“Cactus Jack” talks Swallows and Sayonara Homers on “Chatter Up!”
Check out the full transcript of the episode here.
In 1992, Jack Howell became the first gaijin (“foreigner”) to win the Central League MVP in his first season in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). In 1993, he swung for the fences and hit five sayonara “walk-off” home runs and won the Japan Series with the Yakult Swallows. And in 2020, he added another accomplishment to his list of accolades: certified “Chatter Up!” guest.
Howell, called “Cactus Jack” by his Major League Baseball (MLB) teammates for his upbringing in Tucson, Arizona, joined JapanBallers on Sep 10 to discuss his legendary campaigns for the Swallows. Howell went unselected in the 1983 MLB draft, but the then-California Angels signed him to a contract as an amateur free agent. He quickly shot through the Angels system and made his MLB debut in 1985. He started for the team from 1987 to 1989 before being traded in 1991 to the Padres. When the season ended and Howell was weighing his options as a free agent, he said he received a call that would change his life forever:
“Towards the end of the season, we’re playing the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium and I get a call from a guy that says, ‘Hey, man, I know [that] you’ve been traded, it’s your free agent season. Have you ever thought about playing in Japan?’” said Howell. “I said, ‘No, I didn’t even know they played baseball in Japan.’ I was pretty illiterate when it came to that… I said, ‘Man, you know, it’s my free agent year. I’d like to sign a nice deal with somebody and continue on here.’ And he said, ‘Well, what if I could get you a million dollars?’ And I said, ‘Where do I sign?’”
Howell would sign with the Swallows, and arrived for spring training in Yuma, Arizona in February 1992. Although he mentioned griping at the idea of practicing in February when the season didn’t begin until April, Howell actually fully bought into the Japanese system. He practiced alongside his teammates for the entirety of their notoriously grueling spring training regiment, something he says attributed to his success with the team later that year:
“I think the thing that really helped me and I didn’t have a lot of advice from people, but they said, ‘Just get to understand the culture, get to know the players, you know, engage yourself and engross yourself…’ I think it really helped me because, you know, we’re out at six in the morning doing running and working out and I’m right along with him. I think a lot of them were shocked that I was out there but I just immediately…joined in and became part of the team and through that I think maybe I got some credibility early on.”
Howell also mentioned how other gaijin criticized the practices and didn’t last very long in NPB, saying how their mentality and failure to adapt is a key reason why they didn’t succeed like he did. He had every right to boast, as he became the first gaijin to win the Central League MVP award in his first season and led the Swallows to a pennant. Howell, however, was not satisfied with the result, and says he believes his most important season was the championship-winning one that followed:
“I think when I went to Japan in the ‘92 second-half season, people probably know this, but in ‘92, in those playoffs I was horrible for being an MVP,” said Howell. “The Lions served nothing but fastballs and just came at me hard and I think I still have the record for the most strikeouts in the Japan Series, so there was a little embarrassment for ending the season that way… I want[ed] to get back to the series and, and kind of prove things wrong. So, I think that was kind of my overall goal… Like I said, the numbers weren’t as big but definitely the word you used was clutch, I definitely really picked us up in the clutch and I think that got us over the hump and got us back into the playoffs.”
Howell’s mentality and ambition to succeed in the major leagues has been a common proponent through all his baseball jobs. After finishing his playing career, he served as the hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and was on pace to begin his third season as the manager of the Burlington Bees, the Angels’ Single A affiliate, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Through it all, Howell said the thing he looks for in players, regardless if they’re superstars or undrafted hopefuls, is attitude and a fighting spirit:
“I definitely feel the reason I’ve stuck around this long in player development is because of that extra intangible that maybe I give, that non-drafted player that just found a way,” said Howell. “I think that’s the thing that I can share with players and player development is that once you become a pro, whether you’re a number one pick or a non-drafted player, it’s time to get to work and figure this thing out… There’s been many guys that have hit .340 and never moved up, and there’s guys that have hit .200 moved up through the system so you know, we even as player development folks see deeper into just the stats all the time. It’s more the process and the way you play your game and in the way you use your mental approach, and are you a team player, there’s a lot of intangibles that go to grading out a player as we move them up through the system.”
“Cactus Jack” also took the time to tell the audience his mentality for getting out of a slump, his relationship with legendary Swallows manager Katsuya Nomura, and his opinions of MLB possibly contracting the minor leagues. If you’d like to hear more about these topics, check out the full transcript here on our Japanese baseball blog. You can also listen to the full discussion on our YouTube channel.
With his hard-working demeanor and ambition to succeed in any environment, Jack Howell was one of the most valuable guests on “Chatter Up!”
For more information about Jack Howell, you can check out his website linked here. You can also check out fellow “Chatter Up!” guest Rob Fitts’ book, “Remembering Japanese Baseball.”