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A New York State of Mind

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, FLA. — Kevin Howard always wanted to be in the big leagues.

Howard’s dream became reality on May 3rd, as the former Miami baseball star was named assistant hitting coach of the New York Mets.

The move was somewhat surprising, as Howard joined the organization in January as the Mets’ Executive Director of Player Development. But the shift from the front office to the dugout allows Howard to return to having a direct impact on players and now he gets to do it at the highest level.

“I think you always miss that hands-on role,” Howard told in February. “I compare it to a teacher that becomes a principal. When you’re a teacher, you really cherish those relationships with those students and you’ll never not want to do that. I think that when you transition into a principal, your relationships are more with the teachers and organizational culture and I think ultimately you justify it because you impact more people that way. But you definitely miss those relationships with those students just like I’ll definitely miss the relationships I had with individual players and that’s never going to go away.”

Howard arrived in Flushing, N.Y., after spending the previous six seasons in Cleveland’s organization, including 2019-2020 as the minor league hitting coordinator. Rising from a hitting coach in Single-A to the coordinator overseeing all hitting at the minor league level, Howard got to know the inner workings of the Indians organization and that made him an attractive candidate to be the Mets’ farm director.

“I think it came about because the Indians are such a great organization,” Howard said. “When you have a team that is constantly winning and has one of the best records over the last six or seven years, other teams look into their culture and look into their people and want to know what they’re doing. So, I think that’s where it started. I think they wanted to understand what was going on in the Indians’ culture and ask on their people and I think that’s how they came upon my name.”

A proud Hurricane, Howard played at Miami from 2000-2002. He was named Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year in 2000 and helped the Canes win the 2001 national championship before he signed as a fifth-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2002. His time in Coral Gables helped shaped Howard in the baseball player he was and the man he is today.

“It impacted me a great deal, to the point where I brought it up on the interview,” Howard said. “Jim Morris, he’s an amazing individual. The way he teaches how to practice, the way he prepares as a coach, the way he prepares his team, I drew so much out of that experience learning from him, learning from my other teammates. If you look down the list, Greg Lovelady is a Division I college coach, Mark Kingston, who was our volunteer, is a Division I college coach, Gino DiMare now is promoted into the head coach role and I could go down the list of probably seven or eight individuals who are now coaching. There was a winning culture there when I was there; winning was expected and people knew how to prepare to play to win, and that rubbed off on me a great deal. I learned so much in my time there and I don’t think I’d be where I was today if it weren’t for my experiences at Miami.”

A California native, Howard’s path to Miami was a unique one. He had never heard from anyone at The U, but a coach put in a good word with the Hurricanes’ head coach and The U jumped on his radar.

“I played on a USA team when I was 16 and the head coach happened to know Jim Morris. So Jim Morris called me one day out of the blue and he wanted me to take a trip there and the rest is history,” Howard said. “I think it was strictly off word of mouth, to be honest, how I got to Miami. I didn’t know what to think as a 16, 17-year-old kid from Southern California, but the thing that struck me as most impactful when I went to go visit there was how much everybody cared about baseball and how much everybody cared about the University of Miami baseball. Until that point, I had never experienced a college program like that. It was so important to the people the city. It was so important to the coaches and the players that were there to win, to build something that was special and I wanted to be a part of it. So, it was really an easy sell for me.”

Once he arrived in Coral Gables, he quickly learned what being a Hurricane meant.

“When I came to Miami, I heard the stories of Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Bobby Hill and Jason Michaels and it’s almost like it’s surreal, almost like it’s a myth,” Howard said. “And then when you put on the uniform and you get in the game and you actually do something that helps contribute to a win, you feel part of those guys and you feel part of the group. Once you actually start producing in games and contributing to wins and people are congratulating you and thanking you for what you’re doing, you start to feel part of that family. It’s an incredible feeling because it lasts forever.”

Being a part of the Canes baseball family is something Howard cherishes. Whether it is former teammates like Marcus Nettles, Mike Rodriguez, Charlton Jimerson and Paco and Danny Figueroa, or players he never played with like Jon Jay and Ryan Braun, Howard connects with Canes from all eras.

“It’s such a family. It’s such a unique situation that people don’t understand,” Howard said. “When you go to University of Miami you’re part of like a club. Whether you played there together or not, you’re always part of that club and you always feel connected to those guys. Whenever I meet a guy from Miami, I feel a certain type of relationship with that guy that I wouldn’t feel with somebody else.”

While there were numerous individual accolades, Howard’s favorite memory as a Hurricane was winning the national title in 2001.

“One thing I’ll say about that World Series team, we didn’t have the superstars of maybe some other teams that have come through Miami, but we had a group that was willing to put in the effort to do what it took to win,” Howard said. “And that’s the best team I’ve ever seen practice. The attention to detail, the effort towards things that normally college kids don’t want to do, whether it’s double cuts or rundowns or first and third plays or bunting, we actually took that stuff seriously because we knew it was important. And that’s a credit to the coaches for being able to get young kids that age to buy into little stuff that will help you win baseball games. It’s not easy to do. I think after that series, we had a group of guys that committed to all those little things to practice with intent and practice with focus in order to keep getting better throughout the season.”

Howard, who was a professional player for 12 seasons following his Miami career, initially had no inclination of getting into coaching professionally.

“I didn’t even really see myself getting into pro baseball at first,” Howard said. “I wanted to affect people on a large scale as much as I could. I played for a long time and the people that affected my career, it meant so much to me, it did so much for me and I would never forget it. I wanted it to be that guy for those players. So, I thought about doing it in the private sector first, just because the guys when I was a player that were affecting players the most were in the private sector. The game has changed. When I was approached by Cleveland, the way they approached me and the things that they were talking about, it was impactful. I saw the vision that I could impact players and I think the same thing with this job. When they started talking about the role that they want me to play, I saw myself as being able to impact more individuals than the role I was in and ultimately that was the reason for me making the decision I made.”

After rising through the Cleveland organization, Howard embarked on a new challenge helping remold the Mets’ organizational philosophies on player development. Taking what he learned with Cleveland, Howard began applying that knowledge with the Mets.

“I think it’s more the entire culture and the basis for why they do what they do,” Howard said. “What I mean by that is they make decisions based on research and evidence. They value relationships. They value communication. And they create an environment where people can talk with each other and disagree with each other and communicate honestly. I think what comes out of that honest communication is what’s best for the player and that’s what’s most important. That’s what we’re searching for.”

As a newcomer to the Mets organization, Howard knew he would need to begin establishing connections with the colleagues immediately. The same premise holds true in his new role as assistant hitting coach.

“I think the biggest challenge is really just getting to know the people and having a relationship with those people,” Howard said. “I don’t think there’s pressure on me here to learn the culture, or understand the culture, understand what happened before me, simply just because there’s so many new people. The culture is going to change. What happened before is going to change. So, I think there’s more pressure on building a relationship with the coaches and the leadership group that’s already here. And then there’s pressure to establish where we’re going to go moving forward and getting everybody together and making sure they’re on that same page.”

Howard, as well as new Mets hitting coach Hugh Quattlebaum, have had to hit the ground running after taking over as the hitting coaches one month into the 2021 season.

“There has to be a sense of urgency for me and Hugh to put in a bit of extra work to get caught up,” Howard said. “It’s something we can overcome just by putting in more time. But I’m not as familiar with everyone’s swing as I want to be. That’s going to take me doing some extra work, watching video, and having conversations with these guys on the journey of their swing and where they are right now.

“It’s not going to be an easy thing, but we’re going to get there sooner or later.”

There are two main emphases in Howard’s plan as he begins his first big league coaching opportunity.

“The first is set an environment where these guys are getting good work every day, try to think of creative ways to help these guys,” he said. “Make the practices as game-like as possible and prepare them as best as possible.

“The other is to prepare them to compete in the game. That means giving them a tailored approach toward that individual to prepare them for that pitcher that night.”

Howard admits he was not always a coachable player and he tries to use his past experiences to connect with players who might not be the most receptive to instruction.

“I didn’t like when people told me that I was wrong. I didn’t have an open mind to things that maybe I could get better at,” Howard said. “I was willing to work hard. I wanted to get to the Major Leagues so bad. I was willing to do whatever I could, but some of the stuff that I try to instill in our players is having a growth mindset and I did not have a growth mindset. I had a fixed mindset and I didn’t want to listen. I didn’t want people to tell me anything because I took it personally. If I could go back, that’s definitely something I would change and I think that would have made a major impact on how much I could have improved.”

Mets interim general manager Zack Scott is confident Howard and Quattlebaum will make a big difference for the club because of their hitting knowledge and, more importantly, their ability to connect with players.

“They were around in spring training. They have some relationships already with some of the players,” Scott said. “They’re both good relationship builders. They both see hitting mechanics very well. They prepare very well, they work really hard. I think that the two of them complement each other well and will bring a lot to the table.”