Howard wants to know where he is wanted

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Pending further progress at the bargaining table, Thomas Howard remains an indentured outfielder of the Cincinnati Reds. You might want to get in your goodbyes, though, just in case.

Howard is one of those ballplayers whose future depends on negotiating the past. If baseball's owners agree to grant the players service time lost in the 1994 strike in order to arrive at a new contract, Howard will become a free agent at season's end. Without the additional days, he would be bound to the Reds through 1997.

Either way, Howard figures to make a nice buck next year. But he much prefers the freedom to pick his employer.

''If that happens, that doesn't mean I won't be here,'' Howard said before Friday's doubleheader against the San Francisco Giants. ''It just means you get a little more say-so. I would be able to go out there and play every day. I won't have to share time with three other outfielders.

''When you're a free agent, you have a little more leverage.''

Howard has made more than 600 plate appearances as a Reds semi-regular over the last two seasons, but he has yet to find a place he could really call his own. During one revealing stretch last month, Howard made Ray Knight's starting lineup 11 straight days, but was never assigned to the same outfield position two days in a row.

Very conditional P.T.

His role, in essence, has been to serve as principal backup in an outfield of unusually brittle bodies. Howard played his part well enough last year that the Reds were emboldened to trade Deion Sanders in mid-season, but his performance has yet to mean a promotion. Though he ranks third in the National League with nine triples, Howard's playing time is still largely predicated on the health of other players.

Howard will never grow rusty as a reserve for Reggie Sanders and Eric Davis and Kevin Mitchell, but this is not how he would want to be remembered. Scratch any understudy and you will find an aspiring star.

At 31, it's unlikely Howard will ever become a bona fide regular. He is a switch hitter of sub-standard power who also lacks spectacular speed. He's a career .270 singles hitter whose position places a premium on offense. Probably, he has already found his niche in big-league baseball.

Yet with another round of expansion on deck, and players increasingly prone to nurse minor injuries on the disabled list, a durable player with proven skills is something of a commodity. The Reds are paying Howard $675,000 this season, and he might command a seven-figure salary as a free agent.

''He's a warrior,'' Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said. ''He's a gamer. Any situation, any pitcher, he wants to be at the plate. You like having guys like that.''

Getting some respect

Because Bowden's budget is not as boundless as his enthusiasm, he has thus far held only ''preliminary'' discussions with Howard's agent, Eric Goldschmidt. Until the service time issue is resolved, their talks will be pretty pointless.

''There's no way you can come to any type of agreement right now,'' Howard said. ''It wouldn't be fair to him (Bowden) and it wouldn't be fair to me.''

A ballplayer only has so many opportunities to sell his services on the open market, and Thomas Howard has been waiting for this chance since he broke in with San Diego in 1990. Like any player with more ambition than opportunity, he is consumed with curiosity. He yearns to know who really wants him, and how much.

''I've played enough to find out what my value is in this game,'' Howard said. ''I think a lot of players knew I could play, but I don't know if the management or the managers believed it.''

Howard sensed he was starting to get noticed when infielders began crowding in against the bunt and left fielders started shading the line. This told him he was being seriously scouted, and no longer dismissed as some generic hitter.

''Last year, pitchers would come right at me,'' he said. ''Now they try to get me swinging at something in the dirt.

In a way, it's a sign of respect.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 7, 1996.