By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
No one would blame you if you don’t remember any “Sweet Music” at the SkyDome in 1996.
After all, the Toronto Blue Jays finished a dismal 74-88 that season and left-hander Frank Viola (nicknamed “Sweet Music”) struggled in all but one of his six starts with the club.
Yes, you read that correctly. Frank Viola, the 1987 World Series MVP and 1988 American League Cy Young Award winner, toed the rubber for the Blue Jays in 1996.
Most of us recall the crafty, mustachioed left-hander as the durable ace of the Minnesota Twins who thanks largely to his killer changeup won at least 16 games in five consecutive seasons from 1984 to 1988. The New York native also made three starts for the Twins in the 1987 World Series, and was the winning pitcher in Game 7.
You’re also probably more likely to remember his parts of three seasons with his hometown New York Mets. In 1990, he won 20 games for the National League club and topped the circuit in innings pitched (249-2/3) and starts (35).
Following the 1991 campaign, Viola signed a three-year, $13.9-million deal with the Boston Red Sox and continued to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, posting 3.44 and 3.14 ERAs in 1992 and 1993 respectively.
However, Viola was shut down with an elbow injury in the middle of September 1993, but he would recover in time to join the Bosox rotation at the start of 1994. But disaster would strike on May 3 when he tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery.
With his contract with the Red Sox expired, he rehabbed his elbow and signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays on April 24, 1995. After his arduous rehab efforts, he made his first start since his surgery with the class-A Advanced Dunedin Blue Jays that summer. In all, he would register a 3.97 ERA in three starts with Dunedin before the Blue Jays released him to allow him to sign with the Cincinnati Reds, who offered him a clearer path back to the big leagues. He made six starts for Reds’ triple-A Indianapolis Indians prior to being called up and recording a 6.28 ERA in three appearances for the big league club.
Determined to be a regular contributor to a big league rotation again, Viola inked a minor league deal with the then rebuilding Blue Jays on February 22, 1996. Viola began the season with the Blue Jays’ double-A Knoxville Smokies.
“I have one goal left in baseball and that’s to win 25 more games for 200,” Viola told the St. Cloud Times in an article published on April 11, 1996.
Viola would register a 1.64 ERA in four starts in double-A before he was recalled by the Blue Jays on April 26. The Blue Jays, who were 9-13 and were supposed to be rebuilding, were criticized for calling up the 36-year-old veteran. But at the time, the team’s pitching staff owned a collective 5.56 ERA.
“We need him up here to stop the bleeding,” Gaston told the Canadian Press. “The reports we are getting on him are good. Why not let Viola pitch and see what he can do?”
Gaston probably wished he could “unsee” what Viola did in his first start with the Blue Jays. On April 28, facing the Cleveland Indians at SkyDome, the veteran lefty was roughed up for six runs in the first inning and three more in the second. He eventually made it through four innings, but allowed a total of 10 runs (nine earned) on 10 hits in the Indians’ 17-3 win.
“I figured I’d give up a lot of runs today, so I’ve got plenty of room for improvement next time,” Viola joked with reporters after the game. “But seriously, for me to survive, even when I was healthy before, I need location. And my location was horrible today.”
Despite his disastrous Blue Jays debut, Viola got the start on May 4 against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. He fared better, but his stat line was still relatively ugly: five earned runs and nine hits in 4-1/3 innings in the Blue Jays’ 8-4 loss.
Viola carried a 15.12 ERA into his third start where he again faced the Red Sox but this time at SkyDome on May 11. He would last five innings and surrender six hits and four runs but also walk six batters. The Blue Jays were victorious, 9-8 in 11 innings, long after Viola had hit the showers.
A week later, Viola would earn his first win with the Blue Jays when he held the Kansas City Royals to one run on five hits in six innings in his club’s 6-2 victory at Kauffman Stadium.
“The whole weight of the world is off my shoulders,” Viola told reporters after his first win as a Blue Jay. “It was a long time between career win 175 and 176. I was fortunate to be able to come back. I was fortunate to have strong support. My wife and my kids, that’s my whole life. My wife, she put up with a lot of stuff. A lot of times, she was the only one I had to talk to.”
Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter praised Viola’s outing.
“His first few games were so-so,” said Carter after the game. “Tonight it was the Frankie of old.”
Unfortunately, Viola’s success was short-lived.
Starting against the Twins at the SkyDome on May 23, his command issues returned. In 5-1/3 innings, he allowed eight hits, four runs and walked three and came away with a no-decision in the Blue Jays’ 5-4, 10-inning win.
Five days later, Viola battled his control again, issuing six free passes and allowing four earned runs in 5 2/3 innings to the Chicago White Sox at the SkyDome. His final pitch was a fastball that hit Tony Phillips that cleared the benches. The umpires ruled the pitch was a retaliation for Joe Carter being plunked by James Baldwin in the bottom of the previous inning and Viola was immediately ejected.
Following the game, Viola reflected on his performance.
“I feel better and better every time out,” Viola told reporters. “But the bottom line is, I’m not getting the results I like . . . It’s a helluva streak of walks I’m on. I’ve always prided myself on being a control pitcher. But if I had an answer to all these walks I’d give it to you.”
With right-handers Woody Williams and Juan Guzman set to come off the disabled list for the Blue Jays, there were rumblings that Viola was going to be released.
Viola didn’t improve his chances of sticking with the club when he told a Toronto reporter that he thought Gaston was too laid back to manage the young 1996 team.
Near the end of May, a decision was made to shift Viola to the bullpen, an assignment that the outspoken southpaw refused to embrace.
“I didn’t come back to pitch out of the bullpen on a full-time basis,” Viola told reporters after a meeting with Gaston. “The way we left it is we don’t need a fifth starter until next Sunday (June 8).”
It appears Gaston had a different interpretation of the meeting.
“Frank wants out of here,” Gaston told reporters before the Blue Jays game on June 4. “He’s aware of what’s going on. If he wants out of here, why should we start him? He doesn’t want to pitch in the pen, so I’d say he wants out of here.”
With tension simmering between Gaston and Viola, and Guzman set to come of the DL, it wasn’t a surprise when the veteran was released on June 5.
“I didn’t want to drag him all the way down to Texas and then release him there,” Gaston told reporters on June 5. “Guzman is going to be OK. We had to do something, it was better that we do it here. He’s got family here and it gives him a chance to get on with it.”
For his part, Viola, who was 1-3 with a 7.71 ERA in his six starts as a Blue Jay, was gracious about his release.
“A 7.71 ERA, that’s the bottom line,” said Viola of why he was let go. “As I’ve said in the past, this organization gave me an opportunity a lot of teams wouldn’t have and I failed to take advantage of it.”
Viola hoped to land with another big league club, but no one called and he officially announced his retirement that November.
After hanging up his playing spikes, he worked as a minor league pitching instructor for numerous affiliated clubs and most recently with the High Point Rockers of the independent Atlantic League in 2019.
He also helped his son Frank Viola III embark on a professional pitching career. Unlike his dad, Viola III was a right-hander, who, after an arm injury, reinvented himself as a knuckleballer. He pitched one season in the Blue Jays’ organization in 2014, posting a 7.15 ERA in nine starts between low-A Lansing and class-A Advanced Dunedin.