seniors on his team gave him the OK to miss the game, on one condition.”The only stipulation was that during this game tonight I have to mention them, congratulate them for a great year and they'll forgive me for missing the game,” he said before the Saturday game on ESPN2.After St. John's edged Notre Dame, 3-2 in the opener, the Red Storm battled back from a 5-2 deficit in the eighth inning to win the nightcap, 6-5 in 10 innings. During the late game rally, the crowd spontaneously stomped their feet on the metal bleachers so hard that it literally shook the press box.”It was incredible, the fans were amazing and it makes you want to play that much more,” said St. John's first baseman Chris Joachim, who won the game with an RBI-single to right in the 10th inning. “They were wild, I heard all of it.”St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer wanted to use the nationally-televised games as a showcase for not only St. John's baseball, but Northeast baseball, to show that good college baseball wasn't just played in Florida or Texas or California. The NCAA is also apparently taking notice and word is that they want a Northeast school to host an NCAA regional next month.And judging by the way St. John's is playing – they're on the verge of winning the Big East regular season title for the first time in 13 years and have won 24 of their last 28 games – and the first-class facility that they play in, the Red Storm have a pretty good shot at being that Northeast school that hosts.I've covered St. John's baseball for 11 years – including four years as an undergraduate there – and the atmosphere was unlike any I've ever seen. Baseball isn't exactly the No. 1 sport at St. John's – it's probably No. 3 behind basketball and soccer. But for at least one very special, very chilly weekend, it was the only sport around. Reach Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.