Yesterday I did a post about Tom Lawless, who launched a homer off of Frank Viola in the 1987 World Series.
Might as well do the other side and write about Frank Viola and HIS career for today.
Viola was a Long Island kid, born in East Meadow in 1960. A star at St. John’s University, he was drafted by Kansas City in 1979 but did not sign. Who knows if he would have fit in with the Bret Saberhagens and the Mark Gucizas and Charlie Liebrandts of the world and help KC win a few more titles. We will never know.
He made a name for himself dueling Ron Darling in a classic game. Darling held St. John’s hitless until the 12th. Viola pitched 11 shutout frames to win it 1-0. Darling and Viola would later be reunited.
Viola, known as Sweet Music, would be drafted by the Twins in 1981 and was on the big league squad in 1982. He did not light up the world in his first two seasons, posting a 5.21 ERA in 1982 and a 5.49 ERA over 210 innings in 1983.
In 1984, the 24 year old Viola turned a corner, winning 18 games and throwing to a 3.21 ERA, finishing 6th in the AL Cy Young voting.
In 1985 and 1986, he was a steady workhorse for some forgettable Twins teams. Always good for win totals in the teens, he threw a ton of innings, even if the ERA was sparkling.
In 1987, he stepped onto the big stage. He had his best season to date, winning 17, lowing his ERA to 2.90 and seeing his ERA+ grow to a robust 159. He would finish 6th again in the Cy Young vote and his fine season went under the radar as the Twins won a weak AL West and faced the Tigers, fresh off their dramatic regular season finale, in the ALCS.
The Twins stunned the Tigers for a 5 game victory. Viola was not one of the big factors. He gave up 5 runs in his Game 1 no decision and got the win in Game 4 but could not make the 6th inning in his start.
For the World Series, Viola missed his brothers wedding so he could pitch the opening game. I guess he didn’t think he would have plans in October.
He pitched brilliantly in Game 1, allowing a run over 8 innings to earn the win. As I wrote in the Lawless piece, he got clobbered in Game 4, allowing 5 runs in 3 1/3 innings.
Perhaps this is where perception is strange. I always remembered Viola as dominating in October of 1987. But going into Game 7 of the 1987 World Series, Viola had 1 quality post season starts, two mediocre starts and one blow out. His post season ERA going into Game 7 of 5.01, which is terrible.
And lest we forget, the Cardinals were rallying in the second, where they took a 2-0 lead. Bert Blyleven was warming up to come into the game in the second when Viola got Vince Coleman to end the inning. Had Coleman got a hit, Viola’s Game 7 would have been remembered as a disaster for him. He would have been a bust in the post season.
Instead he settled down, the Twins got two blown calls go their way and he pitched through 8 until Jeff Reardon closed out the game and the World Series.
Frank Viola got the World Series MVP, based mainly on his Game 1 and 7 wins. I would have given Kirby Puckett the MVP with his .357 average and .884 OPS, but what do I know.
With the glow of World Series glory surrounding Viola, he went on to capture the AL Cy Young award in 1988. (Basically one bad month kept Roger Clemens from winning 3 in a row. ) Viola went 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA, which is what people looked at when they voted.
The next season, as the A’s were dominating the AL West, Viola suddenly found himself on the trade block. The Mets, unable to land Mark Langston in a deal, focused on the Long Island boy.
The Mets were doing a remodeling of their team, dumping away Lenny Dyktra, Mookie Wilson, Rick Aguilera and other members of the 1986 team. Viola arrived and pitched OK but not great as the new look Mets fell short of the post season.
Their post season hopes in 1990 fell short as well, but don’t blame Viola. He had his best season since winning the Cy Young Award. Winner of 20 games, he led the NL with 249 2/3 innings, pitching to a 2.67 ERA and 7 complete games. He finished 3rd in the Cy Young behind Doug Drabek and Ramon Martinez. The Sabermetric community would have given it to Ed Whitson who had the highest WAR for pitchers but received zero Cy Young votes. Different times.
He made his third All Star team in 1991 with the Mets, but the team was falling apart by then. He signed with Boston, hoping to make an unstoppable 1-2 punch with Roger Clemens. The two aces pitched well but little else worked in Boston as they faded from contention in 1992 and 1993. Injuries derailed his 1994 and ultimately finished his career in 1996 with cameos in Cincinnati and Toronto.
Since his retirement, Viola has been a coach in the Mets organization, dealing with open heart surgery in 2014. He has a daughter who participated in the 2012 Olympics as a diver and a son who pitched in the White Sox farm system.
But he will be best remembered for that Game 7 performance that led to the Twins first ever title in Minnesota. It was the kind of start that wipes out all memories of disappointment. It was the living example of how those who laugh last laugh best.
Sweet music indeed.
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