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Monday, May 4, 2015

Interview Part 2: Chris Howard, Good Day

Penn College head coach Chris Howard takes the third base coach's box in Utica in May 2015. Howard made it to the majors in parts of four seasons. (Greatest 21 Days)
Part 1: As Motivation | Part 2: Good Day

Probably the weirdest thing about his major league debut, Chris Howard recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days, was that it happened in the park where he went to so many games growing up.

Howard was a native of Kansas City who was a late-round draft pick of Seattle. His first call-up coincided with a Mariners road trip to Kauffman Stadium to face the Royals.

Howard entered the game in the sixth. His first chance to stand in the Kansas City batters box came in the eighth.

"I'm not going to lie," Howard said, "my first at bat, my knees were literally shaking. I was hoping that the cameras couldn't see because I was having a hard time standing up."

Howard quickly got himself together because he hit an 0-1 Mark Davis fastball to deep left-center for his first major league hit, a double.

But the thrills kept coming. The next half inning, as Howard crouched behind the plate, one of the Royals batters tapped his shin guard.

It was future Hall of Famer George Brett, one of the players whom Howard looked up to as a kid. Brett just wanted to say he wanted to see Howard hit, but missed it. Also, congratulations.

"I'm thinking to myself, 'George Brett wanted to watch me hit,'" Howard recalled. "It was a good day, let's put it that way."
Penn College coach Chris Howard before a double header at Utica in May 2015. (Greatest 21 Days)
Howard had a few more good days over the next four seasons, and a few bad ones, too. In all, Howard saw time in three major league seasons and got called up in a fourth.

His playing career ended in 1996 and Howard left the game. Howard has since returned, taking a new career as a coach in college. He heads the Penn College baseball team in Williamsport, Pa., continuing in 2015.

Howard spoke to The Greatest 21 Days before a double header between his Penn College Wildcats and the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY.

Howard's major league debut came in his fourth professional season. It was a rapid and improbable rise for a 41st round draft pick.

Howard recalled that his call up likely would have came a few days sooner, but for the Pacific Coast League playoffs. It was right after AAA Calgary's final series that Howard was summoned into the office. He was going to the majors.

"You kind of hoped that would happen, but until you actually hear it - it was pretty unreal, surreal," Howard recalled.

Howard also recalled trying not to jump up and down and scream. There were other guys in the clubhouse wanted to be called up, but weren't.

Howard instead found his way to a pay phone and called called his dad. Howard's father Richard Howard had once played in the minors himself, but never made the majors.

Penn College coach Chris Howard, far left, during batting practice at Utica in May 2015. (Greatest 21 Days)
"It was probably more exciting for him than it might have been for me," Howard said. "He laid the groundwork for me, with catching specifically."

The ball from Howard's first hit, he gave it to his dad.

Howard got into eight more games that year and he got six more at bats. That double was his only hit. He aimed to return to Seattle in 1992. He ended up spending the year back at AAA Calgary.

That year at Calgary without a second call up, Howard recalled, was a rough one.

"I learned a lot because I let that bother me," Howard said. He added later, "that was a pretty disappointing year all around because I felt like, man, I've got to start all over again."

What he learned, Howard said, was that he needed to hit better. He set about doing just that in 1993. Where he had hit .238 in 1992, Howard hit .320 in 1993.

He also got his second call up. It was under a new manager, Lou Piniella. Howard took it as a new chance to make a good impression. Howard got into four September games, getting one at bat.

Piniella brought over catcher Dan Wilson for 1994. Howard knew Wilson would be the starter. Howard worked to be the backup. Howard made it up at the All-Star break. He also started to impress.
Penn College coach and former major leaguer Chris Howard coaching third at Utica in May 2015. (Greatest 21 Days)
Soon, Howard recalled one of the Mariners coaches coming up to him and Wilson during batting practice. He saw the two as being with Seattle for the coming years.

"That's the first time where I felt like, 'Man, maybe I'm up here for good,'" Howard recalled. "And then the strike hit."

Howard's final game came Aug. 10, what ended up being the second-to-last game of the year. It also ended up being Howard's final major league appearance.

"I think that affected my personal situation maybe a little bit more than normal," Howard, who noted he's a player's union guy, said of the strike. "I'd have had that extra month-and-a-half, two months. There might have been a different outcome."

Instead, Howard returned to AAA for 1995. He got called up again that September, but Seattle was in a pennant race. He recalled being left on deck in one game and stayed with the club through the playoffs, but he never appeared in another game.

Howard played one more seasons in the minors, at AAA with the Mets. He tried returning with the Red Sox in 1997, but an awkward slide left him with an injured shoulder. He finally admitted it to the team doctor. Repairing it, he learned, would take at least a year. He was done.

"Honestly, it was difficult for me," Howard said. "I always tell people the transition back into civilian life, it was, it was tough."
Penn College coach Chris Howard, far right, with members of his team during pre-game announcements at Utica in May 2015. (Greatest 21 Days)
Howard soon returned to Williamsport. It was the city his father once played in and the city Howard once played in. It was also the city where Howard met his wife. The two raised three children.

In the meantime, Howard worked selling cars and doing other jobs. In 2006, he heard about a opening for a coach at Penn College. He applied and got the job. He's since taken Penn College up to the NCAAs in Division III. 2015 is the school's first year at that level.

Howard said he gets to use some of the stories from his own playing days, though he joked his players are too young to know some of the players he might reference.

His players, though, have responded. In the team's first year at its new level, the team made the conference tournament.

"One thing I've always had here for nine years is I've always had a great group of guys," Howard said. "They've made it easy for me to be their coach."

As for getting back into the game in 2006, Howard said it's probably the best move he's made in his life outside of his family.

"Once I got the job and got into it," Howard said, "that's when I realized that, 'Holy crap, I missed this game.' That's when you kind of realize how important it is to you."

Part 1: As Motivation | Part 2: Good Day

Be sure to read Part 1: Chris Howard, As Motivation

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