Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
No deal consummated in the 1980s seemed more of a sure thing when it was announced than when McDonald’s sent lettuce and tomato to the top half of the bun in 1985 to create the McDLT. But the Mets acquiring Frank Viola sure seemed close.
Turned out America wasn’t turned on by keeping the hot side hot and the cool side cool. And the benefits of placing Frank Viola on the Mets wound up as not very filling either.
Defending Cy Young winner. World Series MVP the October before that. In his prime. Legendary college pitcher for the Redmen, linked to Ron Darling of all people. From not just New York, but Long Island. Grew up a Mets fan. Dropped into our laps as we flailed around aceless in a pennant race on whose cusp we were barely hanging.
Now pitching for the New York Mets with two months remaining in the 1989 season: Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola.
There was no way it wouldn’t work.
But it didn’t. The surest thing in the universe crapped out on the Mets. Didn’t pay off at any rate. Didn’t yield the forecast dividends. Didn’t save a season, didn’t extend an era, didn’t separate the cool and hot sides as promised.
Frank Viola was the McDLT of the Mets. The hype was intriguing, the taste was a little off and it was stripped from the menu faster than you could say Filet-O-Fish.
There would have been no Frank Viola on the New York Mets if not for two overwhelming factors: Dwight Gooden was disabled and the Minnesota Twins were penurious. The Doctor was operating at the highest of levels (9-2, 2.56 ERA) before feeling something in his elbow in late June. He’d be prescribed a very long stay on the DL, leaving the Mets’ starters — despite the presence of Darling, Fernandez, Cone and Ojeda — without a leader.
There had been talk of reinforcing the rotation earlier in the season, that we’d reach out and touch Seattle for Mark Langston, but the reported bounty of El Sid and HoJo was considered too hefty to give up. Langston, a lefty in the kind of demand in 1989 as righty Roy Halladay would be two decades hence, wound up an Expo in exchange for young Randy Johnson, satisfying all involved. Howard Johnson, no longer subject to trade rumors, blossomed into the one of the true stars of the National League in ’89; Sid Fernandez showed his usual signs of harnessing the talent that never quite translated to consistent winning; the Expos — acting as buyers maybe for the last time in their existence — had their stud starter in Langston; and the Mariners obviously knew something about Randy Johnson’s staying power.
Langston was ensconced in Montreal by the time the Mets really needed big-time pitching help. Hot prospect David West was given two auditions, failing both miserably. Wally Whitehurst, who had come over in the three-way transaction that made Jesse Orosco a Los Angeles Dodger was just as ineffective. The Mets’ next option for Gooden’s spot was Rick Aguilera, who had been a starter in previous years but had since been redeployed to the bullpen and had carved out a nice niche for himself setting up and occasionally bailing out Randy Myers.
In 1989, however, the Mets didn’t stop at stopgap measures. Lodged in fourth place, almost buried seven games out following a seven-game losing streak (including three embarrassing, disheartening losses at Wrigley), they saw one last opportunity and they pounced.
They pounced on the Minnesota Twins, two years removed from a world title but now floundering and itching to shed payroll. Waving the small-market flag, job one for Minny GM Andy MacPhail became dismissing Frank Viola. Viola had won 93 games in the five preceding seasons, culminating in his 24-7 line in ’88. He had thrown a lot of innings in the DH league and maybe it was beginning to show. For the first four months of ’89, he was 8-12 with an ERA edging toward 4. The Twins had re-signed him in the offseason to what was then a lucrative contract: three years, $7.9 million. They were finishing fifth with him, they’d be content to finish fifth without him.
For the Mets, it was never mind the money and never mind the sag in his statistics. He was Frank Viola. He was Cy Young. He was the slayer of Cardinals in ’87. If you could get Frank Viola…
We got Frank Viola! It was a mostly unrumored trade, not like with Langston, making it the most delightful of last-minute surprises. The Mets had lost that seventh in a row, in St. Louis, and — as I was dozing — WFAN was reporting a deal had been done just before midnight. We’d be sending away Aguilera, West, freshman Kevin Tapani who had come to the Mets with Whitehurst, and minor leaguer Tim Drummond. Four pitchers for one pitcher, plus a player to be named later, who would become Jack Savage, also from the Orosco trade. That made it five pitchers for one pitcher.
But what a pitcher! After churning out so many great young arms in the ’80s, there was no evidence that David West, who was supposed to be the next link in the chain, would be missed. Tapani had only appeared in mopup duty. Aguilera was getting the hang of relieving, but we still had Myers to close. And, more to the point, who cared?
We got Frank Viola! Frankie V! St. John’s own! East Meadow’s own! There was this Italian restaurant on Hempstead Turnpike, Borrelli’s, just off the Meadowbrook, that had put up a big CONGRATULATIONS sign when he won the MVP in the ’87 World Series. I got off the Meadowbrook on my way home from work the night after we got Viola to see what sign they’d put up for him. WELCOME HOME FRANKIE, I figured.
There was nothing on the Borrelli’s marquee to commemorate the trade. How strange. But still, what a spicy meatball Joe McIlvaine cooked up. No team had ever poached a reigning Cy Young winner before. Viola, 29, was now going to top a coterie of arms no other contender in the division — not the Cards, not the Cubs, not the Langston-enhanced Expos — could hope to match. We were replacing Dwight Gooden with Frank Viola…and after a spell, maybe even in 1989, we’d get Dwight Gooden back. Then just imagine…Gooden, Viola, Cone, Darling, Fernandez.
Imagination met reality, however, and it wouldn’t prove much more successful than the McDLT.
Frankie beat the Cardinals at Busch in his first start: eight innings, two runs, four hits, five walks. You’d like fewer walks, but we won. We were now the winning Mets again. Next time out, he was even better, striking out eight and walking just one over seven in a tough-luck 2-1 loss in Philly. The Mets would win their next four games, putting them on a 9-2 run. Viola made his third start, his first Shea start, putting in seven good innings, but again getting no support, losing 3-0. The overall vibe was good, however. The Mets went out and won another four, putting their record since they made Frankie a Met 13-3.
Viola was not effective in his fourth start, giving up ten hits and three walks en route to a 6-2 loss at the hands of 1986 ghost Bruce Hurst and the Padres. But the Mets rebounded with two more wins, making it 15 of 19 overall in August. They’d bounded up into second, just 2½ behind the Cubs, 40 games to go, plenty of fait accompli time left to catch and pass them.
Then Sunday afternoon, August 20, Mets at home about to sweep the Dodgers, about to pick up more ground on Chicago, about to overcome all their woes, about to charge straight to the division title. All is good.
Until, with two outs in the top of the ninth and the Mets ahead 3-1, Don Aase, a credible middle reliever attempting to close, allows a single to Lenny Harris, then a single to Alfredo Griffin and then a three-run homer to Willie Randolph. It’s Randolph’s first home run of 1989 but it’s understood, almost at once, to represent a Pendletonian nail in their coffin. Time still remained, of course, and the Mets would stay within striking distance for weeks, but Randolph did for L.A. at Shea in August ’89 what Scioscia (who made the second out of this particular inning) did for them in October ’88. He turned the tide in some semi-tangible way.
And once the tide was turned, it seemed to sweep Frankie V out to sea.
He’d have his moments, such as outdueling Orel Hershiser 1-0 in the first-ever matchup of reigning Cy Young holders, but the Mets found ways to lose for him in the manner they’d someday find ways to lose for another Minneapolis alumnus who was supposed to put them over the top. But while Johan Santana’s first September in New York brought out the best in him, Frank Viola did not completely rise to his occasion. As the Mets attempted one last lunge at the first-place Cubs on September 18, with two weeks to go in the season, Viola departed in the sixth, having surrendered eight hits, seven walks and six earned runs. The Mets would lose that night and fall 6½ behind Chicago, making that essentially that for 1989. Frank’s Mets record fell to 3-5. With the team all but eliminated, he’d defeat Mark Langston in a wind-whipped, no-consequences showdown at Shea (the pitching was ugly, the weather was worse) and, with the Mets officially done, he’d throw a complete game gem in Pittsburgh to finish the year 5-5 as a Met, 13-17 overall.
Viola wasn’t terrible across the final two months of 1989, but he was no difference-maker. There were myriad reasons why the ’89 Mets didn’t repeat as division champs and it would be unfair to pin it on a guy who came to a team that was seven out and finished six out. His twelve starts included games that were brilliant and games that were brutal. The Mets had been getting that kind of inconsistency from Cone and Darling and Fernandez and Ojeda already. David, Ronnie and Sid won 14 games apiece; Bobby O had 13 wins. Doc (who came back in September for two relief appearances) and Frank combined for 14 more. One of the most accomplished rotations you could imagine and none of its components could give the Mets what you’d call a big year.
Gooden would recover in 1990 and Viola was there to join him as co-ace, and the numbers would, for a time, be very impressive. Funny thing, though: while Gooden got off slow and finished very strong, Viola went in the other direction. He was terrific when the Mets looked bad in the first half and then didn’t quite have it when the Mets really needed it that September. All wins are helpful, of course, but one got the idea that Frank Viola didn’t respond well to pressure, at least not once removed from the Metrodome.
He’d become the last 20-game winner the Mets ever had on the final day of 1990, again after the Mets had been eliminated (three shots at his twentieth while the Mets were still alive resulted in three losses). And he’d have another fine start in 1991, earning All-Star honors for a second straight year. But the Mets faded in the second half, no Met growing more invisible than Frankie. He went from 11-5 in mid-July to 13-15 at season’s end. That he was a much better let alone more available quote after wins than losses did go unnoticed. As Bob Klapisch and John Harper wrote in The Worst Team Money Could Buy, Viola characteristically beat it out of the visitors clubhouse in Cincinnati after a loss and before he could be questioned about it.
“You mean V ain’t here for you guys?” Bobby Ojeda asked the beat reporters. “If he’d won, he would’ve been here until four in the morning.”
Frank Viola pitched his final Mets game on October 4, 1991. He returned to the American League and we’d never see him at Shea again. But we’d see plenty of the guys for whom he was traded that very same October on TV. Aided by spot starter David West, 16-game winner Kevin Tapani and 42-save closer Rick Aguilera, the Minnesota Twins, two years after ridding themselves of Frank Viola’s salary, captured the American League Western Division title by eight games over the Texas Rangers. They breezed past the powerful Toronto Blue Jays in the playoffs and dueled the upstart Atlanta Braves in probably the most thrilling seven-game World Series of all time, winning their second world championship in a five-year span.
So I guess the Frank Viola trade was a difference-maker after all.
Keep your hot side hot, your cool side cool and your Mets side warm with Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.