“Sweet Music” In Savannah

Major league baseball legend Frank Viola coaches our Sand Gnats

Baseball was Frank Viola’s second love.

Fans who watched him dominate and confuse batters with his signature pitching style in the Major Leagues for fifteen years—including a 1987 World Series win with the Minnesota Twins—may be surprised to learn that Viola’s favorite sport as a child was actually basketball.

“Baseball was number two, after basketball,” Viola recalls from the dugout of Grayson Stadium, where he has served as pitching coach for the Savannah Sand Gnats for the last two seasons. “I played both, but it was not until my junior year of high school that baseball turned into my sport of choice.”

Viola’s choice arrived by fate. When a pitcher on his high school team got hurt, the coach asked Viola if he wanted to try it.

“I said, ‘Why not? Sounds like fun,’” Viola recalls. “Next thing I know I have a career in pitching.”

Viola’s talent on the mound was noticed immediately by the Kansas City Royals, who drafted him after his senior year of high school. Viola turned the team down so that he could attend college.

“If hindsight means anything, looking back I can say that the three years I spent in college were some of the best of my life," Viola says. “For friendship, maturity, and just learning about myself, it was important.”

The next team to draft Viola was the Minnesota Twins, and he took their offer. Because his name is spelled (thought not pronounced) the same as a classical stringed instrument, ESPN’s Chris Berman soon nicknamed the pitcher “101 Strings.” But after Viola pitched an exceptional game, the local newspapers said he played “sweet music” in Minneapolis’s Metrodome. Fans decided that “Sweet Music” was a better nickname, and even contacted Chris Berman to tell him so.

“Then Chris actually called me and asked me what I thought,” Viola recalls. “I told him I thought it sounded good, and from then on I’ve been ‘Sweet Music’ Viola.”

Viola’s pitching became much more than sweet for Minnesota fans as he helped take the Twins to the 1987 World Series. The team clinched the series in Game 7 and Viola was awarded Most Valuable Player.

“You realize at that time why you play this game,” Viola says. “Individual numbers and stats are wonderful, but it’s nothing like winning as a team. It was the coolest time in the world, the time of my life.”

Viola was notable for his use of a pitch called the circle changeup, which confuses batter into swinging too early in anticipation of a fastball. Though this pitch was not common during Viola’s early career, his pitching coach insisted that he master it. Viola spent two years working on the pitch.

“When I got it, it made all the difference in my career because it made me a complete pitcher,” Viola says.

Now that he is a pitching coach himself, the most important instruction Viola gives to the Sand Gnats involves the mental part of the game.

“Everybody who makes it already has the physical tools,” Viola says. “It’s taking those tools and figuring out mentally why you throw certain pitches at a certain time that gets you to the level you want to be.”

Viola hopes that his years of experience will benefit the Sand Gnat pitchers not only this season but throughout their careers. Meanwhile, he is gaining a new experience of his own—life in summertime Savannah.

“This city and its people are amazing,” Viola says. “The history, the food, the ghost stories…I’ve had a wonderful two years here so far.”

All In The Family:

Frank Viola’s children all grew up to be exceptional athletes in their own right. His son Frankie followed in his father’s footsteps, playing professional baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization. His daughter Brittany is a diver who was part of the U.S. Olympic team at the 2012 London Olympics. Finally, his youngest daughter Kaley excelled in Division 1 Volleyball at Winthrop University.

“It rubs off from the family genes somehow,” Viola says with a smile, and there is some truth to it.

“Genetics can influence some factors of health, such as muscle fiber composition and strength, and it can affect your body’s response to training,” says Joe Winburn, Manager of St. Joseph’s/Candler’s Sports Medicine program.

Still, an athlete’s performance also depends on whether they make smart choices.

“A person born with a genetic advantage for their sport can still squander their potential with poor diet and lifestyle choices,” Winburn says. “At the same time, athletes who may not have a specific genetic advantage can still excel with proper training and nutrition, and a good mental attitude.”

Viola says that his daughter Brittany’s daily routine on her way to the Olympics was beyond anything he had seen during his own career.

“I would never have been able to commit myself to that much time,” Viola says. “But all that hard work paid off. She was an Olympian, competing for her country. I’m envious.”

Photo of Viola pitching in the majors courtesy of the Minnesota Twins. 
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