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Frank Viola: Just a Kid at Heart : Twins’ Pitcher Loves Children, Baseball

Times Staff Writer

Frank Viola broke up laughing. Shane Reardon, Jeff’s kid, had just spilled sunflower seeds all over the clubhouse carpet. Piles and piles of seeds, everywhere he stepped.

“Shane! What’d you do there, Shane?” Viola bellowed, pretending to be angry, looking down at the wide-eyed boy. Shane smiled.

“Who’s gonna clean this mess up, Shane?” Viola asked, still pretending to be scolding his teammate’s son. Shane shrugged.

Viola laughed some more, and went outside. Or, rather, inside. Inside the “park.” Inside the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where the World Series champion Minnesota Twins conduct their business. Take me in to the ballgame.

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Viola used to hate this place. “I used to say, ‘Go ahead. Let them play football here. Just don’t make us play here,’ ” he said in the runway to the dugout.

That was before he pitched the Twins to the 1987 championship here, and was named most valuable player of the World Series.

That was before he reeled off victory after victory here, not losing at home in 25 starts, from May 22, 1987, to last Wednesday, when the Toronto Blue Jays got to him, 4-1.

That was before he became the most impressive left-hander--and pitcher, perhaps--in the game today, a pitcher who, over one 162-game stretch from last season to this season, put together the eye-popping record of 28-3.

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Now he loves this place, and it loves him. On his day off Thursday, he and his family moved into a new house. But, where Frank Viola really feels at home is the dome.

He spotted Joe Gaetti, Gary’s kid, in his batboy uniform, hours before game time, sitting in a folding chair near the dugout steps, looking sad.

Viola slapped him on the back. “Hi, Joe. You OK?”

The younger Gaetti nodded, silently. “You sure?” the pitcher asked. Again, the boy nodded.

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Viola kept one eye on him as he took a seat in the dugout.

“I love working with kids,” he said. “It’s the most important thing there is.

“Are you familiar with the Make A Wish foundation? It’s a group that grants wishes to terminally ill children.

“There was this boy, and his one wish was to be a batboy for the Minnesota Twins. Well, by the time they set it up, he was very weak. But he was able to come out and be our batboy for one inning. And you should have seen that kid’s face. I’ll never forget that face, that boy was so happy.

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“I never knew how much truth there was to the idea that you can keep somebody going just by keeping his spirits up, but I do know that that kid ended up living six months longer than anybody expected.

“You can’t forget how thrilling it is just for some of these kids to come up to you and shake your hand. I meet some seriously ill child and think, ‘Here I am, worrying about giving up three home runs in a game.’ You’ve just got to make some time for kids.”

After Game 7 of the World Series, which wasn’t played until Oct. 25, the Viola family was supposed to leave for Florida for the winter. Then Frank John Viola Jr. remembered how much Frank John Viola III, age 3 1/2 at the time, was looking forward to Halloween.

The Violas invited the Bert Blylevens and the Sal Buteras to spend the evening with them. Before it got dark, they walked their kids from door to door, trick or treating. Young Frankie was dressed as a skeleton, but a bigger shock to some of the folks on the block was when they recognized his father.

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Viola realized the neighborhood kids were still celebrating the World Series, and tried to think of something he could do for them. His wife, Kathy, remembered that inside a closet she had boxes full of 150 or 200 autographed photographs of Frank. She suggested they give one to each child who came to the door for Halloween.

Frank thought it a great idea.

Then the doorbell started ringing. And ringing. And ringing. And before long, word had spread from block to block that anybody who went to Frank Viola’s house could get an autographed picture.

Frank looked out the window. There were lines on his lawn. More people were headed his way up the sidewalk, bypassing the other homes.

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He ran out of photos, but the people kept coming. All night long, they trooped up to Viola’s doorstep. Frank tried to tell them there were no more pictures. Still they came. They milled around the grass. Frank asked politely if everybody would leave. A few did. He turned off the porch lights, then the house lights. Nobody else left. He finally called the cops, and asked if they could nicely ask everyone to disperse. One woman remained on the walk and yelled that she wasn’t moving an inch until she got her picture.

Popularity. It can be wonderful. It can be awful.

On the eve of the All-Star game July 12 at Cincinnati, Viola left his hotel with his wife, parents and agent to go to dinner. They were in a hurry. They had 6:15 p.m. reservations at a restaurant three blocks up the street, and it already was 6:10.

A television cameraman started filming the Violas on their way out of the hotel. Backpedaling, the cameraman kept the camera going as they walked up the street. All they were doing was walking to dinner. He wasn’t getting anything new. It was just five people, putting one foot in front of another.

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“I asked him politely three times to please stop,” Viola said. “The fourth time, I just couldn’t take it any more. I reached out and pulled the camera lens and said, ‘Get lost!’

“That night on the 11 o’clock news, you can guess what footage they used. They show Doc Gooden in his baseball uniform at the ballpark. They run interviews with Chris Sabo or Barry Larkin talking about the game. Me, they show going to dinner, grabbing a cameraman. They don’t show me standing around for 3 1/2 hours at the ballpark, giving interviews and signing autographs to anybody who comes up. All of a sudden, I’m . . . I’m . . . “

Sean Penn?

“Yeah, exactly. I’m Sean Penn. I’m Frank Viola, the bad boy from Minnesota. So I called up the station and asked: ‘Do you know who I am? Do you know anything about me, what sort of person I am?’ And the person who answers says: ‘You’re a public figure. I know that.’ The next day, I asked around about that cameraman. He’s pulled that stuff before. That’s how he gets his film on the air, by provoking people until they can’t take it anymore. I’m just his latest victim.”

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There was a time, fame eluded Frank Viola, and his temper was partly to blame. On the mound, when anything went wrong, no matter how well he was pitching, he blew up. He went to pieces. He blamed fielders, umpires, field condition, everything.

“I hate to think about it now, but I was probably on the verge of being the biggest crybaby of the 1980s. I was bad, and at times I showed it, and the rest of the time I kept it inside, which in some ways was worse because it ate away at me. When you’re flustered all the time, you stop thinking, and negative things start happening.

“Toward the end of the ’86 season, (pitching coach) Dick Such finally called me aside in the bullpen and gave it to me good. He said, ‘You’re the hardest person to get to know I’ve ever been around. You pitch according to the way the team is playing. If we’re playing bad, you pitch bad. If we’re playing well, you pitch well.’ He told me to use my tools and pitch my own game, that everything else is out of my control.”

One night, Viola was pitching at Boston. Marty Barrett doubled off the Green Monster on Viola’s first pitch. Wade Boggs bunted the next pitch down the first-base line. Kent Hrbek was slow, in Viola’s opinion, to react. On a close play, Boggs was called safe.

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Viola went off like fireworks. He screamed at the first baseman, at the umpire, at himself. He came apart at the baseball’s seams. The next four guys all got hits, and Viola got the hook. His entire performance: 16 pitches, no outs.

“I was more embarrassed later than anything,” Viola said. “I said, ‘This is ridiculous. What must people be thinking?’ Today I see some pitcher blow his top and stomp around, and I think, ‘Did I look that bad when I was doing it? Did I look that crazy?’

“I started watching Blyleven, and how he never changes expression on the mound. Here’s a guy who got lit up for 50 homers in one season, and never blinked. I tried to emulate that. The problem for me was that everything came so easy. Pitching had always been so easy until I reached the majors.”

He figured on becoming a first baseman, but started pitching his junior year of high school in the East Meadow neighborhood of Long Island, N.Y. He also figured to go to college, even when he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of high school, because if all else failed, Viola would become an accountant, like his father, who until he retired recently was for 35 years the financial controller for a radio station in Manhattan.

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“I’ve always liked numbers, just like my dad,” Viola said. “When I get out of the game, I wouldn’t want to be a manager, but I might like to be a statistician.”

While at St. John’s University, Viola participated in a game to remember. The opponent was Yale. Viola worked the first 11 innings of a scoreless tie. He was pitching great baseball, but nobody noticed. That’s because the Yale pitcher, Ron Darling, also had worked the first 11 innings, and still had a no-hitter.

St. John’s got one scratch hit in the 12th and won, 1-0.

Frank Viola Sr. saw his son pitch that game. Seated behind the home plate screen during a Minnesota-Toronto game the other day, he said: “That had to be about the greatest college game ever played. Neither pitcher would give an inch. My wife had just suffered a heart attack, so she couldn’t come, but my other son and I went, and we couldn’t believe our eyes. What a game.

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“I was the world’s biggest Mets fan, and could picture Frank pitching exactly the same way for the Mets. Instead, Darling’s the one who ended up with them. Maybe he and Frank will meet up again in the World Series.”

Because of the last World Series, Viola had to miss his brother’s wedding. He was supposed to be best man. A Minneapolis TV station permitted Viola and his family to tape a toast to his brother and new sister-in-law, to be played at the reception. Frank put Kathy at his side and his kids, Frankie and 10-month-old Brittany Ann, on his lap.

As with other ideas--Halloween, for instance--this one did not go exactly as planned. As a replacement best man, Frank’s brother had chosen a friend named Bob, but for some reason, on the videotape, Frank kept referring to the guy as Mike. Meanwhile, Brittany Ann howled and cried through the entire session.

“Everybody knew her as such a smiley kid, and here she was, crying her eyes out,” Viola said. “Instead of playing this happy good-luck message for all the new in-laws, all they got to see was how miserable my poor daughter was, and me forgetting the best man’s name.”

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Viola has been able to care for his own family with a contract paying $1.35 million this season and $1.45 million next year, plus incentives, including $100,000 if he wins the Cy Young Award, which, with a record of 16-3, he certainly might.

Until Wednesday, he had won 16 of his last 17 decisions, and seemed invincible at home. Wasn’t always that way.

After one unhappy performance a few years ago, Frank had a note delivered to him. It was from an usher from Section 119 whom he had met briefly the year before. It said she would be at The Loon Cafe, a popular downtown bistro, if Frank needed anybody to talk to about everything that had gone wrong. Frank did. He met Kathy Daltas for a drink, and ended up marrying her.

No wonder he has warmed up to the Metrodome. It’s a friendly place.

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There are boxes and boxes of mail in his locker. Back in the clubhouse before that night’s game, he fished an unopened one from the carton and handed it over.

Inside was a letter in large-print pencil, with a stickman figure meant to resemble a pitcher.

Dear Frank Viola,

You are a good picher. I like you. I am a fan of the Twins. I wish you could hit. I hope you win this year. Please write back? Your radical.

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Scott,

Baxter, Minn.

“Great,” Viola said. “Isn’t that great?”

He fished out another.

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Dear Frank Viola,

You’re a good pitcher. My dad was a pitcher in little leagues. Would you please send me a letter.

Monica,

Rochester, Minn.

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“Most of them want letters or pictures,” Viola said.

He was asked if anybody sent him pictures.

“Just Bruno,” he said.

Bruno?

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“Brunansky. Look up there.”

Taped to the inside of Viola’s locker was a large photograph from Game 4 of the World Series. The batter, Tom Lawless of the St. Louis Cardinals, was just leaving home plate after swatting a home run. The pitcher, Frank Viola, had his head turned toward the outfield, watching the ball’s flight.

It was only the second career homer for Lawless, who celebrated by flipping the bat into the air. He hadn’t hit one all season, and hadn’t even had a hit until August.

On the photo was written:

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To Frank: A picture is worth a thousand words. Oh, by the way. What’s your ERA? Your friend, Tom Lawless.

P.S.: Bruno made me do it.

Tom Brunansky, Viola’s teammate on the championship Twins, changed sides this season in a trade with St. Louis.

“I’ll get him back, somehow,” Viola said, laughing.

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Then he went back to the diamond to go to work. Game time was approaching now, and the Metrodome, once the emptiest of ballparks, already was filling up. Dozens of children leaned over the wall above the Twin dugout, 10 feet above its roof, screaming out the players’ names.

They wanted autographs, but they were awfully high. There was no way to reach up.

Viola shrugged.

A kid fastened a blank piece of paper to a string, and lowered the string to the playing field.

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Viola laughed, scribbled his name on the paper, then sent it back up.


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