When pitcher Frank Viola is in concert for the defending world champion Minnesota Twins, the only music opposing hitters hear is on the clubhouse radio! Viola's repertoire is nearly always the same - a fastball followed by what may be the best change-up in the game. Frank doesn't exactly steal from hitters, he simply causes them to misplace their timing - sometimes for nine straight innings.
The rugged 6 ft., 4 in., 209-pound Viola should be blue-collar-enough-looking for anybody who ever labored on a construction crew, threw bales of hay into a wagon, or poured hot steel into a caldron. Frank is a worker who stays in shape, does his homework, and isn't afraid to challenge hitters in clutch situations.
Viola is making a strong big for the American League Cy Young Award this year, leading the major leagues with 19 victories so far, against only 6 losses. He also started and won the All-Star Game, a nice follow-up to his performance in last fall's World Series, when he was voted the Most Valuable Player after leading the Twins to victory over the St. Louis Cardinals by winning both the opener and the decisive seventh game.
It was that performance, of course, that introduced Viola to millions of casual fans throughout the country, but he was already well known in baseball circles. Indeed, with 18 victories in both 1984 and '85, 16 in '86, 17 in '87, and now this year's career-high effort, he has won more games over the past five seasons than any other pitcher in either league.
It hasn't always been easy, however - especially at the beginning. Viola was signed right out of college in 1981 at a time when the Twins were so desperate for victories that they were rushing their young players and spoiling many of them. Brought up after only a year of minor league seasoning, he went 4-10 in 1982 and 5-17 the next year. But unlike some youngsters, who might have been ruined by such a start, Frank had the mental toughness to hang in there until he learned his trade.
One of the first things the young left-hander from East Meadow, Long Island, had to learn was to control his temper. For a while, if one of Viola's teammates misplayed a ball, Frank pouted - and sometimes sounded off about it in the clubhouse. He was hard on himself, too; if he allowed a home run, he got so hot you could light matches on him. But little by little he gained the maturity to shrug off the mistakes and concentrate on the business at hand.
Another problem was that the hitters were sitting on Frank's fastball - a wonderful pitch if you didn't know it was coming. Enter pitching coach Johnny Podres, who taught him how to throw a change-up that could make even a good hitter think he was seeing something he wasn't. It took Frank a while before he perfected his delivery and gained enough confidence to begin throwing the change-up in games. But once he got it right, the victories began to pile up like summer bugs on a Texas windshield.
Of course there are those in baseball who will insist that Roger Clemens is faster, Orel Hershiser has a better sinker, and Danny Jackson a better motion. But when they begin totaling up the victories, Viola is difficult to ignore. Elsewhere in the major leagues
Detroit's pickup of Luis Salazar, a journeyman infielder-outfielder who had been released by both the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres in 1987, hardly got any attention at the time. If the Tigers go on to win the American League East title, hoever, it could turn out to have been one of the most important off-season moves they made. Originally expected to play only an occasional fill-in role, Salazar has been thrust into a lot more action than anticipated because of injuries to All-Star shortstop Alan Trammell and others - and has come through with flying colors. ``For a lot of weeks this season,'' says manager Sparky Anderson of his versatile troubleshooter, ``Salazar has been our most valuable player.''
NBC-TV broadcaster Tony Kubek has an explanation for the noticeable dropoff in home runs in both leagues. ``Because the stitches that hold the cover on the ball are not as flat as they were, there is a lot more wind resistance built into this year's ball,'' Kubek said. ``I'm also guessing that the twine around the ball isn't being wound as tightly.''
During Boston's recent 24-game winning streak at Fenway Park, the Red Sox batted batted .342 as a team, hit 26 home runs, and outscored their opponents 167-77. During that stretch, new manager Joe Morgan's salary went from $45,000 a year to $190,000!
When it comes to overall speed, Montreal doesn't take a back seat to any team. The Expos have a bunch of rabbits on the basepaths in outfielders Tim Raines, Tracy Jones, Dave Martinez, and Otis Nixon, plus infielder Rex Hudler. In fact, Nixon stole a league-high 19 bases in July.
No wonder the Philadelphia franchise is still sometimes referred to as the ``Phutile Phillies.'' In 1983, manager Pat Corrales was fired with the Phillies in first place. This year, Lee Elia got a contract extension with the team in last place!