Last week, I posted a story I wrote about New Hampshire Fisher Cats infielder Kevin Howard and the path his career has taken the past couple years. We’ve had a pretty good week around these here parts, so I figured I’d bust out a little weekend Q&A action and post the transcript from my recent conversation with Howard.
Last year, you came in late, but I feel like you were one of the feel-good stories of the year, bouncing back from independent ball to be the MVP of the finals. In some ways, was last season one of the most difficult seasons you’ve had as a professional?
Yeah, it definitely was probably the most difficult start because I didn’t get a spring training invite. I didn’t know what that felt like. After nine years, it was a pretty tough thing to deal with. But at the same time, getting signed after you’ve gone to independent ball and basically worked your butt off in the hopes that you would get signed, so once I did get signed it was a really good feeling, and it kind of made you appreciate playing for an organization a little.
You said you didn’t get an invite. I was gonna ask what the circumstances were that took you to Lancaster. Going into the season, what were you expecting?
I was expecting to get a call from some team and get a spring training invite. A couple teams called and showed interest, but nobody invited me to one. So just for a backup plan in case I didn’t get a spring training invite from a team, I had called a buddy that I heard got offered an independent ball job, and I asked him who he talked to. He told me about the Lancaster Barnstormers and that they needed an infielder. So I actually called them and I said, “This is my resume; I heard you guys needed an infielder,” and he asked around about me a little bit and he offered me a job. So in case I didn’t get picked up, that was going to be my plan. And it turned out I didn’t, so I went there and I played there every day and I loved it.
And you played for Butch Hobson there, right?
I worked with Butch years ago, when he was in Nashua, and he’s always had that reputation as a guy who’s great with veteran players, knows how to talk to the older guys. What were your impressions of him, playing for him?
Oh, he’s a great guy. He’s the kind of manager you want to play for. He’s the kind of guy that knows what it’s like to be a player, has always been around the game, he loves baseball, and he cares about helping you achieve your personal goals before he cares about himself looking good, which is really tough, I’m sure, even in independent ball. So that’s one thing I liked about him a lot, is he was really motivated to help us get better and help us get signed with a team.
Did he yell at any umpires while you were there?
[laughs] No, he stayed off the umpires. He’s a little bit more laid back, probably, than he used to be.
You hit .381 there in about a month, just over a month. Going into the Atlantic League, did you kind of go in with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder, like you felt like you had something to prove to all the organizations that didn’t sign you?
I went in more with the mindset of, “I need to get better. How can I become the best hitter I can be? What can I work on?” And I just kind of went in there more motivated to show that I do belong with a team and to dominate that league like I don’t belong there. And that’s what I went in there to prove.
Did starting out there last year, not getting the invite, did that change anything about the way you prepared for this season?
I always take every offseason to get as good as I can get. I’ve never really slacked. So I took this offseason like I’ve taken every offseason. I worked as hard as I could in the weight room, I tried to work on the things defensively and offensively that I thought I need to work on, so it didn’t really change much for me in the offseason. I think my philosophy behind hitting changed a little bit, so I did different types of things, but the motivation factor wasn’t any different.
Was it a little easier mentally with this offseason? Did you know you were coming back to the Blue Jays organization?
Yeah, I signed back with the Blue Jays right away, and it WAS a lot easier. It’s a load off, and it really lets you concentrate on getting better as a player, not having to call teams and deal with other teams that don’t have to do with that. So it was a load off my mind and I was really thankful for the Blue Jays opportunity, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to sign back with them right away next year.
When I counted up, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, I counted fifteen different teams you’ve played for in eight organizations. Is there a place that you liked playing better than others, and a place that you’d be happy if you never saw again?
It’s actually nine organizations.
Okay, nine. I counted wrong.
You have good experiences and bad experiences. I wouldn’t blame it on an organization as much as sometimes you’re with coaches you don’t get along with for whatever reason, and players that maybe you don’t like. So I’ve had some rough years, but there wasn’t a particular organization that I didn’t like or really liked. I think if there’s any organization that separated themselves at all it’d be Toronto. They make it a point to hire staff and sign players that are good in the locker room and just cool people to hang around, not people that you don’t want to be around. Because you’re here every day with all these guys, and if you have one miserable guy in the locker room it’s making everybody miserable. I think they do a good job with that. Especially with the staff. I’ve pretty much liked every single person, staff-wise, I’ve worked with with the Blue Jays so far.
Was there any ballpark or city that you particularly enjoyed playing in?
I really like playing in Dayton, my first year with the Cincinnati Reds.
I hear a lot of good things about Dayton.
Yeah, it’s amazing. Other than that, I like the cities a lot in the PCL. Reno is real fun, Sacramento, good atmosphere in those. I liked playing in Jacksonville. I played there in 2007 for a little bit. I had a really, really cool manager there. Other than that, I’d say – what is that place in the Carolina League? In South Carolina? What’s that place – the Pelicans?
Oh, Myrtle Beach?
Myrtle Beach. That place is pretty cool. So those would be the top spots, I’d say.
And obviously Manchester.
[laughs] Oh yeah. Manchester is actually a really, really nice place too.
You’re thirty – again, correct me if I’m wrong – you’re thirty, you’ve got close to a thousand minor league games under your belt. Do you feel like that almost requires you to take more of a leadership role on any team that you’re on, especially a team like this where you’ve got a lot of younger guys?
I feel like I’ll be a leader if needed. If the guys seems like they’re on the right path – a lot of these guys have played, it’s not like it’s the first or second year for these guys – but if guys are asking questions or don’t know what stuff is like, I’m definitely not shy about giving my opinion and telling people what I think.
You played for the Thousand Oaks team, and you guys won the Little League Junior World Series in 1994? This may be a dumb question, but how does a title like that compare to an Eastern League championship, or a minor league championship?
[laughs] Well I think when you’re that age, everything is a little bit more fun and better. There’s just no kind of excitement like the excitement when you’re 13 years-old. I had the time of my life doing that, so not even a World Series title, I don’t think, could compare to when you’re 13 years-old. It’s just a lot of fun, being a kid, not having anything else to worry about but that. But I definitely think it prepared me a little bit more to deal with the pressures of what I had to deal with coming up through the baseball system.
When I was looking stuff up, after the clincher you told a writer for the LA Times that the goal of your life was a professional career. If you could go back and talk to yourself, the 13 year-old you now, what kind of advice would you give yourself? Or things to watch out for, or anything like that?
I have had a pretty good heads-up on what I was going to go through and the people that were advising me and giving advice. My parents, and my brother had a couple friends that went through the minor leagues. Everybody was pretty much right on. I don’t think I’ve gotten surprised with anything. I just think sometimes, when opportunities come, some people are playing well at the right time, and I think sometimes when my opportunities have come I haven’t been playing my best. So if that’s something you can change then I would definitely want to change that, but I don’t think it had to do with anything sneaking up on me or not being prepared. I just think sometimes you get hot at the right or wrong time.
So just put your best out there every day and be ready?
Yeah, I think I’ve gone about things the way I’ve wanted to go about them. Prepare as hard as you can and go out there and play as hard as you can, and I feel like I’ve done that and I’ll continue to do it.