December 3, 2023

DC Loves the Long Ball

June 25, 2021 by · Leave a Comment 

Gather round children and I will tell you tales of Frank Howard, of how the “Capital Punisher,” could hit a baseball to the moon and back. It was the late 1960’s and the Washington Senators remained perennial cellar dwellers as they had been since the Great Depression. But a giant of a man named Frank Howard came to town and finally gave DC baseball fans something to cheer about. He stood six-foot seven and weighed 255 pounds, huge by the standards of the day, and enough to start at center for the Ohio State Buckeyes basketball team.

His home runs–reaching 500 feet in length–were among the longest hit before players began juicing the figures. Seats in the far reaches of the upper deck of old RFK Stadium, were painted white to mark the longest swats. But it was his singular record, one that still stands, for which he will be remembered. On May 12, 1968, Howard hit a home run off Mickey Lolich and on May 18, he would hit two more off Lolich to give him ten home runs in seven days, twenty memorable at bats. The feat is still celebrated in DC, as is Frank Howard.

DC has a new long ball king, named Kyle Schwarber, one who might remind DC fans with long memories of Hondo Howard. Because of his size, Schwarber was recruited out of high school to play middle linebacker. Like Howard, he is a mid-westerner, one who earned prodigy status playing college ball for the University of Indiana where he hit 18 home runs in his final season to lead the Hoosiers to the College World Series. He was the fourth amateur drafted in 2014, by the Chicago Cubs, and Baseball America noted his “tremendous strength,” in their scouting reports.

But unlike Howard, Kyle Schwarber was nearly as good in the professional game as he had been in college. He was called up to the Majors mid-way through his first full season in the minor leagues. For the rest of that season, Schwarber punished the ball, hitting 16 home runs in 232 at bats in Chicago. The future looked extremely bright. But the next year, in the third game of the season–seventh inning, Schwarber was running full tilt near the left centerfield wall. He had his arm extended, eyes focused only on the fly ball he was tracking. Dexter Fowler, playing centerfield, tried to avoid the larger man and ducked beneath Schwarber, unfortunately hitting him in the right knee.

The ugly injury tore two ligaments in his knee and required season ending surgery. When he returned in 2017, he could still hit the long ball, managing 30 in 422 at bats. But his batting average fell off precipitously to .211. The next year he struggled even more. Yet in 2019, he had his best year in a Major League uniform, with 38 big flies and a .250/.339/.531 slash line. Then the pandemic struck and Schwarber could hit nothing and the Cubs finally closed the curtain on its once and future star.

That decision harkens back to that of the Dodgers, who, after the 1964 season, gave up on Frank Howard. They traded him to the Senators along with Ken McMullen, Pete Richert, and Phil Ortega, for Claude Osteen and John Kennedy. No bottom feeding franchise has ever reaped so handsome a reward.

DC fans may regard the signing of Schwarder–at the urging of manager Davey Martinez, formerly bench coach for the Cubs–as another of the great steals in the history of baseball in Washington. Since he signed for $7 million in the off-season, Schwarber has been been one of the brightest stars burning at Nationals Park. But what has sparked the comparisons to Frank Howard is his home run output over the course of the past thirteen games, during which Schwarber has hit twelve long balls. He now has 21 home runs over 237 at bats.

Twelve home runs in thirteen games is a less dramatic pace than that managed by Frank Howard in 1968. But the “Washington Monument,” another of Howard’s many nicknames, took several seasons in DC before he truly found himself in 1967. In that season, all the fabled potential that many had seen began to blossom. But Howard was by then 30 years old. He hit 36 home runs that season, and 4f the next, to lead the American League. His best season was 1969 when he hit 48 homeruns, and slashed .274/.338/552.

Kyle Schwarber is still only 28 years old. He may hit more than 40 home runs this season, and like Howard, may just be reaching his much vaunted potential as a player. The nice thing about Schwarber is that he is more graceful in the field than Frank Howard. Rumored to be a defensive liability, number 12 has shown that he can track the ball with the best of them, though he lacks sprinter speed. And he has the arm of a former catcher, and a much more potent lineup in which to hit. Schwarber and Josh Bell were brought to DC by Mike Rizzo to make opposing pitchers throw strikes to Juan Soto, rather than pitch around him. There is more than one slugger in DC and pitching around all of them seems impossible.

All that remains is for the Nationals to sign Schwarber long term. His contract for 2022 is uncertain, but once Max Scherzer’s $35 million contract comes off the books at year’s end, there may be room to bring this era’s Frank Howard back to DC to stay. Schwarber bears little resemblance to Bryce Harper, is not represented by Scott Boras and will probably sign for far less than $300 million.

And that is a good thing. But it is nothing to compare to the idea of watching Kyle Schwarber clouting the ball into the right field stands at Nationals Park, at least until the end of this decade.


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