There is a smudge on Jay Howell’s professional reputation. It may not be there forever, but at the moment it is stuck to his once-good name as firmly as, well, pine tar to one’s fingers.
People with short memories and a zest for scandal probably will not remember Howell as the right-handed relief pitcher who saved 21 games this season, the most by a Dodger reliever in the last 10 seasons. Or that, having recovered from late-season elbow surgery while he was with the Oakland Athletics in 1987, he provided strength and stability in one of the Dodgers’ weakest areas.
For many, the enduring image is of Howell walking off the mound last weekend at New York’s Shea Stadium after his glove was confiscated by the umpires when it was found to have pine tar liberally smudged on the heel.
Howell said he used it to improve his grip on the ball during the cold, rainy weather of Game 3 of the National League championship series.
His hands dangling awkwardly at his sides, Howell was stripped of his dignity, and he was being serenaded by chants of “L.A. cheats!”
The next day, Howell was suspended for 3 days, later reduced to 2, by Bart Giamatti, the National League president. The incident rivaled Mike Tyson’s marital troubles for the screaming headlines in the New York tabloids.
Now that the Dodgers, without his help, have eliminated the New York Mets and will face the Oakland Athletics Saturday in Game 1 of the World Series, Howell would like to wash his hands of the pine tar episode.
Howell knows it will not be easy, not with the national press corps descending on Dodger Stadium today. Many reporters will want to ask him about his smear tactics.
“I think it’s pretty much over,” Howell said. “I mean, I hope so. I think people understand why I did it. If they don’t, that’s OK, too. I think I’ve made it clear what my intent was. Maybe it’ll blow over. Maybe not now, but eventually.”
The question of intent in this Tar War, as the tabloids dubbed it, remains, even though Howell has reclaimed his glove and his unrestricted playing status for the World Series.
Howell contends that he used pine tar only to get a better grip on the ball in cold and wet weather, when the rosin bag apparently loses its effectiveness. He said pine tar serves the same purpose as rosin without altering the flight of the ball.
He admitted that he knowingly violated rule 8.02(b), which prohibits a pitcher’s use of foreign substances on the mound, but he called it a bad rule when the foreign substance in question is pine tar.
Those who disagree with Howell say that pine tar helps a pitcher get a sharper break on his curveball than if he threw it naturally, that the flight of the ball is affected, as is the case with spitballs or pitches loaded with any other foreign substance.
“I think the people who count know what my intent was,” Howell said, adding that he wants to forget the nightmarish playoff experience and make his World Series experience memorable for more positive reasons.
This is not the first time the national spotlight has cast an unbecoming glare on Howell. He also had to endure a mini-controversy early in the playoffs, when Met pitcher David Cone likened him to a high-school pitcher in a ghostwritten tabloid column after Gary Carter’s bloop double off Howell gave the Mets the victory in Game 1.
And at the 1987 All-Star game, he suffered the indignity of being booed by his home fans during introductions at the Oakland Coliseum, a gesture that still rankles him.
But Howell has since changed teams and changed gloves, and the Dodgers have changed opponents, so maybe Howell’s fortunes will change, as well.
He already is feeling better, thanks in part to the long standing ovation he got from fans at Dodger Stadium when he was introduced before Game 6 Tuesday night. He said he appreciated the support. The stark contrast to last season’s reaction from Oakland fans was not lost on him.
“It was awesome,” Howell said of the ovation. “I’ve never had that kind of feeling before. The closest thing I could compare it to was sitting in my hotel room (on the night of Game 4) and watching Kirk Gibson hit that (game-winning) home run with the little ‘JH’ on his sleeve. To have the home fans stick behind you is great.”
If the eyes really are the windows to the soul, then Howell’s sometimes are as vivid as stained glass in a cathedral, sometimes as halting as storm windows and occasionally as unyielding as closed blinds. It all depends on the situation.
On the mound during the late innings of games the Dodgers lead, Howell fixes on home plate with a malevolent glare.
But there also are those times when his eyes are a spacey blue, when Howell, singing along with the Talking Heads, bops through the clubhouse wearing headphones: “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife . “
And, there are times--no fewer than 21 times this season--when Howell’s eyes dart back and forth as he answers questions about how he saved another Dodger victory or how he ended the regular season having not allowed a run in 18 consecutive innings.
It was Howell’s right arm, though, not his baby blues, that attracted the Dodgers. When Fred Claire, the club’s executive vice president, drew up his winter shopping list, he listed a right-handed short reliever right up there with a left-handed short reliever and a defensive shortstop.
He had Howell in mind.
The Dodgers knew all about the operation to remove bone chips in his elbow. They knew he recorded only 1 save for the A’s after the All-Star break last season and didn’t pick up a ball after Aug. 23.
“We knew, before his elbow problems, that the guy could pitch,” Manager Tom Lasorda said. “We were hoping that he could come back from that, but we didn’t know what was going to happen.”
What happened was that, after some tentativeness, Howell forged ahead of Jesse Orosco and Alejandro Pena, becoming the Dodgers’ most reliable reliever. His 21 saves fell 8 short of his career high in 1985. It was the first time since 1978 that a Dodger reliever cracked the 20-save mark.
When veteran Dodger players are asked to evaluate the club’s rejuvenation after consecutive 73-89 finishes, they mention Howell in the same breath as Gibson. Some, in fact, say Howell has been more important than Gibson.
“Jay has evolved into the reliever we count on to close it,” catcher Mike Scioscia said.
That’s just it. Howell has evolved. No one, least of all Howell, had an idea how well he would pitch this season.
When Dr. Lewis Yocum opened up Howell’s right elbow, he also opened the gates to the unknown. All the rehabilitation, the careful primping and monitoring of the Dodger training staff, could not answer the question gnawing at Howell: Could he still pitch with the same speed and movement on his curveball as before?
“I was a question mark, no question,” Howell said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it could go either way. Sometimes, when I pitched last year, I was kidding myself. I had no idea. My mechanics were totally screwed up.
“And, this year, I didn’t know what my arm would be like. There’s always the possibility in spring training of pitching and just having it blow up. It was a scary spring. Yeah, scary.”
A winter of rehabilitation and a spring of uncertainty, however, were better in Howell’s mind than another season in Oakland.
Howell converted 14 of his first 15 save opportunities for the A’s last season, but he was pitching on borrowed time.
On June 22, working against the Kansas City Royals, Howell stepped off the rubber and drew his right arm to the bill of his cap. The arm locked there.
Tests later showed bone chips and spurs. Doctors told Howell that he would not aggravate the condition if he continued to pitch, so he kept pitching. Neither he nor the A’s made the injury public knowledge.
Then came the slide, and the intense fan abuse and media barbs. After the tests, Howell failed on 6 of 7 save opportunities, the last on the day before the All-Star game.
That was the reason for the rude reception by his home fans. Although Howell did not say so at the time, he was hurt by the reaction. Eventually, reporters were told about Howell’s elbow condition, but Howell did not forget the initial reaction.
“It still (irritates) me,” Howell said of being booed at the All-Star game. “It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t like talking about it. It calls attention to it again. But anytime fans boo their own player at an All-Star game, it’s bush.”
While recovering from the operation, Howell decided he wanted out of Oakland. Howell, 32, figured a change would do him good. He wanted a new start with a new and, he hoped, improved elbow.
“I told them I’d just as soon leave,” Howell said. “I’d had enough. I’d been there 3 years, and it was a good time to get out. I first hurt my elbow in 1986, when they wanted me to pitch myself into shape (after experiencing a tender right forearm). I should have never done that. It was my fault for doing it.”
Howell came to the Dodgers in the six-player deal that sent Bob Welch to the A’s. In the spring, he and the Dodgers made sure Howell proceeded cautiously. In his first appearance in spring training, Howell removed himself from the game because of a sore back. He suffered for a while from the same forearm soreness he had in Oakland. He also dealt with a stiff right shoulder.
By the end of spring training, Howell had pitched 6 innings. The Dodgers didn’t know much more about his recovery, or ability, than they had known 6 weeks earlier.
“I didn’t do (anything) in Vero (Beach),” Howell said. “As far as I knew then, anything I did could have ended it.”
The Dodgers knew that, too.
“I handled him differently in spring (than other pitchers),” said Ron Perranoski, Dodger pitching coach. “We just didn’t want to overuse him in the spring. Everybody thought it was best to hold him back.”
Howell’s workload gradually increased once the season began, interrupted occasionally by injuries. Despite a 3-week stint on the disabled list with a rib injury he suffered while shagging batting-practice drives in the outfield, Howell finished third behind Pena and Orosco in appearances among relievers.
Early on, though, success and failure mingled, and the Dodgers carefully monitored Howell’s recovery after he pitched in consecutive games.
Howell recorded the first of his memorable successes April 24 in San Francisco. Replacing starter Fernando Valenzuela with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth inning with the Dodgers ahead, 3-0, Howell struck out Will Clark on a tricky 3-and-2 curveball. He retired the side in the ninth inning for his first save as a Dodger.
The Dodgers realized then that Howell’s elbow had recovered. The break on the curveball, his trademark pitch, was back.
The problem, though, was that Howell relied on the curveball almost to the exclusion of his fastball.
For a few months, Howell was able to get by using his fastball as a diversion. But, on June 10 in San Diego, his 1-pitch repertoire cost him and the Dodgers a game. The Dodgers had a 3-2 lead in the ninth when they summoned Howell to close it. He retired Tony Gwynn and Keith Moreland on curveballs before, as Howell said, “the whole stadium caved in.”
Howell walked John Kruk on 4 straight curveballs. He walked Benito Santiago on a 3-and-2 curveball. Then pinch-hitter Carmelo Martinez launched another of Howell’s curves off the left-field fence for a 2-run double, giving the Padres a 4-3 victory.
The next day, Lasorda and Perranoski asked to be shown that 90-m.p.h. fastball they had heard about.
“I was a different kind of pitcher early,” Howell said. “I was throwing a lot of breaking balls. It was a long adjustment period. I was finding out all over again what it was like to throw a breaking ball. It had been a couple years since I’d thrown them right.
“I felt then I really didn’t have a good fastball. In fact, I just didn’t have confidence in it. In San Diego, when I (messed) up that game by walking Santiago and Kruk, I was pitching backward.
“It was the opposite of how you should approach pitching, yet I had been doing it and most of the time getting away with it. I was pitching effectively, but backward. I realized, at that point, I had to start throwing more fastballs. I told Tommy and Perry, on the spot, I had more confidence in my breaking ball for a strikeout than the fastball.”
Regardless of Howell’s doubts, Lasorda and Perranoski diplomatically suggested that maybe Howell should mix in a few fastballs with 2 strikes on hitters, then judge the results.
The curveball, though, still is Howell’s bread-and-butter pitch. In the ninth inning of Game 1 of the playoffs, he used breaking balls exclusively to record the second out in the inning and get 2 strikes on Carter. But Carter then reached out for a low, outside curve and sent it to center field for the game-winning hit.
Carter said that, had Howell thrown a fastball, “I probably would have been totally fooled.”
Howell says that although he reverted to the curve in Game 1, his confidence in the fastball has grown.
“I just didn’t think I had (the fastball) anymore (early in the season),” Howell said. “Maybe I didn’t at that point. The only way to get command of the fastball is to throw it. But when I lost that game in San Diego, I realized I was hurting myself with the breaking ball.
“It hurt me (mentally). It’s much different when you lose and the guy hits your best pitch than walking a guy on your breaking ball and pitching around them like that night. That was the day I started pitching the way I should. At least, I was attacking it the right way. So, if I got beat, I got beat with my best. And, I did get beat. But I could live with that.”
Howell was wild-eyed on that June night in San Diego. He seethed, suggesting that the umpires were “squeezing” him on balls and strikes. But Howell now admits that what really upset him was his pitch selection, not the umpires’ calls.
“That game bothered me every game until I got back in there,” Howell said. “I felt like, that night, I let the ballclub down. I usually just tear up something in the clubhouse after a bad outing, then I’m all right. I go about my business.”
Business has been good for Howell since that San Diego game. He had long since supplanted Orosco in the role of bullpen ace by August, when he had another pratfall on Aug. 11 in Cincinnati.
Asked to protect an 8-6 Dodger lead in the ninth inning, Howell allowed 2 runs that inning and the tiebreaking run the next. Intense as usual, Howell blamed himself for the loss. But he also said he did not regret a single pitch he threw.
“In games like that, I usually feel better after I tip something over,” Howell said, laughing. “I got beat with my best, so there was nothing I could do about it.
“I’m serious. I’m intense out there. But you can’t be serious all the time. If you take it too seriously, you can get yourself in trouble. You’ve got to have some fun, because there’s also going to be some games when you get knocked around. If you think that’s not going to happen to you, that’s bull.”