It was a three-hour drive down winding U.S. Route 101 for Roy Howell’s family. They were coming from his hometown of Lompoc, Calif., and heading to Anaheim where Howell would make his big league debut Sept. 9, 1974.
Howell took that fall step minor leaguers — and kids — dream about when he was summoned to the Texas Rangers after winning a Pacific Coast League championship. He’d be digging in from the left side that afternoon against the California Angels. Billy Martin was running things in the dugout. His family was in the stands, sunshine on his face.
They were playing two that day. Howell had two hits in the first game. In the second, he hit his first home run off Angels reliever Ed Figueroa. A gratifying start.
“All the way around, it was a great experience,” Howell said. “You dream about those types of experiences, then it comes true. It’s the greatest thing in the world.”
Starting Thursday, Howell will be part of the dream-accomplishing process for others when he debuts as the Tacoma Rainiers’ manager.
He wasn’t expected to be here at this point. The last two seasons, Howell was the hitting coach for the Single-A High Desert Mavericks. This year, he was slotted to be the hitting coach for the Double-A Jackson Generals. The Mariners had tabbed Rich Donnelly to run the Rainiers following a shakeup with the major league coaching staff.
But, John Stearns — who managed the Rainers last year after Daren Brown was brought up to be third-base coach for the Mariners — chose to resign his position as Mariners third-base coach after surgery for hiatal hernia. Stearns said he had a lot of trouble following the surgery and was physically unable to perform as third-base coach.
So, up went Donnelly. To Tacoma went Howell. Brown had been moved to bunting and baserunning coordinator for the Mariners minor league affiliates following the coaching shakeup at the major league level.
Howell’s path to Tacoma was a more winding one than his family took to his big league debut. He began his coaching career with San Diego in 2000 and spent six seasons coaching at various levels in the Padres minor league system. He managed the San Luis Rattlers in the California Collegiate League from 2007-10 and spent the 2011 season as the manager for the Road Warriors travel team in the Atlantic League, which played 150 road games.
After the Atlantic League season ended, he made it known to major league organizations he was available. The Mariners hired him to be the hitting coach for High Desert.
“It’s great to be back in on the organized side,” Howell said. “That’s what I was trying to accomplish by taking that job in the Atlantic League.”
Howell hasn’t been to Tacoma since 2002. The Rainiers broke minor league camp in Peoria, Ariz., on Tuesday. They open tonight against the Albuquerque Isotopes at 7:05.
There are two particularly interesting cases on the Rainiers.
One is infielder Nick Franklin. After being called up by the Mariners last season, Franklin spent spring training in major league camp battling Brad Miller for the starting shortstop position. He lost.
“When they sent him down, he was out the next day to get to work,” Howell said. “Once you’ve got the taste of playing in the big leagues, obviously there is no other place you want to play.
“He’s going to work on both sides — short, second — we’re going to do everything we can to have him as sharp as possible. If something happens at short or second, he has to be ready. He knows that and has come with that attitude.”
The other is Jesus Montero. He came to spring training overweight following a 50-game suspension for violating baseball’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program in connection with the Biogenesis investigation. Montero, 24 and formerly a catcher, will be learning first base with Tacoma.
“He’s working hard to change positions and get himself back in that area where he was considered one of the top prospects in the game,” Howell said. “He’s still young. The things he’s gone through, you’d think the guy’s about 33, but he’s not. Lot of stuff came his way very quick and he didn’t handle it very well.”
Howell will have a mixed roster. Several players, like Franklin and Montero, will try to get back to the majors after getting a taste. Others will be trying to get there for the first time. Howell will work as facilitator.
“These guys are all a phone call away,” Howell said. “My job is to make sure when that phone does ring, that they’re ready to go and do their job. This is these guys’ opportunity and chance to fulfill a dream, which I got to do.”
If they do get the call?
“Don’t come back,” Howell said. “Go do your job and I hope you don’t come back.”