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Near-Perfect Pitch
Peter Gammons
August 22, 1988
Minnesota's sweetest sounds are heard when Frank Viola, baseball's most prolific winner, takes the mound
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August 22, 1988

Near-perfect Pitch

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

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"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."

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