Looking For His Pitch

With a name like his, in a town like New York, why isn't Mets slugger Howard Johnson a commercial smash hit?
April 05, 1992

It is easy to confuse Howard Johnson's for Howard Johnson, the hotel for the man, HoJo's for the Hojo sapiens. What is blue and orange and keeps a Bible tucked away? The hotel or the Mets centerfielder, either answer is acceptable.

How is it possible, then, when the match seems so match, that Howard Johnson does not endorse Howard Johnson's? "They've never asked me to," says the HoJo who led the National League in home runs and RBIs last season. "I'd love to do something with them. The other day I saw a sign for a HoJo Inn. It was a Howard Johnson's, but the sign said 'HoJo Inn.' Perfect."

If only he played in New York, the media capital, then things would be.... He does, you say? He is the best player in the five boroughs? Among active Mets and Yankees, only Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Don Mattingly have played in New York longer than HoJo's seven continuous years? And even his nickname—the tabloid-friendly HoJo—sounds like a trendy New York neighborhood?

Then how can it be that he wears Nikes, but that Nike doesn't tell us what Ho knows? Or that while there's a Howard Johnson's in Times Square, this ballplayer isn't—never will be—Broadway Jo?

"When Howard first signed with Detroit, I told him if he ever made it big, he would have to do something with Howard Johnson's," says Johnson's father, Bill. "It wouldn't be like they were signing Bo Jackson. It wouldn't take a lot of money. I can't speak for Howard, but I think he would do it as a lark. But they never called. My gosh, you'd think Ramada Inn would call, just so they could say, 'Howard Johnson stays at Ramada.' "

Hello Muddah. Hello Fadduh. Hello HoJo's. Yo, Ramada: Realize it or not, the 31-year-old Johnson has long been something to write home about. As hotel desk clerks like to say to each other, will you check him out? Since he became an every-day player in 1987, the switch-hitting HoJo has averaged 31 home runs and 95 RBIs a season. Tightly wrapped at 5'10"—"I'm not a monster," he concedes—Johnson went for 38 homers and 117 RBIs last season, and played in the All-Star Game for the second time in his 10-year career. He also became the second player in history to achieve three 30-homer, 30-steal seasons. "There's no reason I can't do it again," HoJo says sincerely about his numbers last season. "But I never thought I'd lead the league in any category."

He is not alone. "I had no idea in my wildest dreams, I'm not that smart, to know that he was going to hit at this pace," says Sparky Anderson, the syntactically serpentine manager of the Detroit Tigers. HoJo played for the Sparkman for three seasons before being traded to the Mets, for pitcher Walt Terrell, on Dec. 7, 1984. Now his ex-manager numbers Johnson among the top 10 players in baseball.

Anderson may have thought HoJo was "too nervous" to play in the '84 postseason, in which Johnson batted only once, but he did HoJo's reputation no favor by saying so. Johnson, for his part, chose to hold his tongue, instead of a grudge, when he was shipped to Shea shortly thereafter. There was no vacancy in the Mets lineup until two years later, when Ray Knight's departure allowed the previously platooning Johnson to play every day at third. He responded with a .265 average, 36 home runs, 99 RBIs and 32 steals, and now you couldn't remove HoJo with a backhoe.

"Howard has never run his mouth off," Anderson says now. "He might not get the attention from the public, but he gets a lot of attention from baseball people. He gets my attention. Whenever they put it up on our scoreboard that Johnson has hit another home run, I say to myself, Oh, my god."

HoJo's serial-error adventures afield have occasionally elicited the same reaction from Mets fans. He committed a league-leading 31 errors last season, three more Es than there are ice-cream flavors at HoJo restaurants. "The Mets will have 21 giveaway dates this season," New York-based Spy magazine reported last spring, "not counting games Howard Johnson starts at third base."

"I'm not the best defensive player in the world," says Johnson. "I'm not the worst, either. My dad always told me, 'If you hit, they'll find a place for you in the field.' But I know I make my living driving in runs."

It hasn't helped that while he has served as proprietor of the Runs Batted Inn, Howard Johnson has never really had a home away from home plate. Last season he commuted, without complaint, from third base to shortstop to rightfield. When new Mets manager Jeff Torborg asked Johnson over the winter if he wouldn't mind making yet another move, HoJo might as well have been John Fogerty—"Look at me/ I can be/Centerfield"—so enthusiastic was his response. "I'm certain," said Johnson, "that this will work."

Torborg was a bit uneasy with Hojo in center during spring training, saying, "He hasn't shown the instincts yet," but he's certainly impressed with his work habits. "My biggest concern is that Howard's working too hard out there. I've had to give him a couple of days off so he doesn't wear himself out."

That is typical. Even Johnson's "problems" are productive, his "vices" virtuous. Johnson is a slave to his insatiable thirst for instant iced tea, which he shovels from a personal clubhouse canister the size of a grain silo. "It's really annoying," his wife, Kim, says of Howard's two-gallon-a-day habit. "I think it's a real problem."

"I drink a lot of Lipton's," HoJo confesses, slaking his thirst and smacking his lips. Lipton's. It is yet another pitch the slugger has missed. Which brings us back to our original question, the one too intriguing to ignore for long: When an All-Star named Howard Johnson offers to endorse a hotel chain, practically pro bono, how could hoteliers turn him down like hotel bedding at bedtime?

"You don't read about Howard getting drunk, or fathering illegitimate children," his father was saying a few weeks ago, just 24 hours before it was revealed that three Mets players had been accused of rape. "Give me a break!"

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Mets pitcher David Cone says of HoJo's snubbing by HoJo's et al. "I think it's testimony to the fact that he is not a vocal guy. That's something that has probably helped him to survive in New York. We've had enough vocal guys here in the past."

"I'm very surprised I've lasted here," admits HoJo. "New York is a tough place to play. I never thought I'd be here longer than Strawberry, Hernandez, Carter...."

Interesting, Hoj, but we digress. Back to our burning question, if we may: Cone and HoJo. How obvious is this ad campaign? How conspicuous is its absence from the airwaves? Hel-lo HoJo's, is there anybody home in your marketing department? Please note that as a child in Clearwater, Fla., Johnson really did receive a free ice-cream cone after church each Sunday at the HoJo's on Clearwater Beach, simply because of his name. (That's a 30-second spot right there.) Howard Michael Johnson was named, by the way, for his grandfather, Charles Howard Densmore. "People sometimes ask," HoJo's father admits, " 'Gosh, how could you name him that?' "

"I took my share of abuse for it," Johnson says. "But I guess it makes me unique." His was an otherwise idyllic childhood on Tangerine Street, with the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training field as his sandlot. In fact, it is a perverse tribute to his tight and traditional upbringing that young Howard never even had cause to fix a meal for himself until he was a teenager, turned loose from his home for a Babe Ruth baseball tournament on the other side of the state. Assigned to stay with an eccentric octogenarian, "Uncle Sherm" in Fort Pierce, Howard fired up a TV dinner one night on a stove-top burner—while the dinner was still in its package. Who knew? Mercifully, the future first-round draft pick somehow remained the only house afire on that road trip, but it was close.

Homeowner HoJo has since been domesticated. Kim has assigned him the tasks of paying the bills and balancing the checkbook. In exchange, she occasionally inspires a Mets win, as she did last July 12 in New York. The Mets and the San Diego Padres were tied in the ninth inning at Shea that night. New York had a runner on second, Kevin McReynolds striding to the plate and HoJo entering the on-deck circle. That's when word came from equipment manager Charlie Samuels that Kim was about to give birth in a Long Island hospital to the Johnsons' third child.

"I have to get going," HoJo told McReynolds. "You gotta win the game, dude."

McReynolds graciously singled in the go-ahead run, and Johnson ran for the parking lot. His car was ushered onto the Long Island Expressway by a police escort fortified with Mets fans who heard the events unfold on their car radios and who abandoned their vehicles in Shea's parking lot to help direct HoJo through traffic. He arrived at the hospital 20 minutes before his daughter Kayla was born. Who says New Yorkers are rude? "Not me," says HoJo.

Sure, they booed him at a Knicks game after Johnson went 1 for 18 in the 1988 National League playoffs. True, through the magic of call-in radio, he could hear himself or his team disparaged at any hour of the day in New York, until he stopped listening last season. But, he says, "my relationship with the fans is good. They know I'll be out there every day, getting my uniform dirty. They don't see me loafin' or Cadillacin'. I think I've earned the respect of the working man who pays good money to see a ball game."

As for the rest? HoJo will tell you he made the only endorsement that really matters to him on Halloween of 1990, when he dedicated himself to God, accepting the invitation of a cerebral palsy-afflicted evangelist on a videotape he had been watching. "Since then, nothing else seems so urgent," Johnson says earnestly, though not in any heavy-handed way. At the ballpark his religious beliefs are like hotel Bibles—they come out only if a visitor is interested.

And, remarkably, as we have noted, visitors to Johnson's locker need not take a number. "It's strange," says Kim, "but it's always been that way. He's always been under-publicized, under-writ-ten-about, considering his stats, considering that he's broken records. It used to really bother us. We've accepted it now. There are reasons for everything. The Lord is keeping him humble."

His wife, his life, religion. Howard Johnson has found a lot of things without necessarily looking for them. He found Kim while shopping for a car at a dealership in Detroit. He found new life in his career through a trade on Pearl Harbor Day. He found the Lord on the devils' night. So why should he need a searchlight to find the spotlight?

PHOTORONALD C. MODRA TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAFast feet and a quick bat made Johnson the second three-time 30-30 man in history. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWith a workingman's approach, HoJo has earned the fans' respect.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)