No Chance to Finally Say Goodby : The Call That Counted Came to Jay Howell in the Middle of the Night

Times Staff Writer

Others will remember Oct. 8 as the day Dodger relief pitcher Jay Howell was discovered with pine tar in his glove.

Jay Howell and his wife, Alison, will remember it for the phone call they received late that night in their New York hotel room, the call that finally made it through all the cranks and crackpots that were flooding the switchboard with abuse.

It was the call informing Alison Howell that her father, Otto Quale, had died that day of cancer.

"He knew he was going to die," Jay Howell said. "But he wouldn't let us know how bad he was. And when we spoke to Alison's mother, she never let on. She would always say he was asleep.

"In his will, he set up a memorial service in November, just because we might be in the World Series and he didn't want it to affect us. He was that kind of man."

Jay Howell was not immune to the controversy that raged around him last fall, when National League president A. Bartlett Giamatti suspended him for three games--a penalty that later was reduced to two games--for the pine-tar incident in Game 3 of the NL playoffs.

"My wife said at the time that the only way I could have gotten more media attention was if I had married Mike Tyson," Howell said.

His notoriety didn't lessen, either, when in his first appearance after his suspension 12 days earlier, Howell yielded a ninth-inning home run to Mark McGwire of the Oakland Athletics and lost Game 3 of the World Series. Or the next night, when he came back to save Game 4, getting McGwire to pop up with the bases loaded.

But in the midst of that emotional maelstrom, there were only two Dodgers--Manager Tom Lasorda and Executive Vice President Fred Claire--who knew what really weighed on Jay Howell's heart at that time.

"It was brutal," Howell said. "I tried to be there for Alison.

"Sometimes you get so caught up in what you're doing, but there are so many more important things going on than baseball. I mean, baseball is important, too, but it falls . . . after your family and your beliefs."

So, when it was suggested to Howell that he might have been at the breaking point after McGwire's home run, he scoffed at the notion.

"Was it the first homer I'd ever given up?" he asked. "What's so bad about that? Why do people think that pitchers are so good they never give up a home run, never take a loss?

"To think that because I gave up a home run to Mark McGwire, I should be so low, is incredible. Do you think John Franco (of Cincinnati) was ready to slash his wrists because Jeff Hamilton hit a home run off him?

"Sure, there was a certain amount of pressure on me, because it was my first game back after being suspended, I hadn't thrown in 12 days and I hadn't given up a run in something like 18 innings.

"But do you think because I gave up a home run, I should have gone back and burned my uniform?"

Besides, Howell said, he knew beyond a doubt that Lasorda wouldn't hesitate to bring him back the next day. The manager told him so, moments after the Game 3 loss.

"Many people second-guess me because I threw McGwire so many fastballs," Howell said. "But I knew, having played with Oakland, that he was a good breaking-ball hitter and a good low-ball hitter, so I tried to keep the ball up.

"And the next day, I started him off with a fastball, and stayed with the fastball, and what did he do--he popped out to first base."

When Howell arrived at spring training last week, Dodger coach Joe Ferguson greeted him with an oversized carpenter's nail file.

"If he's going to mark up the ball, there's no reason to be subtle about it," Ferguson joked afterward.

Several players, Howell said, came up to him and shook hands, then pretended they couldn't let go because his hand was so sticky.

As with Kansas City's George Brett, Howell is stuck with pine tar. He still feels that the punishment he received last fall far outweighed the offense he was accused of committing.

"It was tough," he said. "I felt all the way through it that what I was doing wasn't a federal offense. It was a holding penalty. I wasn't trying to hide anything.

"Pitchers have been doing it for 100 years in the game. Anybody who thinks they're not using pine tar is naive. But I think (Giamatti) felt he had to set an example."

Howell was elated at the way teammates, his manager, the media and even the opposition--especially Keith Hernandez of the New York Mets--rallied to his defense.

"I have a feeling that because of all that crap Hernandez went through in those cocaine trials (in Pittsburgh), he had a good idea of what I was going through," Howell said.

"You really can't buy that kind of experience, either good or bad. I like to think now that it was good.

"People like the pine-tar thing. They comment on it. It's like something they haven't forgotten. If someone recognizes me, they have to say something about it."

It might surprise some people, but Howell said that the 1987 season--his last with Oakland--was more difficult to endure. That season, he had bone chips in his right elbow and tried to pitch anyway before finally submitting to surgery in late August of that year.

Nothing was more satisfying, he said, than last season, his first with the Dodgers. It went beyond his team-leading 21 saves, his five victories and 2.08 earned-run average, and the World Series victory.

"There were so many reasons," he said. "The way the Dodgers treat you and your family. The fans--none better. The family atmosphere that Mr. O'Malley creates.

"And coming back from surgery--I had to get my arm back together. It was almost like I had forgotten my mechanics. But I stayed on it and stayed on it and finally it all came together."

His father-in-law did not live long enough to share that ultimate moment of triumph, when the Dodgers won the World Series.

"He loved baseball," Howell said. "The last time he saw me pitch was in July. He was only skin and bones then, but he came out to Dodger Stadium, and watched me pitch. We were very close."

Neither Jay nor Alison Howell got the chance to say goodby.

"That's kind of how he was," Jay Howell said. "He didn't want us to see him like that. He was that kind of guy."

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