Spring Training Special Time For Former Mets’ Skipper Howe
Spring Training has special meaning for Art Howe.
In 15 days, Major League Baseball begins to roll out the 2021 season.
"As a manager, I was always early," said Howe during a recent telephone conversation from his home in suburban Houston, Texas. " I had my coaches arrive early, too. We would discuss what we would be doing in the upcoming season, and I'd pick their brains. I wanted to know if there was a better way to do things than what I had mapped out."
Howe wanted to build on camaraderie between himself and his staff. There were dinners together and other outings done as a group. More than anything, as the club's skipper, Howe wanted to be prepared for when the players arrived.
11 seasons as a player with Pittsburgh, Houston, and St. Louis, followed by 14 seasons managing in the big leagues, Howe had plenty of experience to welcome and be welcomed to camp each season.
Growing up in the Pittsburgh area, preparing for the upcoming season, as a player, he had his share of obstacles to conquer. Without the luxury of warm weather and outdoor parks to condition his body, Howe found himself becoming creative on preparing his body for a 162 game season.
"I tried not to get out of shape during my playing days. I played a lot of handball, and that's what I credit to playing good solid defense in the infield," says Howe,73, who was inserted into 891 MLB games.
"With the ball coming from all angles, that helped my hand-eye coordination. Handball is a great activity. I probably played two or three times a week when I was a player.
Drawing from his experiences as a player, on what worked and what didn't in the name of conditioning, Howe modified programs, when he was managing.
When playing the game, Howe remembers his managers saving running drills for the end of the day.
"It seemed as if some of the guys would coast a little bit during practices, to save themselves for running at the end of the day. My coaches were instructed to do running drills, first thing, and get it out of the way," explains Howe, who last managed in the big league for the New York Mets during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
The theory behind this directive was simple, and effective.
When participating in drills, Howe wanted his players to put everything they had into them. When camp broke each April, as Howe recalls, the switch-up seemed to have worked pretty well.
Being on the field for as much as six hours daily in the spring sun could wreak havoc on players' bodies.
Howe recalls teammates hurting their bodies by the end of spring training workouts; pulling hamstrings, straining muscles. He had his players, before going through baseball drills, stretch a lot.
"We covered every possible scenario in spring training," states Howe. " We'd break into groups - outfielders taking fly balls, infielders taking grounders, and pitchers working on bunt defenses."
There was no guesswork for teams in the dugouts skippered by Howe in Houston, Oakland, and the Mets. Before players would arrive for their spring workouts, they would be greeted on the clubhouse bulletin board by a post listing each day's drills.
"There were no surprises in camp," Howe recalls. "I think my players appreciated this. They were mentally prepared for their day's work."
There was on-going communication between Howe and his players in the off-season.
When Howe signed with his hometown Pirates in 1971, he was already married to his high school sweetheart Betty. With one car between them, Howe looks back at how he would arrive at Pittsburgh's spring base in Bradenton, Florida.
He would fly from Pittsburgh to "Pirate City" in Florida.
" You had everything you needed. We players were pretty much isolated. Our routine was to be on the field for six hours a day, with breaks for lunch and dinner, which the team provided. We lived in barracks. By night time, I was so tired, I didn't want to go out on the town."
As a kid wanting to standout amongst so many on the Pirates' depth charts, Howe admits to having pushed himself at times to far physically.
Wanting to be in the best shape, one winter when running through the streets of Pittsburgh, his commitment to conditioning backfired.
"One year, a month or two before spring training, I tore my achilles tendon. Bummer," Howe chuckles.
At 27, in July of 1974, Howe was called-up to Pittsburgh from Triple-A Charleston. He was inserted into 29 Pirates' games. Although Howe was familiar with the names on the Pirates' roster, he hadn't yet been invited to their big league training camp.
"I actually got to the big leagues before I had major league spring training, Howe tells. " The following season (1975) when I spent a half year with the Pirates, I lived in my parents' home. That was unique."
The late Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, who spent 21 season in Pittsburgh that included belting 475 homeruns, is who Howe immediately tabs as being the subject of his most favorite spring training memory.
"What a thrill. Stargell took me to the hitting cage with him, and fed me balls on the pitching machine. Then, Willie was hitting off the same machine with one hand. Balls were coming in at 90 miles per hour, and he was hitting better with one hand than I did with two."
During Howe's two seasons in Flushing, Queens, his Mets teams consisted of some of the game's biggest names - future hall of famers Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, and Mo Vaughn.
This past year, Howe faced a challenge that even baseball couldn't match.
Last May, Howe contracted COVID-19. He was hospitalized for five days in Houston.
"I was in bad shape. It was rugged. Knock on wood, I'm doing alright now."
Today, being dad to his three children and enjoying his six grandchildren is what occupies Howe's time. But, as MLB camps begin to open in two weeks, it's not inconceivable (and probably likely) that some of Howe's baseball history will automatically kick in, and he'll have a visit to Florida on his mind.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.