Near-Perfect Pitch

Minnesota's sweetest sounds are heard when Frank Viola, baseball's most prolific winner, takes the mound
August 21, 1988

Frank Viola would be pitching tomorrow, so he had to have Italian food. "I'm three-quarters German," he said between bites of spaghetti and meatballs. "But I always eat Italian the day before I start." The date was July 26 and Viola, a creature of habit, had a good one going. The lefthanded ace of the world champion Minnesota Twins had won 19 consecutive starts at the Metrodome (21, if you include two wins in the 1987 World Series). This meal, with his wife, Kathy, at Vescio's, near the University of Minnesota campus, would put Viola in the right mood—or so he hoped—to extend the string the next afternoon against the Toronto Blue Jays.

"The streak is ironic because I used to hate the Metrodome," he said. No one in the restaurant paid any special notice to Viola, despite the fact that he is the winningest pitcher in baseball this season. He is used to it. "After all that's happened in the last year, reporters keep asking if I don't wish I had more commercial endorsements. I didn't get one, except for some money for saying 'I'm going to Disney World' after I won the seventh game of the World Series. Sure, I'd like to see my picture in a commercial, but it's a trade-off. Would I give up this privacy? Would I give up Minnesota as a place to raise my kids? I was 7-15 in '83, my second year here, and a guy came up to me on the street and said, 'Nice year, Frankie.' That's the way people are here. Can you imagine what they would have said in New York to a pitcher who was 11-25 in the majors? I wouldn't trade what's happened to me here for any commercial."

What has happened is that the kid from East Meadow, Long Island, has become Frankie (Sweet Music) Viola, the best lefthander in the game, 18-4 through last weekend. He has a World Series ring and a Volvo 740 Turbo for being the MVP in that World Series. He started and won the 1988 All-Star Game. Through week's end he had won more games over the last five seasons than any other pitcher in baseball.

"Two years and two months ago I hit rock bottom," Viola says. "A lot has happened in a very short time."

May 20, 1986, Fenway Park. Viola remembers having "real good stuff" warming up to pitch against the Red Sox. For a guy coming off consecutive 18-win seasons, that was hardly surprising. But he also remembers that game, he says, because it showed "why I had reached a certain level and was not going any farther."

Marty Barrett led off the bottom of the first with a double. Wade Boggs bunted toward first baseman Kent Hrbek. "I was a little late getting to the bag," says Viola, "but I was right next to Boggs when I got the throw and tagged him. The umpire called him safe and I snapped. I didn't curse, but I went nuts. I didn't get anybody out. I threw 16 pitches to six batters. Every one scored. It was humiliating. I don't like to say I was the crybaby of the '80s, but I guess I was. I don't know how my teammates played behind me."

Sometimes they didn't care to. One night Viola got upset when veteran shortstop Roy Smalley failed to reach a ground ball and muffed a double play at second, and when Viola made his displeasure known, the two had a shouting match in the clubhouse. "Frank would let a bad call, a bad pitch, a bad play, a homer or almost anything set him off," says Twins pitching coach Dick Such. "It was a matter of maturity." Near the end of that season, which Viola finished with a 16-13 record and a 4.51 ERA, Such took him to the bullpen for a chat. "You're the toughest guy to figure," Such said. "You pitch according to how the team plays. If the team's playing poorly, you pitch poorly. Just do what you do best. Throw the ball. And grow up. Think about it over the winter."

Viola thought about it. "Everything had come easy to me in high school and college," he says. "Then I was in the big leagues less than a year after I pitched in the NCAA tournament. I had to learn to cope with adversity. When I learned to do that and started throwing the changeup, I became a new pitcher."

Viola got his first lessons in the changeup from Johnny Podres, who was the Twins pitching coach when Viola came up in 1982. "But it took me four years to get it," says Viola. "I was strictly a power pitcher—fastball, slider—and Pod told me I needed an off-speed pitch. I was throwing too many pitches because everything was the same speed. I tried the change, but when it didn't work right away, I'd alter the grip and go to something else. Then, in the second half of '86 I went back to the grip Pod had taught me and it seemed to work."

Podres, who had used his changeup to become a World Series hero for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, taught Viola to jam the ball deep into his pitching hand, then throw as if he were unleashing a fastball. "Pod said, 'Think about pulling down a window shade and you'll get a nice, downward motion,' " says Viola. To the hitter, the pitch looks like a fastball as it leaves Viola's hand, but it travels 10 to 12 miles per hour slower.

"Frank's fastball goes 86 to 88 miles an hour—above average," says Such. "But his changeup makes the fastball seem like it's going 92 or 93. And there's more to it than just the difference in speeds. His changeup runs away from a righthanded batter like a screwball would. Then it sinks. So the ball is changing speeds, changing vertical hitting zones and changing horizontal planes all at the same time."

Tim Laudner, who caught Viola when he broke in at Class AA Orlando in 1981 and has been with him ever since, says Viola and Cleveland's Doug Jones have the best changeups he's ever seen. Twins reliever Jeff Reardon, who marvels at the pitch, says, "Frank will throw nine in a row, and they still won't touch it." Reardon is not exaggerating, for Viola did exactly that last year in Seattle. He threw nine changeups, every one for a strike, fanning two batters and getting the third to ground out. Kansas City's Willie Wilson was so frustrated swinging at a 3-and-2 changeup—strike three, of course—that he screamed at Viola. Frank laughs. "I'll throw the change anytime except the first pitch of the game," he says. "That wouldn't look right."

As the 1987 season unfolded, two remarkable things happened. The Twins became a contender after suffering five sub-.500 seasons and, not coincidentally, their hot-tempered fastball-slider power pitcher had become an artist. Viola all but scrapped the slider and went with a repertoire consisting of fastball, change-up and a big overhand curve thrown at several different speeds. From May 27 through Aug. 16, he went 12-2 and pitched Minnesota from second place into first. He didn't lose in the Metrodome after May 22, and when the regular season ended he had a 17-10 record, a 2.90 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 197-66. Then came a win in the playoffs over the heavily favored Detroit Tigers and two more against the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, including the 4-2 clincher.

The Series had been over for six days, and already there had been trips to New York City to claim the Series MVP car and to the White House to meet the President. Ordinarily the Violas would have gone to their Longwood, Fla., winter home by then, but this was 3½-year-old Frankie's first active Halloween (his sister, Brittany, is 15 months old), so the Violas stayed at their Shoreview, Minn., town house a few extra days. As they packed that afternoon, Kathy uncovered some 200 pictures of Frank. "Why don't you sign them and give them to the kids with the Halloween candy?" she suggested. So when the neighborhood kids came to the door, there was the Series hero handing out autographed pictures and candy bars. In less than two hours all the pictures were gone. "I looked out the window and there must have been 40 people in front of my house, all wanting autographs," says Viola. He signed for many of them, but people kept coming. By 10 p.m. Frank and Kathy turned off their lights and pretended not to be home.

"But they kept coming," Viola says. "Finally we had to call the police to get them off the lawn. One lady sat down and refused to leave unless she got my autograph. She was there past midnight, when the police made her leave. Oh, well, it was crazy, but it was fun. I remember back when 4,000 people were in the Dome watching me pitch. I remember when we lost 102 games in 1982. I've kind of grown up here. I've become a Minnesotan who lives in Florida in the off-season. I wouldn't want to go back to New York now."

Baseball—specifically, National League baseball in New York—had always been an important part of Viola's life. His father, Frank Sr., a retired comptroller for a New York radio station, went to his first Giants game in the Polo Grounds in 1934 to see Carl Hubbell pitch, and his father made his first trip to Coogan's Bluff in 1903. Though the Giants moved to San Francisco three years before Frank Jr. was born, the youngster knew all about Mel Ott before he started first grade. When Frankie was seven his father set the annual allotment of games he could attend: Mets 10, Yankees 1.

In 1969, the year of the Miracle Mets, Frankie attended a clinic given by Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson and pitcher Jerry Koosman. "Koosman said that kids shouldn't throw curveballs until they're at least 15. After that, I never even fooled around with a breaking ball until I was a junior in high school. Maybe that's one reason my arm is as strong as it is now."

Kansas City drafted Viola in the 16th round out of East Meadow High, but he had no intention of signing. "I intended all along to go to college to study accounting, like my father." He went to St. John's in Queens, went 26-2 over three seasons and pitched the Redmen to the 1980 College World Series and a 1981 NCAA tournament appearance. "We would have won in '81 if John Franco [now the Cincinnati Reds' star reliever] hadn't been hurt," says Viola.

During the NCAA Northeast Regional in New Haven that year, Viola got the victory in what might have been the best college game ever played, although he wasn't the best pitcher that day. Yale junior Ron Darling threw a no-hitter for 11 innings. "That still is the single greatest game I've seen pitched," says Viola. "A no-hitter. Sixteen strikeouts. I felt as if I was losing the whole time." Viola had allowed only seven hits himself. Then in the top of the 12th, St. John's scored the only run of the game on a base hit, an error and a couple of stolen bases. "I remember being in awe of Darling," Viola says. "The next day he played rightfield. I couldn't even lift my arm to comb my hair, let alone play. He caught a fly ball on the warning track and fired a one-hop pea to home plate. He was great." Soon thereafter. Darling was drafted in the first round by the Texas Rangers (and later traded to the Mets); Viola was chosen in the second round by the Twins.

When he reported to the minors in Orlando, Viola didn't disappoint those who expected to meet a cocky New Yorker. His first night with the club was spent in the bullpen when manager Tom Kelly told him to warm up in the sixth inning. "Here's this guy who has to waddle to the bullpen because he's got so much signing money in his pockets." says Kelly, now Viola's skipper in Minnesota, "and when I tell him to warm up, he says, 'Don't they give you a day to get orientated?' I've never let him forget that."

Since then, Viola has filed down his New York edge. "Otherwise," says the former Kathy Daltas of Roseville, Minn., "I wouldn't be married to him. Actually, he's a shy, country sort of person. He took me to a reunion of that St. John's team. There were two distinct groups. There were the Brooklyn guys and the Long Island guys. The Brooklyn guys—Franco was one—all had on three-piece suits and jewelry. The Island guys had on jeans and sport shirts. Night and day."

The Long Island kid didn't become a hearty Minnesotan with ease. A few years after they were married, Kathy took him fishing. "He wouldn't touch the worms," she says, "I had to put them on the hook for him. Then he accidentally caught a fish on his line. He made me jump in the water to get it, then when I got it into the boat, he wouldn't touch it." The opposites work well together, though. "He's so neat, he's a little old lady," Kathy says. "It works great in the kitchen. He can't stand the mess I make, so he cleans up after me."

"That meticulous part of his nature is what makes him such a great pitcher," says Such. "His approach and his delivery are perfectly consistent. You watch him throw 120 pitches, and the motion looks the same on every one. That makes his control, it keeps him from bad streaks and it gives the hitters the same look, pitch after pitch after pitch."

This year Viola lost to the Yankees in New York on Opening Day, then won nine straight, lost one and won another seven in a row to run his record to 16-2 with a 2.17 ERA by July 26. Now, says rightfielder Randy Bush, "everyone is relaxed playing behind Frank, so we play better for him. He throws strikes. He works quickly. He is in total control." Charlie Fox, the Chicago Cubs' veteran scout, watched Viola pitch recently and said, "He reminds me of Hubbell. Same style. Same changeup-screwball. Same poise."

Now, on July 27, Viola was going for his eighth straight win and 22nd straight (including postseason play) in the Metrodome. But it wasn't going to be easy: The Blue Jays had beaten him 10 times in his 13 decisions in games against them.

In the bullpen before the game, he threw until he felt just right. Upon taking the mound he kicked the rubber twice, in ritualistic fashion. "I always kick it before beginning an inning," he says. "It started because I can't stand the rubber being dirty. Now it's habit." Then he threw his pattern of 11 warmup pitches: three fastballs, two curveballs, two sliders, two changeups, and two more fastballs. Then he moved the resin bag to his favorite spot—the seven o'clock position on the edge of the mound as he faced home plate—and threw his first pitch to Tony Fernandez of the Jays before 51,687 fans.

In the bottom of the second, Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti led off with a homer to give Viola a 1-0 lead. But in the fifth, Toronto leftfielder Sil Campusano, a .198 hitter, lunged at a curve-ball and hit it just inside the leftfield foul pole for a home run. Two batters later, second baseman Manny Lee blooped a double to drive in a second run.

When he came to the mound to pitch in the sixth, Viola gave the rubber four kicks instead of the usual two, but that didn't help. First baseman Fred McGriff hit a hanging changeup into the second deck in rightfield, just above the FRANKIE SWEET MUSIC VIOLA banner that had hung there for most of the of 21 consecutive victories. Rightfielder Jesse Barfield hit a fastball into the seats in left and Toronto had a 4-1 lead. Juan Berenguer came in to pitch the seventh for Minnesota. Sweet Music's string was broken.

"I never could explain this streak,'' Viola said afterward. "All I know is that it sure was fun while it lasted." As he repeated similar words to a succession of TV and newspaper reporters, centerfielder Kirby Puckett yelled out, "Cut the BS, Sweet Frankie Viola Nothing! We needed that win. You let us down."

Viola laughed so hard he couldn't continue talking.

Next, Kelly walked by. "You blew that one, Frankie baby," he said. "Don't they give you a day to get orientated?"

Jump to Aug. 5. Viola left 31 tickets for friends and relatives who hoped to see him snap his two-game losing streak in the second game of a Yankee Stadium doubleheader. There was a potential problem, though. The Twins had played an afternoon game in Toronto the day before and had flown to New York that night, and Viola couldn't get anyone to eat Italian with him. A bunch of guys were going to Rusty Staub's restaurant for ribs and Viola went along.

Then he went out and beat the Yankees 11-2. He never got into serious trouble, although he did start kicking the rubber four times after allowing two hits and a wild pitch in the third inning. Did he plan to switch his eating pattern to ribs the day before each start?

"Nah," says Viola. "I don't even like ribs. Italian food got me this far. That's one thing I don't change."

PHOTOJERRY WACHTERViola's fastball looks hotter than ever when it follows one of his confounding changeups. PHOTOLANE STEWARTA broken string at the Metrodome has not soured Viola's banner year. TWO PHOTOSLANE STEWARTThe Podres changeup grip and "window-shade" motion helped Viola become a winner and may come in handy for little Frankie, too. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe spotlight found Viola after the '87 World Series, but it didn't stay on him for long. PHOTOLANE STEWARTBeing the cleanup man at home is an extension of Viola's meticulousness on the mound. PHOTOLANE STEWARTFrank with the rest of the Viola quartet: (from left) Frankie, Brittany and Kathy.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)