This is the first in what will hopefully become a series about Angels of yesteryear.
As we increasingly wax nostalgic, we got to thinking about how cool it would be to start a series of interviews with former Angels who, in one way or another, left their mark on the franchise.
Appropriately, our homegrown interview series starts with one of the team’s best homegrown prospects, Jack Howell.
We talked with Jack Saturday about his days with the Angels, his time in Japan, and his current role in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization.
Thanks for talking with us, Jack, we really appreciate it. Tell our readers what you’re doing these days.
I’m in my fifth year as the minor league field coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Prior to that I worked for the Diamondbacks in other roles as well. In 2002 I was the rookie ball manager. In 2003 I was the AAA hitting coach. In 2004 I was the minor league hitting coordinator. And in 2005 I moved into my current role as field coordinator.
For those that don’t know, the field coordinator isn’t in charge of the fields. I’m in charge of instruction, so maybe minor league on-field instructor might be the more appropriate title.
You’re a family man, right?
I sure am. I’ve been married since 1982.
How many kids do you have and what are their ages?
I have two sons, one 24 and one 21. My oldest son is married and works in sports marketing at the University of Arizona, my alma mater. My younger son is working toward a degree in education at the University of Arizona. He transferred from Pima Community College, and played baseball there too, which is where I played my first two years of college ball.
I also have twin daughters who are 16. One is studying abroad, in Greece, the other is a sophomore in high school here in Tucson.
In 1983, you’re an un-drafted, relatively unknown baseball player out of the University of Arizona. Less than two years later, you’re in the middle of a playoff race in Anaheim with guys like Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew, Doug DeCinces, Bobby Grich, Bob Boone, Don Sutton, and Tommy John. What’s it like to be a 23-year old in that situation?
It was great. I was very fortunate, and it was something that occurred throughout my career, I just snuck through. I came up at a great time. All those veterans were so concerned with taking care of business, and winning one for Mr. Autry, that they didn’t put me through the initiations that came later. I never had to walk through the airport dressed as a woman or any of those things that happened in later years. I snuck through at a great time.
So those guys were welcoming?
They really were. They were good to me.
When you came up with the Angels did you feel the pressure of the expectations that came from having had such a dominant minor league career, or were you just a 23-year old kid with no nerves?
I didn’t really feel the pressure, necessarily. I was just doing what I had always done. Working hard, playing hard, going about my business and the opportunity came. I was in the right place at the right time. I was a hard-working guy but I was also very fortunate. I don’t think I really realized at the time that an undrafted kid wasn’t supposed to fly through the minor leagues and land on a Major League team filled with all of those guys you mentioned. I just wasn’t thinking about it that way so, yeah, to answer your question, I was just a 23-year old kid.
You posted two of the greatest offensive seasons in minor league history. And then you did something remarkably similar in Japan for an extended period. It’s probably safe to say that you were seeing the ball well. Had you had those types of stretches in college as well?
I had one great year at Pima and one so-so year. My junior year at Arizona was solid but not spectacular, I didn’t hit for a high average, but I did lead the team in home runs. After that junior year, I went to the Alaska League and led the league in hitting, which brought some notice. That was the year that really started it, that summer in Alaska.
You had to be surprised that you weren’t drafted. How does a guy with your ability go undrafted?
Well, I think that I had talked to some people, some scouts, who had asked what it would take for me to give up my college eligibility. I came up with a number, maybe influenced by some other people, of about $50,000 or $60,000. I think that number was over the limit, so I might have been labeled “un-signable.”
Also, in high school, I was just a little, itty-bitty, guy. I think I was 5’5″ or something and maybe 140 pounds. I red-shirted my first collegiate season and then transferred to Pima where I arranged a tryout as a walk-on. They remembered the little Jack Howell from my high school days and were surprised to see that I had grown to 5’11, 195 pounds. I made the team and tore it up and that made some people notice.
Joe Maddon had watched me some during high school and he gave my name to Rick Ingalls, who watched me during college and followed me during that summer in Alaska. At that time, the Angels saw something they liked and I just thought the time was right. They made me an offer that seemed like a nice chunk of change at the time, and I decided to sign with the Angels instead of returning for my senior season at Arizona.
You were part of that infamous 1986 team, a team about which every Angel fan has a strong opinion. From the bench, what is your lasting impression of Game 5?
Boy, just the overwhelming crowd noise that transformed to dead silence just like that. It was just a blur, it all happened so fast. I remember watching it all, somehow seeing all of that develop…even though I had my face buried in a towel.
Had you ever seen the ball carry like it did that day at the Stadium?
No, definitely not. But it was more than that. There were just so many things that day.
For example, as I recall, we loaded the bases later, after we tied the game. I remember thinking that we didn’t deserve to lose the game that way and we were about to pull it out. You’re never overly confident but I believed we were going to score that run. We didn’t, though, and after that it’s all just a blur.
Were you and the team confident that you’d come back to win either game 6 or game 7?
Yeah, we were. We went back to Boston after that and I remember Reggie and some of the veterans gathering all of us in a room that we rented. They gave us a real pep-talk, told us that we were going to win this series, that we were going to win it for Mr. Autry, win it for the fans in Southern California. They reminded us that some of them [the veterans] were nearing the ends of their careers. They emphasized being ourselves, playing our game, they were really pumping us up. We all really believed that we could win.
You played under Gene Mauch, a guy who has the reputation of being one of the best managers in baseball history. How much did he influence you, especially now that you’re coaching?
His influence was huge. He really believed in me. He let me know that he thought I was something special. He was a lot like my father in many ways. He was quiet about things, but you could always tell whether he was pleased or not. When he was satisfied with you, he’d give you that little knowing smile, you could just tell when he was happy. And, of course, when he was disappointed, you could tell that too. He didn’t scream or yell, you just knew. Again, he was very similar to my father in many ways, and I think that’s how I am now too as a coach. The guys know where I stand on things, they know when I think they need to give something more and they know when they’ve done things right.
Another huge influence for me was Joe Maddon. He was my rookie ball manager, he was a field coordinator, he wore so many hats for the Angels. He was a major influence for me, just such a great guy.
Before I took the job with the Diamondbacks, I called Joe, picked his brain, asked him about the various jobs he had held with the Angels. He told me that field coordinator was a fit for me and that it was the best job in player development. And I agree. I enjoy what I’m doing.
Do you see yourself managing some day?
Well, as I mentioned earlier, I managed in Rookie Ball in ’02, so, yeah, I’ve thought about it. I’m open to a lot of things. But, really, I think my skills translate best to “bench coach.” That’s kind of what I am now, in a way, I’m A.J. Hinch’s [Diamondbacks’ director of player development] bench coach.
Which, obviously, is a position that worked well for Joe Maddon.
It sure did. You know, I remember wondering why Joe wasn’t managing the Angels, especially in those years after the older guys left, when we had Joyner, McLemore, Schofield, Devon White, Dante Bichette, guys who had come up under Joe and who really respected him. I always thought that Joe should have been the manager in those years. All of the Angels’ managers were good to me and they were all great guys, but I just thought Joe should have been managing. Why wasn’t Joe managing? It’s a question that I still don’t know the answer to.
We were always of the notion that had Maddon been the manager instead of, say, Terry Collins, the winning years may have started sooner.
Well, again, Terry Collins was great to me, absolutely great, so I have no complaints. Joe, though, is just such a great guy that he seemed the obvious choice.
To many Angel fans, the club hasn’t done enough to promote its history. Has the Angels’ organization in recent years been better about reaching out to former Angels?
Yeah, they really have. I remember thinking in ’01 and ’02 that the club wasn’t doing much to recognize the guys that spent so many years with the team. It seemed like there should be some old-timers games or at least some recognition. But it just wasn’t there. It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t more alumni outreach.
Then, a couple years later, when Mr. Moreno took over, I started getting invitations to events like autograph signings and golf tournaments, things like that. They sent me an alumni card that allowed free entrance to games and the ability to book a suite. They hosted a three-day golf tournament, brought guys back to be re-introduced to the crowds before games, that type of thing. I’m still invited to events but, with my schedule, it’s been a few years since I’ve been able to participate. I’d love to participate more.
We’ve always thought that Brian Downing deserves to have his number up on the wall out in right field, that he should have his jersey retired and be honored with a night at the stadium, a “Brian Downing night.”
Yes, he should. You know, Brian and I became very close over the years. In the early ’90’s when I thought I was ready to retire from baseball, I moved out to Texas, bought a big ranch. Brian finally left Orange County and he ended up buying the ranch right next to mine. Here we were two weight-lifting baseball players living on farms in Texas, and really enjoying it. Of course, I ended up moving elsewhere and continuing my baseball career but Brian still lives out in Texas on that same ranch. Brian is a great guy; he was my quiet, hard-working mentor. We were very similar in that way, low-key guys who just went about getting our work done. It was a little harder for Brian, obviously, because he was so good that he became somewhat famous.
Let’s go back to the amazing offensive seasons in Japan for just a moment. You were the MVP, and nearly won the Central League triple crown, in your first season there. Compare for us, if you will, the difference or similarity between the pressure to perform as a highly-touted young prospect and as a gaijin.
What people don’t realize is that most of what I did during that first season, I did during the second half of the year. I was injured for much of the first half with a hamstring injury (I always battled hamstring injuries) and was just trying to get healthy. American players sometimes had the reputation of taking the money, getting injured, and then going home.
I was really intent on keeping a humble attitude, of respecting the Japanese culture and the way they played the game. I wanted to work hard and to re-vitalize my career and to prove that I was committed to being there.
But I battled that early hamstring injury. It took some convincing for them to let me return to the states for treatment. I underwent some saline injections in the hamstring and some very aggressive anti-inflammatory treatments. I did everything I could to get healthy again. I flew back and stayed healthy after the all-star break and really got hot. Amazingly, I posted most of those numbers during the second half and was able to win the MVP.
But to answer your original question, yes there was pressure to perform. As a Major League prospect, I was young and didn’t maybe understand the expectations. In Japan, though, I was being paid well and was expected to play well.
So the pressure was greater in Japan?
Yeah, in a way I think it was.
Did you learn much Japanese while there?
Just enough. I learned enough to tell the taxi driver where I needed to go and enough to order in restaurants. With the team I learned enough Japanese to communicate with the guys. I was a bit spoiled, though. I had my own interpreter. He even sat in the dugout with us. So, if anything difficult came up, he was there to translate. I worked at it, but I was also spoiled.
So you were the American Ichiro in Japan. You were a guy who came over with expectations and an interpreter and succeeded.
[Chuckling] Yeah, I guess.
So what U.S. city has the best sushi?
It’s funny, I’m a Tucson boy. I’ve never been a fish guy. I really like rice, so that worked out well. And I love steak, so the way they cook their meat and the Kobe beef were both great…I love Kobe beef. But I never took a liking to fish. Still don’t like it.
Best Chuck Finley story?
We’re in Chandler, Arizona at the site of what was, at the time, the Brewers’ new spring training complex. It’s new, so there’s no concrete or anything, it’s just hot and dusty.
We had decided to implement a new play where if the leadoff batter of an inning happened to triple, we were going to run a pick-off play at third. There wouldn’t be a sign at all, just a quick play that we figured would catch the runner off-guard since he wasn’t expecting it or was maybe just exhausted.
The leadoff hitter tripled, so the play’s on. Everyone does their part and remembers that the play is on, even Chuck. The runner never moved, he was caught completely by surprise. The only problem was that it was just such a bright day, and there was so much dust in the air, that I never saw the ball coming. There I am covering third for the play when the ball hits me right in the mouth…just like that.
Rick Burleson, who was a coach at the time, said he was preparing to come scrape me off the ground but, instead, I just picked the ball up and calmly threw it back to Chuck. None of us knew what was funnier, that the ball had hit me square in the face or that I acted like nothing had happened.
What hitter made you just a little nervous to be a Major League third baseman?
Two guys come immediately to mind, Jose Canseco and Kirby Puckett. It’s probably a toss-up between those two guys. They both made contact out in front of the plate, allowing you to see the ball well, which is a good thing. But they also both hit the ball with absolutely massive topspin. You wanted to play way back to deal with all of that topspin. Puckett had that big leg kick, too. Both of those guys, though, hit the ball hard and with huge topspin.
You wore jersey number 16 in your early days as an Angel. In your second stint with the Halos, you came back to the club to find a young guy wearing it, Garret Anderson. Were you at all tempted to pull the veteran move and take it back?
You know, I wasn’t. When I first came to the Angels, they gave me number 19. But then they acquired a veteran pitcher, Al Holland, from the Pirates, who wore number 19, so they took it away from me just like that and issued me 16. When I returned to the Angels I figured I’d do it differently and just let the young guy keep it. I don’t even remember what number I ended up with .
Anything we haven’t mentioned, something that you’d like to say to Angel fans?
Actually I do. Sorry for the self-promotion here, but I’m part of the ownership group of the Ruby’s restaurants. You’ve probably heard of it.
My favorite’s the one on the Huntington Beach pier!
Mine too. That’s the one that got me involved in the ownership group. We’re still growing and it’s a great thing to be a part of. So, yeah, that and the Angels are my remaining connections to Orange County.
And the fans. The Angel fans were great to me and to my family. They were always good to me and polite to my family and I really enjoyed my time with the team and the support from the fans. So, thanks to all of the Angel fans for being good to us.
So Angel fans have another reason to eat at Ruby’s.
They sure do.
Okay, toughest question last…Angel fans have to know. Offense aside for just a moment…Pettis or Devo?
Devo, no doubt. Pettis was amazing, too. But Devo had those long strides and he was so smooth about it. He made so many plays at the wall and just looked so effortless while he did it. He was incredible.
Can’t thank you enough, Jack. Great talking with you and thanks for taking time during this busy time of the season to answer our questions.
Thank you, I enjoyed it. Talk to you soon.