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December 14, 2011

The Lineup Card

9 Memories of Frank Viola

by Baseball Prospectus

For those who haven't yet heard, Baseball Prospectus's new Finance Director is John Viola—brother of famed major league pitcher Frank Viola.  In honor of John and Frank, this week's Lineup Card consists of stories, anecdotes, and amusing tales of how our writers remember Frank.

1) Brotherly Bond
Frank and I shared the same bedroom growing up and were very close. We still are, but he will always be the older brother who torments me. Frank taught me how to play golf when I was 11 years old and he was 15. I never had a lesson, but he still took me out to play 18 holes at Eisenhower Blue Course. I actually shot a 187—good in bowling, very bad in golf. Frank became so frustrated with me that he sliced three balls onto Carmen Avenue on the eighth hole, and I think he even hit a car with one of them! But that was only the start of our golf outings.

I started to get the hang of the game, and at the age of 14, I was about to do something I never did before—break a 100 on an 18-hole course. Frank wasn't going to make it easy for me, however. I had reached the 18th hole and scored a 90 on the first 17. All I needed was a “9” to break the 100 barrier. As we approached the tee box, Frank put the pressure on me, reminding me how close I was to 100. On my first shot, I topped the ball into the woods. Frank yelled out, "That’s one!"  My next shot hit a tree. "That’s two." I’m sure you get where this is going. By the time I reached the green, I needed to sink a long putt for stroke “9.” Frank reminded me again how I close I was to 100, and, of course, I missed the putt. I got so upset that I flung my putter at him. Thankfully, my aim was as bad as my golf-playing. If it was any better, he might not have become the great pitcher he was.

Frank was always able to thrive under pressure and, well, I could not. He became a very successful major league pitcher, and I became an accountant. No matter how much he teased me over our lifetime, I will always be so proud to be his brother. Just don’t join our foursome on the golf course! —John Viola

2) The Arrival
It is tempting to respond to this week’s topic with, “Frank Viola is perhaps the only member of the early 1990s Mets that no one ever said anything bad about,” or, “He spent a season pitching to Mackey Sasser and still won 20 games,” but that would diminish a fine career to mere humor. It is more fitting to focus on Viola’s role in resuscitating a down franchise. After winning from 91 to 102 games in six of nine seasons from 1962 to 1970, the Twins had gotten lost in the Me Decade, fielding a series of occasionally decent but mostly unspectacular clubs. They finally crashed in 1981with a team whose best player and pitcher were John Castino and Doug Corbett. With their farm system popping, the Twins decided to blow things up and start over, turning over the team to Tim Laudner, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky—and Frank Viola. The 1982 Twins lost 102 games, but they were on their way to being a better team. By 1984, Viola had established himself as the ace of the staff and an indispensible part of the 1987 champions—a team that won despite having only two strong starting pitchers, Bert Blyleven and Viola himself. —Steven Goldman

3) Play Ball!
An autographed baseball is a special thing in a house of baseball-loving kids—especially if they live hundreds of miles from the nearest major leaguer. In our household, the one-and-only signed ball we ever had came from the hands of Frank Viola. My brother, fifteen-years-old at the time, caught a batting practice ground-rule double off the bat of Howard Johnson at Dodger Stadium, diving over our doe-eyed, six-year-old cousin to do so and no doubt scarring him for life. Before batting practice finished, my brother, nervous and shaking, managed to get Viola—a real, live major league ballplayer!—to sign the ball for him: a tight, looping autograph in blue pen on the wide part of the ball. We stood in awe of the ball by the time my brother got it home, always wanting to touch the ball Frank Viola touched but never wanting to play with it. It was hallowed, after all.

That is, of course, until we found ourselves ready to play a game but with no ball to play with. We had a choice: revere a baseball or play some baseball. We did the obvious thing. By the end of the game, the ball was lopsided and the Viola autograph was smudged away, but we had fun. I think Frank would agree we made the right choice. —Larry Granillo

4) Fan of the Game
It is surprising how many major-league players don't consider themselves baseball fans or even follow the sport very closely. And you would also be shocked at how few have even a working knowledge of the game's history.

That's why it was refreshing 20 years ago to see Frank Viola and his family at FanFest during the 1991 All-Star Game festivities in Toronto. Viola truly seemed to be enjoying the event, especially perusing the scads of baseball cards and other memorabilia the vendors had on sale.

I asked Viola about FanFest later on during the 1991 season, and he smiled as he talked about what a blast he had that day. He then proceeded to say how much he loved baseball and how he would have been a big fan even if he hadn't been blessed with the talent to win 176 games and a Cy Young Award during his 15-year career.

That's why I always smile when I think about Frank Viola.—John Perrotto

5) Viola vs. Bo
My favorite Frank Viola-related moment is not one he would remember fondly. Upon hearing about this Lineup Card topic, I dug into my scorecard archive and discovered I’d been in attendance for Viola’s May 29, 1989 start in Kansas City, which might make for a wonderful memory except for the fact that the Twins lost.

The big lefty’s overall line—12 hits and seven runs in five innings—was not pretty, and he was lifted for Señor Smoke, Juan Berenguer, to start the sixth. Meanwhile, KC’s Bret Saberhagen, Jeff Montgomery, and Tom Gordon combined to hold the Twins to one run—a home run from Randy Bush, now better known as assistant general manager for the Cubs. The highlight—aside from the $3 left-field general admission ticket—was a 2-for-3 performance from Royals cleanup hitter Bo Jackson, who doubled, tripled, walked, and scored twice. This probably only serves to dredge up bad memories—Jackson hit a healthy .304/.360/.652 in 25 career plate appearances against Viola. But Bo also struck out in nine of those match-ups, so it’s not all bad. —Jeff Euston

6) The Card
I’m not old enough to remember seeing Frank Viola pitch. I didn’t start following baseball on anything more than a just-watch-the-World-Series basis until 1996, by which point Sweet Music had already been fading out for a few years. But once I became more than a nominal fan, this card made its way into my collection:

As an ill-considered attempt to make baseball cards classy, Score’s 1991 Dream Team collection offered a lot of strange sights. Still, most of the featured players at least looked like, well, players. Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, and, um, Kirby Puckett were pictured shirtless and swinging bats. Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, and Wade Boggs were swinging bats in uniform, which made even more sense. Will Clark was wearing a suit, which was weird, but still, he was holding a bat (with a lightning bolt, no less)—something a baseball player might do. Everyone else was either holding a ball, holding a ball that was on fire, crouching in catcher’s gear, losing his balance at second base, or practicing looking like a closer.

And then there was Frank Viola. Viola was wearing a very unathletic-looking turtleneck and holding an apple, which I knew even at age 10 wasn’t something you could use in an actual game. He reminded me of both my mustachioed pediatrician, Dr. Yapalater, who might have been brandishing the apple to show me how to keep him away, and my mustachioed music teacher, Mr. Moore, who might have been showing off the apple I gave him for making me a better piano player. Since I’d never seen him play, that’s what Frank Viola was to me for many years: a pediatrician/piano teacher who somehow got himself onto a baseball card.

I know now that Viola was a very good pitcher who occasionally took off his turtleneck, ate his apple, and threw baseballs while wearing a baseball uniform, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like him better the old way. —Ben Lindbergh

7) The Dueling "Franks"
On October 11, 1987, I was all of 4.5 years old. Nevertheless, my greatest memory of Frank Viola was created that day. In a way that only he could tell it, I asked my soon to be 60-year-old father (Happy Birthday two weeks early, Jay) to share his memory of that days game between the visiting Minnesota Twins, and my hometown Detroit Tigers. This is a story he told me throughout my own baseball career and one which I will share with my own son as he runs the bases one day. I've cleaned it up a bit, but I hope I've kept my father's words intact enough for his narrative to ring true; enjoy.

"It was cold, it was damp, and the upper-deck centerfield bleachers were where you wanted to be and hated being.  It was October 11, 1987, Twins up two games to one in the AL Championship Series at Tiger Stadium.  Both teams were serving FranksTanana and Viola.  Bottom of the sixth, Tigers down by two.  Lemon singles to lead off, and Daryl Evans singles, knocking out Viola.  Bergman drives in Lemon with a line single to left.  Tigers down by one.  Heath bunts Evans and Bergman over.  Evans gets picked off third by the catcher on the first pitch to Lou Whitaker.  Berenguer throws the 2-0 pitch to the backstop.  Whitaker walks, Morrison flys out, and the Tigers are done for 19 years.  Seriously, no one who was there remembers Viola.  The image seared in the brain is Evans slipping, sliding, and falling back a foot short of the bag.  The tying run, fresh life in the series, splat....did I mention it was windy as well." —Adam Tower
 
8) Fantasy Fanatic
Back in late 2001, I went on a date with a girl I had met earlier in the month. We got to chatting about things and quickly got on the topic of baseball because I had on a Devil Rays hat. I said I was a bit of a trivia savant, so she wanted to test my knowledge with a game of "name the player." At this point, I'm already pretty much mesmerized because she is still on this date with me while I am wearing a Devil Rays hat and talking baseball. First clue: the player played in the American League his entire career. "George Brett?" Nope. Second clue: he was a catcher. "Carlton Fisk?"  Nope. Third clue: he was a switch hitter. "Butch Wynegar!" "Yep, and you're looking at one of his daughters."  Turns out, Butch was still doing work in baseball at the time (I believe in the Rangers' system), and she had lived here for awhile. Being the smooth ladies man I was in my single days, I happened to mention that I also did fantasy baseball with my friends from college, and she informed me that her dad was also a player as one of his friends ran a league locally. The league included some of the local sports media people and was run by none other than Frank Viola. She told me Frank had the kind of draft room set up in his house that most of us can only dream of owning—multiple televisions, refrigeration, etc—and that draft days were quite the event at the Viola household. I know the league is still going strong as I do local radio spots with someone in the league, but the budding baseball romance was never meant to be as I actually met my present wife three days later.....at a bar, sans the Devil Rays hat. —Jason Collette
 
9) Viola vs. Darling
Among the scores of great baseball stories Roger Angell published at the New Yorker, few can match the historical breadth of his July 20, 1981 piece, "The Web of the Game." In it, Angell recalls a game he attended between Yale and St. John's University at Yale Field in New Haven, Connecticut. Not only did the contest pair two future All-Stars (and future teammates) in Ron Darling for the former and Frank Viola for the latter, but Angell was treated to the company of 91-year-old Smoky Joe Wood, who went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA for the 1912 Red Sox, then beat the Giants three times in helping the Sox win a World Series.

"Frank Viola, for his part, was as imperturbable as Darling on the mound, if not quite as awesome. A lanky, sharp-shouldered lefty, he threw an assortment of speeds and spins, mostly sinkers and down-darting sliders, that had the Yale batters swinging from their shoe tops and, for the most part, hammering the ball into the dirt. He had the stuff and poise of a veteran relief pitcher, and the St. John's infield—especially Brian Miller and a stubby, ebullient, second baseman named Steve Scafa—performed behind him with the swift, almost haughty confidence that imparts an elegance and calm and sense of ease to baseball at its best,. It was a scoreless game after five, and a beauty."

As the scoreless duel unfolded and extended into extra frames, Wood and company talked of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tris Speaker, Carl Hubbell, and other bygone stars, but especially of Walter Johnson, whom Wood beat in a 1-0 duel at Fenway Park in September 1912 for his 14th straight victory. Meanwhile, Viola threw 11 shutout innings, surviving a bases-loaded jam in the final frame—a performance that could barely keep pace with Darling, who threw 11 innings of no-hit ball before surrendering a single to the aforementioned Scalfa in the 12th; he came around to score the game's only run on a delayed double steal.

"I never saw a better-played game anyplace—college or big-league," said Wood. "That's a swell ballgame." Soon afterwards, Darling would go on to be the ninth pick in the amateur draft by the Rangers, Viola the 37th pick by the Twins. —Jay Jaffe

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