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Mudville: May 28, 2024 7:45 am PDT

David Howard

" I truly believe that mindset set me on a path to being mediocre."

George Brett played 21 seasons in Major League Baseball and had 311 different teammates over that time.

Players like Bo Jackson, Willie Wilson, Frank White and Vada Pinson wore the Royal blue alongside the baseball icon.

That’s a pretty good list of tremendous athletes, no?

When it came down to Brett naming the best athlete he was ever teammates with, it didn’t come from that list of four.

Brett listed David Howard as the best athlete that he ever played with and he joins us this week for a special two-part Spitballin’.

In part one, we’ll take a look at how Howard worked his way to the Major Leagues and next week, we’ll dive into some of his great Major League stories and lessons learned along the way.

So, did Brett really say that Howard was the best athlete that he’s ever played with? Even better than Bo Jackson? We’ll let Brett’s words speak for themselves.

Here is what the Hall of Fame third baseman said in a 2013 article in The Wichita Eagle.

“I’ve always said David Howard was the best athlete I ever played with. He’s better than Bo Jackson. Better athlete. You put him and Bo on the basketball court, Bo wouldn’t score a point. But he’d get all the rebounds and stuff.”

Brett continued, “I’m talking golf, tennis, swimming, diving, ping-pong, all that stuff. David Howard was unbelievable. The year of the strike, in ‘94, he hadn’t played tennis since high school and he went out and won a tournament in Kansas City, in the open division. He hadn’t played since high school. He had to find something to do so he went out and won a [freaking] tournament. You put Bo Jackson and David Howard on a golf course. And Bo loves golf. But Howard’s like a plus handicap. He’s unbelievable.”

Brett did go on to say that Howard couldn’t go into the NFL and play running back the way Bo did, but who could?

The point was made though. Growing up, Howard was a star basketball player and an outstanding baseball player. He could clear 6’8” in the high jump while also competing as a scratch golfer.

Here at BallNine, we revel in being able to provide a deeper look into the lives and the careers of the players you enjoyed rooting for, so let’s take a trip back and learn about one of the best athletes we’ve had here as we go Spitballin’ with David Howard.

David Howard of the Kansas City Royals reacts against the Milwaukee Brewers at Kauffman Stadium on June 29, 1997 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Howard! We have a lot to get into, so let’s jump right in. I like to start these off by going back to players’ younger days. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

My dad pitched in the Big Leagues for six and a half years with the White Sox, Orioles and Washington Senators. I don’t remember anything about it because I wasn’t born for most of it, but he was a great athlete. Baseball was always our thing growing up. We played Wiffle Ball and Little League. Then I got older and realized that my dad played against some of the guys I was watching on TV and was like, “Holy crap, that’s pretty cool!”

What kind of impact did your dad being a Major Leaguer have on your childhood?

I had an older brother and younger brother and like my dad, my older brother was a great athlete. But my dad never let us win, which made us better. To his credit, that was the right thing to do. We always thought there would be one day we’d beat him at something like HORSE. My dad was an All-State baseball and basketball player in Virginia and a really good golfer too. As kids, he had us play all sports. It’s an advantage for any kid to have a parent who doesn’t push you to just one sport. When I was in the Big Leagues I asked him when he thought that I had a chance. He said when I was 11 years old. He said I would make plays that were great, but routine for me. If other kids would have made them, they’d be going nuts. But I made them look easy at that age and he thought there was a lot more in there.

The reason I asked him that question was because I was 17 or 18 and we were playing in the District Tournament. He told the coach that I wasn’t going to be around for the tournament because he was taking me to a really good golf tournament in Orlando. I was a good junior golf player. I would shoot like 74 or occasionally better. So I had a dad who played in the Majors and thought that his son would make it to the Big Leagues at 11, to take me out of a baseball tournament and put me in a golf tournament was awesome. I tell him it was one of the coolest things and the older I get the more I respect what he did as a dad. I always tell kids to listen to their parents because the older you get, the smarter they get.

My dad used to say that he had a million dollar arm and a five-cent head. I inherited both from him!

That’s a great point. I think that’s missing from a lot of kids growing up today. It’s great to see you had such a positive influence at home growing up.

The only time he pushed me was when I wanted to quit a team because I didn’t want to go to practice. He said that if I wanted to quit at the end of the year that was fine. But he wasn’t gonna let me quit in the middle of the season. I’m sure a lot of parents tell their kids if they start something they have to finish it. When you’re 11, you don’t know it’s a common thing though. He knew I didn’t want to quit baseball and that I just didn’t want to go to practice. My mom was great too. She had three boys that were playing sports all over town and dad was working 9 to 5. She worked too, but would leave work early to take us to practice and would have sandwiches ready before games.

The little things that you take for granted when you’re a kid, you remember all the things she did for you. My mom was such a huge part of my life and my brothers too. She kept everything together, as most moms do. She was a great athlete too. I have pictures of my mom cheerleading and she was a swimmer too.

That’s awesome to hear. Can’t forget to recognize the sacrifices moms make for all of us and the influence they have on our lives! You mentioned your dad recognizing your potential at a young age. Was there a time when you believed you had a shot at professional baseball?

I think it was when I got to college. I knew what I wanted to do in baseball, but I also did the high jump, played basketball and loved everything. Basketball was my favorite and golf was awesome. My dad told me when I was a senior that if I didn’t get a college scholarship, he wasn’t paying for school. He said that I had way too much talent to not have a scholarship somewhere. He said that if I kept spreading myself too thin, I was on my own. I loved basketball and was good. I could dunk and was All-City, but my dad was like, “How many 6’1” kids do you see playing in the NBA? Ok, now many 6’1” shortstops do you see?” I said, “Good point.”

I got lucky. We were really good in Babe Ruth and scouts saw me. The college down here gave me a baseball scholarship and I threw all my eggs in one basket. People would ask what I was majoring in and I would say, “Baseball.” There was nothing else. My brother played baseball at Georgia and was real good, but he was brilliant too. He didn’t have to play baseball. My dad used to say that he had a million dollar arm and a five-cent head. I inherited both from him! I had to be a baseball player. I was always the first one to the field, hitting balls, working hard and it all worked out.

Infielder David Howard of the St. Louis Cardinals and catcher Mike Lieberthal of the Philadelphia Phillies in action during a game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals defeated the Phillies 8-5. Mandatory Credit: Jonath

The Royals took you in the 1986 Draft out of Manatee-Sarasota. What was your draft experience?

Back then they had the draft-and-follow. So they’d draft you and have the rights to you until the next draft. I was a freshman centerfielder who was a switch hitter. I didn’t play shortstop until my sophomore year. The Royals called me and said they drafted me, but they didn’t sign me. They wanted me to learn how to play shortstop. My dad said that was perfect because I wasn’t ready to play yet. It was nice to get drafted, but I went right to work to get stronger and work my ass off. I hit .436 and stole 32 bases that year. The Royals held the rights to me all the way until the next draft. My father told the Royals I’d either sign for $60,000 or $50,000 plus an invitation to Big League camp, which was unheard of straight out of junior college. The Royals said $50,000 plus the invite. It was the best thing he could have done for me.

Your dad sounds like a really smart man! What was it like going up to Big League camp fresh out of Manatee?

Well I went from junior college right to High A; nobody does that anymore. I hit .192 and melted playing every single day. I was about 150 pounds when they signed me and went from playing three or four times a week to playing every day. When I went to Big League camp, George Brett asked me where I played the year before. I told him Ft. Myers and junior college. He said, “You went from junior college to High A last year to Big League camp this year? What did you hit at High A!?” I told him I hit .192. He said, “Well what the fuck are you doing here?!” That all happened in the shower by the way. It was pretty funny. But it was great. I was there for two weeks. I was fielding ground balls next to Kurt Stillwell, who was an All-Star and Bill Pecota and was thinking to myself that I was as good as them. That might have been a little braggadocious, but I really felt like that. I felt like I belonged with them. I had a good arm and was making some plays that they couldn’t make. I’d make a play and hear one of the outfielders say, “Oooooh!” That gave me the motivation to work hard.

How did that experience help with your development?

I left that thinking that all I needed to do was get stronger and hit. It was great to be able to get that out of the way. I always tell my dad that was the best thing he ever did—get me standing on a field with guys like Bo Jackson, George Brett, Willie Wilson. I was always really fast and usually better than most kids I played with, but my dad had always been telling me, “Yea dumbass, and if you get stronger you’re going to be even better!” I finally knew what he meant that spring. I had made it to where I wanted to be. I was a professional player and had some money in my pocket, but that spring I was like, “You know what, I got a shot. I legitimately have a shot.”

Second baseman David Howard of the Kansas City Royals lays down a bunt during a game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Credit: Matthew Stockman /Allsport)

Even though you got that look at Big League camp, you went back down to A Ball in 1988 and 1989. What was your development like in those early years of your career?

In 1989 I was in the Florida State League and we made the playoffs. We had Jeff Conine on that team, Sean Berry, Kevin Koslofski, Bobby Moore. A bunch of my buddies who went on to make the Big Leagues. They didn’t invite me to the Instructional League after the season. At that point, I had gotten really good at golf. I was about a scratch golfer or plus one. I was like, “Screw it, I’ll just live with my parents and play golf.” Tony Clements was their number one pick and he got hurt. The farm director, Bob Hegman, called my house. My parents were out of town, so my best friend was at my house with about four other dudes. We were out in the backyard fishing and drinking beer. I answered the call and came back out. They asked me who it was and I said it was the farm director and he wanted me to go play in the Instructional League. My best friend was a AA player too, he asked me what I told him. I said that I told him I’d let him know and hung up. That was the closest he ever came to fighting me. He said, “Dude, call him back up and tell him you’ll be there tomorrow. What the fuck is wrong with you!”

I’m guessing you followed that advice?

I did. I went to Instructional League with guys like Conine and Brian McRae. Jeff Cox was there and he was new to our organization. He was going to be our manager in AA in 1990. He told me half way through Instructional League that I was going to be his shortstop in AA and would be in the Big Leagues soon after. I thought, “Sonofabitch, that’s the first professional coach who said that to me.” I’m not saying I didn’t have some good dudes that were nice guys that liked me, but they never told me that. I had a great Instructional League, went to Spring Training and made the AA roster. I had my best year in the minors, we won the Southern League and I got put on the 40-man roster. That meant I got to go to Big League camp in 1991.

That was the year you had a great Spring Training to break camp with the big club. Judging by everything we know about you already, I’m sure you used that as motivation in the offseason.

That winter I worked out with my brother’s really good friend. He got me right and made me lift and get stronger in the right way. He still lives in Sarasota and every time I see him, I still give him credit. I want him to know I don’t forget what he did for me. He worked out with me and he didn’t have to do that. I showed up to Spring Training and they were like, “Holy shit!” My arm was so much stronger. I could make throws from the outfield or shortstop. My focus was even different. My dad told me that he went into my room one day when I wasn’t there and he hadn’t been in there in a month. I had hung up pictures from Sports Illustrated and made notes on them. Things like, “If you’re bored, go hit,” or “Kansas City in 1991,” with a picture of their stadium.

St. Louis Cardinals second baseman David Howard dives for a ball hit by San Francisco Giant Charlie Hayes in San Francisco. Hayes hit a single as the Giants defeated the Cardinals 2-1. (Photo credit: JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP via Getty Images)

They were all around my room. My dad was like, “OK, now he found it.” He figured I was fishing and went out back to look for me. His friends had built me this net and tee at the house and I would be out there hitting all day. That’s where he found me. When I went to the Royals that Spring, I just did everything that I could and played every position. Brad Wellman was also competing for a utility job and had already been a Big Leaguer. But still, he took me under his wing. He asked me what position I played and I told him infield and a little center. He said, “No. You play everywhere. If they ask you, you play everywhere.” Sure enough, they asked me if I ever played third. I had never played there, but said that I did. I got lucky and made some plays. Then they put me in right and I made a sliding catch and went under the chain link fence. I played really good defense that Spring.

When did you find out you were going to break camp with the Royals and become a Big Leaguer for the first time?

I speak to [youth] teams and I talk about that. I tell them John Wathan called me in and said, “Are you ready to play in the Big Leagues?” I said, “Yes sir.” And he said, “Great, because you made the team.” I then ask the players what they think I did right after that. They always say that they thought I went out of the office and was jumping around. I tell them that my dad was a Big Leaguer and he told me that when I get told that, there are going to be other players in that room who aren’t going to the Big Leagues. He told me to keep it to myself and don’t flaunt it. So I walked out and walked across the locker room. Nobody was looking at me. It was the hardest thing to do to not do a cartwheel. I walked right over to the payphone, typed in my dad’s phone card information because he was still paying for my phone calls, and that was the greatest call I ever made. I thought I heard my dad cry, but I still haven’t gotten confirmation on that. I know I was crying and my mom was too, I could hear that.

Then I ask the teams who they think I called next. They usually guess my brother and I tell them no. Someone will usually guess my girlfriend too and I say, “Bingo! And she wasn’t happy at all.” They all look around and then I tell them that I broke up with her the minute I found out I was going to the Big Leagues. They all stare at me like an idiot when I say that. I always say, “That’s the exact look you should be giving me. Like I’m an idiot. Because I was.” I made the team as a utility player and my thought was getting a better looking girlfriend? It should have been, “I’m beating out Kurt Stillwell, Bill Pecota or Kevin Seitzer.” My first decision as a Big Leaguer was a wrong one and I’m being honest and trying to teach kids a lesson. When I tell my dad that story, he says, “Well, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!” I truly believe that mindset set me on a path to being mediocre.

Join us next week for Part 2 when we relive some of David Howard’s favorite Major League Baseball stories, including being on the opposite end of one of the greatest defensive plays ever made.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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