It was as predictable as Tony La Russa plunking an opposing player, anytime he has the urge: Art Howe, the man with the plain-Joe grin and small-town style, was sliced and diced in the New York media after the Mets announced in October that he—not Lou Piniella, not Dusty Baker—was the club’s new manager.
Some sense of letdown was probably inevitable. Howe used to be typecast as the baseball version of a character actor, good for thankless jobs like managing a young team sprinkled with raw, unpolished talent, but not the star you want when the bright lights kick in come fall. Howe was supposed to have a knack for making a mediocre team better, in short, not for making the jump from good to great.
But that view is outdated. Howe’s 100-win seasons his last two years in Oakland speak for themselves, and so does shortstop Miguel Tejada’s MVP award for last season. Covering the A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle, I was one of the first sportswriters to talk up Tejada’s big potential. Even then it was clear that the kid from a small town in the Dominican Republic might or might not show enough discipline to come of age as a big-leaguer. That he did has to be seen as commentary on Howe and his style.
“When he talks, he has something to say,” Tejada told me. “When you come into the big leagues so young, you need someone who can give you confidence, and you find that in him.”
Howe does not sneer, belittle, or yell just to sneer, belittle, or yell. This is often held against him. But anyone who has been around Howe and watched him work knows he is tougher than outsiders understand. The day he arrived in Oakland to take over as A’s manager before the 1996 season, he was mocked by a powerful local columnist known to carry a grudge. The columnist introduced himself that day—and Howe refused to shake his hand. The columnist exacted his revenge in nasty column after nasty column, but Howe had the last laugh. Then as now, being underestimated never much bothered him.
Howe’s moment of truth with Tejada came during the 2001 season on an August road trip through Cleveland. Tejada played hard, even ferociously, but he was often tough on himself. Sometimes, his anger got in the way of performance. That was the case at Jacobs Field when Tejada hit a ground ball to second and didn’t run to first base. Howe was appalled and made sure Tejada knew it: He immediately pulled his young star from the game and let him watch in the clubhouse as the A’s lost.
“It’s like children: Eventually, they’re going to test you, until you put your foot down,” Howe told me. “I called him into my office after the game and told him, ‘We don’t play the game like that here.’ ”
Everyone knew Howe would have been glad never to embarrass Tejada that way. He did it because he had to do it, and Tejada understood that. Since that day, he has played with consistent maturity and poise, and when Jason Giambi moved on to the Yankees, Tejada became the team’s offensive leader. Howe was able to reach Tejada, and bring him along, precisely because he’s not one to overplay a hand.
That ability may come in handy this year. The Mets would like to see José Reyes come into his own soon (before they have to decide next offseason whether to sign Tejada, who would like to rejoin Howe). Howe’s track record of trusting his players has already helped the Mets. Proven winner Tom Glavine, left-handed reliever Mike Stanton, and power-hitting outfielder Cliff Floyd all said they would not have signed with the Mets this offseason if Howe had not been brought in to take over for Bobby Valentine.
“The thing I’m excited about is the three new players we’ve signed on all seem like they’re very pleased to be playing for me,” Howe said by phone from Houston before spring training. “That means the world to me. I guess that has something to do with my reputation, and how players who have played for me feel about that.”
Howe has never had a chance like this. The current Oakland A’s owners are such notorious tightwads that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto dubbed the lead owner “Steve ‘Hey, Is That a Quarter in the Sewer?’ Schott.” The A’s always kept Howe hanging. He never had job security, and he never knew whether his best players would be plucked away the way Jason Giambi was when the Yankees went after him. (Giambi thought so highly of Howe, he hugged him on the field when the A’s won the A.L. West in October 2000 and told him the team’s success was thanks to him.) Now Howe knows he’s always going to have a hand full of cards to play—and he knows he’s got some time to play them.
“It’s such a great feeling,” Howe said. “I’ve been in the game 32 years, and I finally have more than a two-year deal. It took 32 years to get that kind of security, but I have it. I can go into the season knowing the Mets want me around for a while. We can build something.”
Howe likes being back in the East, where he grew up. Nothing against the West Coast, but sports somehow feels different in the East. Howe may have to make some adjustments, like talking to reporters every day even in the offseason, but to someone who has known him for years, he sounded thrilled. He picked up a copy of Leonard Koppett’s The New York Mets: The Whole Story and immersed himself in that.
“I grew up in the East, in Pittsburgh,” he said, “and it’s not a rap on the Bay Area or anything out that way, but it just seems like baseball is more contagious, or whatever you want to call it, back East. I remember growing up in Pittsburgh, and if you went into the barber shop, everyone was talking about baseball. That’s how it is in New York.”
To his critics, then, Howe in effect has this to say: Have your fun, and take your best shots, and let’s get on to the baseball. If you want to crank up the pressure, that’s just fine with him. No one knows just what to expect of the Mets’ Howe era, including Howe himself. It won’t be the strange disarray of last year, and it won’t be the sweet abandon of those young A’s teams, either. That’s why Howe’s grinning now—he can’t wait to find out how this all plays out.
Steve Kettmann covered the Oakland A’s for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1994 to 1998 and has also written on sports for The New York Times, The New Republic, and Salon.com. He edited Game Time, an anthology of Roger Angell’s baseball writing, which will be published this spring by Harcourt.