Wednesday, September 12, 2007
My Conversation With Frank Howard
“For everything that hasn’t gone my way, or I would like to have gone my way—a thousand great things have happened. And, to still be active in this game, this business—but, really IT IS just a game. Too still be active after 48 years in baseball and have someone think you can still make a contribution, in fact—minimal. But, that minimal impact is better than none at all!! Really, I am flattered that someone still thinks I can do that.”
Frank Howard was sitting comfortably in a lounge chair on the back veranda of his Washington, DC area home. The Finest Player to ever call RFK Stadium his Home Park as a Washington Senator--was reminiscing about his very long career in Professional Baseball. Always humble and gracious towards others--if you didn't know--"Hondo" would never tell you--he had one very fine Major League Career Himself. Recipient of Two World Series Rings as a member of The Los Angeles Dodgers--Numbers "9" & "33" for Washington--from 1968 to 1970 he was arguably--The Most Feared Hitter in Baseball. And, he was OURS!! DC's Favorite Son. Four Time All Star. A Two Time American League Home Run Champion (1968, 1970). And, the 1970 AL RBI Leader.
There was NO PLAYER--Quite like "Hondo".
Did he EVER SWING ONE MEAN BASEBALL BAT!! If Howard caught ahold of a pitch--that ball was heading out of the park. 382 Career Home Runs--including some MAMMOTH SHOTS. Those White Seats painted in the Upper Deck at RFK Stadium--all represent Homers hit by Big Frank. In 1968--"Hondo" slugged 10 Home Runs in one week and actually launched a baseball OUT of TIGER STADIUM.
Frank Howard was The FACE OF MY WASHINGTON SENATORS!! And, as well documented here on The Nats320 Blog--My Favorite Player of All Time!! "Hondo" was My Hero!!--as a Child Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia; as a Teenager and Emerging Baseball Player. And, as a Working Adult in life-well after my sports career ended. Frank Howard has always been special to me. A larger than life figure--that stood out each and every time I attended one of those 60 Home Games of My Senators--from 1966 to 1971. Memories, which I shall cherish--forever.
With Our Washington Nationals about to close out their three seasons of play at venerable RFK Stadium--it was important--for me--to seek out Frank Howard to get his feelings about HIS TIMES--playing in The Nation's Capital and for My Washington Senators. No One--not a single baseball player thrived so well, while playing at The Old Ballyard on East Capitol Street--for an extended period of time. "Hondo"--so well known and beloved in Washington, The DC Sports & Entertainment Commission--in conjunction with The DC Commission of The Arts & Humanities--has commissioned a Special Statue of Frank to stand at New Nationals Park on South Capitol Street. Art Works that will also include Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson.
When Sohna and I attended the special Pearson Wines Frank Howard Autograph Session on August 4th--I reached out to Frank Howard to gauge his interest in speaking to me for an interview. Engaging as always--he was kind enough to give me a contact number. Over a period of time--we were able to meet. Wanting to record, not only his thoughts--but his facial expressions for emphasis--"Hondo" was kind enough to invite me to his home.
Outgoing and Friendly as always--Howard met me in his front driveway and invited back to his Veranda. There we sat and just talked. And, talked--AND TALKED SOME MORE. Without even realizing the passing of time--2 and 1/2 hours later--we were finally done. My original premise was to question Frank on his life and times as A Washington Senator. What I found, was a KNOWLEDGEABLE HISTORIAN OF THE GAME. And, what some will say--is one of finest talent scouts of the past 30 years. Frank Howard knows his baseball--and how to develop capable players.
Sure--we talked about his career--but I found-- "Hondo" doesn't praise himself. He only applauds others. When Frank Howard does tells a story involving his baseball career--most certainly--its about his failures. How many players would state "Those white seats at RFK--are for all my Home Runs!! Those Yellow Seats--are for all my strikeouts!!"
Or, "I never had the best eyesight. I wore glasses. So, when I played Winter Ball in The Dominican (Republic)--the lights were so bad--it was like hitting in Braille!"
That's Funny--That's Self Deprecating--That's The Frank Howard--I Did Not Know.
"I don't live in the past, only the present. I play for today." Frank told me.
Over the next two days--as the Final Countdown to the last game at RFK STADIUM commences--My Conversation with Frank Howard will appear in two parts. "Hondo" will share his thoughts about Our Washington Nationals and their development. Tomorrow--its all about The Washington Senators. Some Great Stories and Memories. Then, at a later date, will come more. "Hondo" was a gracious host. He gave me enough material for a good many more stories. Honestly, I could not have asked more, from his generousity. After this 2007 Season ends--a series of narratives will appear--covering Frank Howard's substantial knowledge of Professional Baseball. He is quite the fascinating character. Insight and awareness of THE GREAT GAME, that should not be lost.
At 71 Years of Age--Frank Howard is a still in player development/scouting--working for The New York Yankees. A position in baseball he is very very proud to hold. At a time when most would be enjoying The Golden Years--My Favorite Player of All Time!!--still LOVES THE GREAT GAME!!--as his profession.
“Its really been a fun career," said Frank. "A roller coaster ride. We were doing the (Kids) Clinic (August 17) and my wife was going to pick me up at 12:30PM. But the signing (autograph session for kids) took a while longer. I headed into The Clubhouse (at RFK) to shower. I had my field stuff on—and Pat Corrales was in there. We coached together in New York and we coached against each other-and even managed against each other at The Big League Level. But, I see Pat as representative of what The Washington Nationals stand for—Fierce Competitor, Very Knowledgeable—Brilliant Guy--Really. He (Corrales) will come after you on the field of play. I said to him: ‘You know Pat, they can take a lot of things away from us—but they can’t take our friendships away.’ (nodding knowingly to himself) Those are the types of bonds that you grow over 48 years. Important remembrances that stay with you. Really those friendships carry you in the latter portions of your career—whether you are coaching, scouting—whatever. But, I told him: ‘I’ve been in baseball 48 years—Win, Lose or Draw—I find it very admirable, I truly respect it—Win, Lose or Draw—your Organization (The Nationals) comes right after the competition full bore--each and every day.’ And, I mean it—I have never seen that club give up. I’ve seen them play poorly. I’ve seen them play very well. But, I have never seen them in cruise control—putting in time and going through the motions. It’s a very admirable trait.”
“Bobby Boone and I were talking that day. And, their Organization (Washington) is like any other Organization. You NEVER HAVE ENOUGH PLAYERS!! We (Teams in General) are always two to three players short. We are always looking for those two or three players that will get us over the hump to the playoffs and, hopefully—The World Series. Then, Hopefully—WIN THE WORLD SERIES!!”
“I said to him: ‘Your scouts will get you the players. You are going the right route. I believe in feeder systems. The Farm System.' Our Organization (The New York Yankees) is different but in NEW YORK—NEW YORK!!, if you don’t win The World Series every year, its just another year (both of us chuckling—Hondo—rolling his eyes back a little in laughter). And, its no question that in any organization—it starts at the top. No question about it. But, you hope it filters down and filters back up. Like right now—(The Yankees) are in the process of rebuilding our own Farm System. We are in the process of rebuilding. Because you know we’ve traded away prospects over the years to get other teams Randy Johnson’s, Raul Mondesi’s, the Weaver’s (Jeff)—whoever we needed, like Gary Sheffield to get us to The World Series. So, when you rob Peter, to pay Paul, you ultimately pay the price. But, We ARE COMING BACK (Confidently). Because we have to come back. And, even though we are The New York Yankees, we are going to have to, eventually, develop our own feeder system. Its your most consistent and stable flow of talent to the Big Leagues.”
“Of course—you are not going to get a bonafide prospect every year—unless you have an unusual run of luck. But, if you can get one (prospect) every other year—A Bonafide Prospect.--A player that’s going to be WELL ABOVE MAJOR LEAGUE AVERAGE—you will be competitive. And, you will make a run (for a championship) at some people.”
“I was telling Bobby; ‘You guys get a couple more Scouts. Some have asked me what was more important—a good manager—or some good scouts. It’s a good question—but, bottom line is-- a Good Scout can get you THE PLAYERS to make you a Good Manager. For years, I taught hitting. Some asked whether I could really help as an instructor. My answer: ‘Yeah, if he CAN HIT.’ (Both of laughing--but it’s a true statement.)
“So, you have to have enough latent talent. Then, you start developing it. You take what you got and you go to the post with it. And, you run with it—as hard a you can. But, I think it’s a credit to their organization (The Nationals) from top to bottom. In fact, I met the new owners (The Lerners) for that Congressional Game. They’ve been successful in real estate and other ventures. But, there’s a reason for that success. They know what they are doing. I am sure they are going to work for Stan Kasten (Team President). I understand what those men stand for. They stand for Excellence (sincerely stated).
I think Stan Kasten has been good at teaching them The Game of Baseball and how to build a team from scratch? (SBF)
“Yeah---that's true. Coming out of The Braves Organization (Kasten), you are talking about stability. 14 straight playoff appearances. And, there again—it’s the Farm System and their Scouts who have done an outstanding job finding that type of raw, young talent. But, they also have great teachers. And, that’s what it takes.”
“You get the best possible athlete you can get. Your scouts do that. Then, its up to your player development people—your instructors—your minor league managers—your rovers (instructors)--to give those youngsters the best possible advice and learning methods.”
"I have had many a minor league manager ask me: 'What do you think?’ (about a certain player). So, I say—‘I am going to give you one man’s opinion—insight into what I have seen for 48 years.' Let’s say we have 150 players in our minor league system. In most organizations roughly 10.8% of them are going to get to the Big Leagues. Now, if you have an exceptionally strong feeder system, you might get 11, 12—maybe 13% of them there (to the Majors). But, even at those numbers—17 or 18 (total players), tops—are going to make it to The Big Leagues. Well, five or six—are going to have a cup of coffee (minimal playing time—if much at all). They will be up and down—up and down—back and forth. Five or six of them are going to fill platoon roles, pinch hit roles, defensive roles—spell a player--here and there. The utility type. Finally, the five or six—that are going to have an impact on your ball club—you hope three of them are what you classify as A FRANCHISE PLAYER. But, the easiest thing to say is that this kid will not ever make the Big Leagues. Well, I’d be right 89.2% of the time. Or, 88% of the time. Or, 87% of the time—depending upon how strong your feeder system is. But, we have an obligation in player development to give each and every young player in our organization an opportunity to go as far as their baseball acumen and their baseball skills will take them. We are going to have to turn in evaluation reports. Let’s start here with the positives. He’s very strong in these area’s here—bing, bing, bing (counting off on his fingers). He’s a little short in these area’s here---bing, bing, bing. Maybe these are the area’s were we can make him acceptable or upgrade him or improve him in. But, you NEVER START OFF WITH THE NEGATIVE. I hear in meetings all my life ‘He can’t play!! He can’t play!! He can’t do this. He can’t do that.’ (Putting up his hands as a stop sign)"
"‘Wo, Wo!! What are we here for!!?? Can we help the boy?’ Now, maybe we can, or maybe we can’t—but we have got to put forth that effort and thought to making him the best possible player we can make him."
Its funny how you always hear teams complaining about what their players can’t do. (SBF)
(Pointing Excitingly) “That’s EXACTLY RIGHT!! Even the players know their shortcomings—but it does not mean he’s USELESS!! Can we help him? We must deal from their strong suits—their strengths. But, we also must help them improve in their short areas--so they do become a more complete player (pointing strongly)."
The perfect example of that may well be Wily Mo Pena of The Nationals? Many see his shortcomings first—but Jim Bowden (Nationals General Manager) sees a talented player. (SBF)
“He’s (Pena) got a lot of talent!! He originally grew up in The Yankee Organization. Boy, our people (New York Scouts) still RAVE ABOUT HIM!! His Raw Tools making him one of the very best prospects they have EVER SEEN. And, some guys come later. There are those guys that make the adjustment. Then, comes those players where there is no mystery to the game. Those Guys are in Cooperstown (Hall of Fame)—[Both of us chuckling over the truth]. There is NO MYSTERY for them. They come into The Big Leagues and there is NO DOUBT. Most others always have a little doubt about whether we can compete at that level successfully.”
How would you compare fan support for The Senators, as compared to The Nationals? (SBF)
“We just didn’t have enough of them then!! (sincerely). But, Great Fans!! To this day, I run across guys of my age—or guys that grew up watching The Washington Senators. They always say: ‘Win, Lose or Draw---they were always Our Ball Club.’ It wasn’t a question of being fundamentally sound. Or, playing hard nose, clean baseball. We never played dirty baseball. Because Washington Clubs came right at you—always. But, it was a question of not having—said with due respect to those I played with—loved and adored them all—but we didn’t have enough latent talent to compete with the good clubs. But, the fans were GREAT!!! (Big Smile) The Fans were Great.”
“The Nationals current organization, and they are aware of this. There are some bright baseball people down there. The AURA of getting baseball back to The Nation’s Capital will last for three or four years. The AURA of a new stadium will last three or four years. Then, you have got to put a competitive product out there. This is America, people love winners. If you have a competitive winning ball club—you are going to draw well. That could be in Kokomo, Iowa; that could be in Indianapolis, Indiana; it could be in Columbus, Ohio. Anywhere.”
Were you happy to see baseball return to DC? (SBF)
“It’s an amazing thing. Baseball left here after the 1971 season. I ran across a few people who wondered whether Washington, DC would ever get a new Major League team again. I said: ‘Within five years!!’ Well, I was right—just nearly three decades off (both of us chuckling). It did return. Baseball’s perception of our area, when WE talk about Washington, DC—WE are talking about the greater Washington, DC area. Their perception (MLB) was that of a one that existed in the 1950’s. Damn Yankees Version. Southern, sleepy city of 250,000 people. Well, today—lets take The Nation’s Capital—south to Richmond, Virginia—90 miles away—you have 2.5 million people. If you take it west, toward the Shenandoah Valley—75 miles away---through Fairfax and Loudoun Counties—you have 3 million with a growth factor of four--in the next twenty years. You go north to Montgomery County, Maryland—as far as Frederick or Hagerstown—another 75 miles away—you got another 2 million. And those people are probably, like Connecticut—Northern Connecticut is all Red Sox Territory. Southern Connecticut is all Yankee Territory. So, when you get up in Montgomery County—its a lot like that. Some are great Orioles Fans. Some are becoming great Nationals Fans."
“So, you have 6 to 7 Million people right now to draw from. You’ve got disposable income. You’ve got the Silicon Valley of the East—High Tech Companies around the Dulles Corridor. People who can afford to take their kids out to a Big League Game—six or seven times per year. And, I know it will be. They should be a Major Success in this area. Like I said, I have talked to Bobby Boone. I’ve talked to Pat (Corrales). You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to see that the current organization down there (in DC)—there approach is to sign the very best possible athletes out there and develop them ourselves. They want that stable, consistent flow of talent. In my mind—it’s the right way to go. And, it’s the only way you can go if you are a regional franchise. You have maybe six clubs that can go the other route. The two New York Clubs—15 Million people there. You got two Los Angeles Clubs—another 15 Million people there. You got maybe the two Chicago Clubs—10 to 12 Million people. Although, I am sure they all would love to operate the same way The Nationals operate, through their feeder system. If you are Milwaukee, if you are St. Louis, Kansas City, you are a Minnesota—you have to go through your own feeder system—your own farm system.”
I believe that Washington Ownership realizes that DC provides a unique opportunity for an internationally known and successful franchise and take advantage of that? (SBF)
“And they should. It is an INTERNATIONAL CITY.”
Do you remember that first night of April 14, 2005—when The Nationals played their First Opening Night Game? What did you think about that? (SBF)
“Mr. Steinbrenner called me, along with Brian Cashman (GM) to tell me that baseball was returning to Washington. 'We want to send you up a week early to work with the press. Do whatever they want you to do.' And, I told the press: ‘All of baseball is delighted to see baseball back here (in DC). The Yankees included. And, we wish them all the luck in the world—except when we are playing them in The World Series (smiling broadly).' It’s a great area. There is potential for a market to be tapped that could be self sustaining for years. I have no doubt—it will be a success. Those people (in The Nationals Organization) know EXACTLY what they are doing. They are baseball people.”
And on the field, they are a hustling team. Players that you can appreciate their efforts. (SBF)
“Oh, you better believe that. You add another strong starting pitcher, or another power bat in that lineup--and you take on all comers. That’s true of any organization. Like I said—you never have enough players. The more good players you have, the better odds of going where you want to go.”
And, of course--being the ever humble self--"Hondo's" only comment on Our Washington Nationals Inaugural Home Opener: "I was honored to be allowed to participate in that Opening Night," said Frank Howard. "I enjoyed the moment."
Simply Put--By An Honorable Man.
Tomorrow--in Part Two of My Conversation with Frank Howard--its all about THE WASHINGTON SENATORS.