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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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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.

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