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.