Howard Runs Into Old Suitor : Padres: Center-field candidate spurned Schembechler, Michigan for baseball. : 9BY BOB NIGHTENGALE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It had been eight years since he last saw him. The last time they talked, Thomas Howard was informing him of the bad news, saying he had a change of plans.

He was not going to accept a football scholarship to the University of Michigan, after all, simply because of his love of baseball. Sorry, he said, he was going to take Ball State up on its football offer in which they also promised him he could play baseball.

You can imagine Bo Schembechler's disgust. He isn't used to losing athletes to Ball State.

Now, after being one of the most successful college football coaches in the nation while at Michigan, Schembechler is president of the Detroit Tigers.

"I didn't know if he would remember me," said Howard, who ran into Schembechler at a rookie orientation seminar two weeks ago in Atlanta, "but he did. I guess he wanted me pretty bad. I would have gone there, too, but he wouldn't let me play baseball my freshman year. He only wanted me to play football.

"So when I saw him, I said, 'Hey, it looks like you made the switch, too. He said, 'Well, now that I know where you are, I'll be looking for you.'

"I told him, 'I hope you don't have to look far.' "

Howard, 26, is competing with Shawn Abner and Darrin Jackson for the starting center field job. Although Abner is considering the leading candidate, Howard is expected to be given his best opportunity of winning a job.

"I don't think I have anything left to prove in Las Vegas," said Howard, who batted .328 last season at the triple-A level, "but that doesn't mean I'll have a job here. And If I don't get a job here, I hope I can catch the eye of somebody.

"If I play the way I'm capable of playing, I really don't see a problem."

Padre pitchers Larry Andersen and Craig Lefferts, in an effort to enhance team morale and bring cohesiveness into the clubhouse, are seeking for a return of beer in the Padre clubhouse.

Andersen had a private meeting with Padre Manager Greg Riddoch to express his views on reinstating alcohol in the clubhouse for the first time since 1986. He explained how it will help the camaraderie. He explained how it will help the team atmosphere. And he explained how it will bring the players together to discuss baseball after games.

"You can talk all you want about beer," Andersen said, "but no one's going to sit around and talk about a game over a couple of Cokes. It just doesn't work that way. I'm not saying we need to keep the tapper on all night, just 30 or 40 minutes."

And Riddoch's response?

He's listening. Although Riddoch cited liability insurance as a problem, he said that he will not stand in the way of Andersen's proposal if the club approves.

Lefferts, meanwhile, has contacted a San Diego attorney, and is asking about possible waivers that players could sign, removing the club's liability.

Stay tuned. The Padre ownership group is coming to Yuma Thursday.

Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager, said Monday that it's possible he might have to renew the contracts of pitchers Andy Benes and Greg Harris, who still are unsigned.

"We're going to make every effort to sign them," McIlvaine said, "but it doesn't work out, we have no problems with renewals. It's going to be done one way or the other, I guarantee that.

The Padres did sign first baseman Phil Stephenson to a one-year contract, reducing their number of unsigned players to 10.

"I could sign six of these guys right now," McIlvaine said. "We're only haggling over a couple of thousand dollars, that's all.

"The biggest problems we have are with Benes and Harris, but we'll work them out, one way or the other."

Padre Manager Greg Riddoch, noticing that outfielder Oscar Azocar is carrying two bats with him wherever he goes, yelled across the field to him:

"Oscar, you married to those things, or what?," Riddoch said.

Azocar: "No, but they're my two best friends."

Padre Notes

Manager Greg Riddoch met privately Monday morning with Padre right fielder Tony Gwynn to discuss his latest outburst about former teammate Jack Clark. "I just wanted to make sure he was OK," Riddoch said. "He said, 'I just wanted to get a couple of things off my chest. I'm ready to go.' That's what I wanted to hear." . . . Gwynn, already looking ahead to the weekend series against the Angels, says that he's determined to do something that he's never done in spring training. Yes, he says, he's determined that he's going to obtain a hit off Angels starter Mark Langston. "Mark my words, I'm going to get a hit off him," Gwynn said. "I think I'm about oh-for-eight years off him. But this year, I'm ready for him. I got to get at least one knock off him." . . . Padre shortstop Tony Fernandez is being allowed to follow his own regimented workout routine, Riddoch said, and deviate from the Padres' routine. "He's very meticulous," Riddoch said. "Everything has to be just right. That's the sign of a perfectionist. That's the individualism we're not going to take away from him. As soon as you restrict the type of player's habits, you restrict the player." . . . Just when the Padres thought they had cleared up the visa problems with reliever Rafael Valdez, they were informed Monday that they must produce the original visa instead of a photocopy. "I don't know when we'll get him now," Riddoch said. The delay guarantees that Valdez will begin the season at the triple-A level.

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