Monday, September 06, 2010

Two Big Franks, one huge weekend

"I spent 10 years in New York, and they were the best 10 years of my life.”

If you had to guess which Met told me that, would you ever guess Frank Howard, our former coach and manager?

The West Michigan Whitecaps have a Tiger Friday promotion where the team invites a former Detroit Tigers player to make an appearance, sign autographs and generally bask in the glory that comes from the kind folks of Grand Rapids.

Typically we see players from the 1984 champs, but the last Friday of the season brought someone unexpected.

Howard was a legendary slugger during his days with the Dodgers and Senators, but he much of his mashing magic was gone by the time he appeared in Detroit for 1972 and 1973. That didn’t stop Tigers fans from lining up for his bobble head and signature.

He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1960, and finished with 382 home runs, even more impressive when you consider that he played most of his career in the pitching-dominant 1960s.

He gets major props for his upper-deck bomb off Whitey Ford to break a scoreless tie in Game 4 of the 1963 World Series, helping the Dodgers sweep the Yankees.

Once he homered 10 times in 20 at-bats, with at least one in six straight games.

After his stint with the Tigers, Howard went to Japan, but hurt his back swinging in his first at-bat and never played again.

He later managed a poor Padres team in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Of course, I was more interested in Howard’s time with the Mets. He came with George Bamberger in what was hoped to be a resurgent team finally rising from another dark period, and things were looking up at least spiritually the next year when Tom Seaver arrived back home.

Alas, things were not quite ready, and Bambi bailed. The team named Howard to be the manager for the last 116 games. He went 52-64, with a .448 winning percentage that was certainly better than Bamberger’s .348.

But the Mets opted to bring up Davey Johnson for 1984, setting the table for the championship.

Howard came back as a Mets coach for the 1994, 1996 and 1996 teams, after stints with the Yankees in 1989, 1991 and 1992.

While Howard is well-known for his power, he’s also famous for being one of the nicest guys in baseball. So I looked forward to meeting him, and unabashedly donned my game-used Rick Trlicek batting practice jersey and blue Mets cap, which would set me apart from all the Tigers fans in the yard that night.

Tigers invited for the Friday night promotions typically start signing autographs just after throwing out the first pitch at 7 p.m. and continued until 8:30. The gates opened at 5:45, and Howard was already in place, ready to go.

I hopped on line with my Mets history book, standing some professional autograph types – ick – and some nice collectors, who shared stories about their various encounters with players.

The line, we noted, was barely moving. This was not an entirely bad thing, since we had a great view of the field and the game didn’t start until 7 p.m.

Some friends of the collectors came by after they had their items signed. “It’s taking forever,” he said. “Howard talks to everybody.”

I approved.

We inched closer, and were about four people away when some Whitecaps employees came over to escort Howard down to the field.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Howard said, holding out his hands. “I’ll be right back.”

Standing up, Howard seemed every bit the 6-foot, 8-inches he is said to be, but he looked thin and seemed to have a little trouble moving. Down on the field, he tossed balls underhand to three kids, who in turn fired to home plate.

He returned to the table in time for the National Anthem, stopping the line to stand and face the flag, hand over heart. Again, I approved.

When my turn arrived, I placed the treasured Mets book before him, turned to a page I’ve designated for managers, coaches and general managers. Jerry Manuel, Howard Johnson and Omar Minaya are already on the page, along with Whitecaps manager Joe DePastino, who had two glorious at-bats with the Mets in 2003.

Howard looked up and extended his hand. It was huge.

After thanking him for the signature, I asked which he enjoyed more, coaching the Mets or managing for that half-season-plus. I’m not sure he heard me well.

“I spent 10 years in New York, and they were the best 10 years of my life,” he said, pointing to my jersey.

I noted that he was often paired with fellow-coach Jim Frey for fantasy camps, with the “Jumbo Franks” playing the “Small Freys.”

“Jim Frey was one of the best baseball men I’ve ever met,” he said.

I thanked him again and headed down to my seat, peeking a very clear and neat signature.

The Whitecaps proceeded to take care of the Lansing Lugnuts, 2-1, inching toward another playoff spot.

I peeked back later, after 8:30, and saw the line was still there, and Howard still signing. Jumbo Frank wanted to make sure everyone got their moment and signature.

Pretty classy.

Two days later, I caught up with Will to honor our other favorite Frank -- Frank Thomas -- and our adventures will fill the next post.


G-Fafif said...

I love read your stories about these kinds of encounters. Makes me feel good about baseball knowing it includes people like Frank Howard.

Paul said...

I love the story. It's great to hear about a guy who enjoyed his time in New York.

Coleen said...

I met him once long ago at a card convention, IIRC held somewhere in Connecticut. A delightful man. My encounter ran virtually the same as yours. He's one of the good guys in baseball.

BTW, I have been a long time reader of your blog. I visited Grand Rapids once, staying a few days around a Springsteen show in Detroit. Lovely city & great people.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Thank you for the kind words, guys! And Coleen, you made my day!