(Updated with Howard's response) The one where George Brett argues David Howard was a better athlete than Bo Jackson
The Kansas City Star
SURPRISE, Ariz. — About an hour ago, George Brett said some of the most stunning words I’ve ever heard:
David Howard was the best athlete I ever played with. Better than Bo Jackson.
I’m a terrible poker player, so George saw the look of astonishment on my face. Later, I would Tweet about this comment and mention I wasn’t sure whether to blog about it or stick my head in an oven.
A disturbing number of you suggested “oven,” but at least for now I’m going to stay here.
First, some context. Howard’s name came up in a conversation about Elliot Johnson, who came from Tampa to complete the James Shields trade. Johnson is a terrific athlete, a 42-inch vertical leap and experience at every position in the big leagues besides pitcher and catcher. George said Johnson reminded him of David Howard and, well, I’ll let George take it away here:
“David Howard, if you put him at third, he would’ve been the best defensive third baseman on the field. If you put him at short, he’s the best shortstop. If you put him at left field, he was our best defensive left fielder. He was our best defensive player. But he couldn’t hit. This guy (Johnson), reminds me a lot of him. He plays first, he plays left, he plays short, he plays third, and he’s good at all of them. But this guy can hit.
“Reminds me of David Howard, and I’ve always said David Howard was the best athlete I ever played with. He’s better than Bo Jackson. Better athlete. Better athlete. You put him and Bo on the basketball court, Bo wouldn’t score a point. But he’d get all the rebounds and stuff.”
OK, so this is the point where I’m looking at George like he’s just sprouted another head. Bo Jackson was the athlete of my youth, not only my all-time favorite but the one I probably know more about than any other. So I know that Bo never played much basketball, didn’t really like the sport.
So I ask George who’d win a decathlon, Bo or Howard.
“Decathlon? Like, the strength and speed stuff? I’m talking golf, tennis, swimming, diving, ping-pong, all that stuff. David Howard was unbelievable. The year of the strike, in ‘94, he hadn’t played tennis since high school and he went out and won a tournament in Kansas City, in the open division. He hadn’t played since high school. He had to find something to do so he went out and won a (freaking) tournament.”
I see where George is heading with this. He’s talking hand-eye coordination stuff. Games of skill rather than what most of us would think of as natural athletic ability. I have a friend like this. Ridiculous at pool, ping-pong, darts, even stuff like pickle ball and badminton (I was in a net sports class with him in high school). You probably have a friend like this, too.
Neither one of us have a friend like Bo, so to try to drive the point home I ask George if David Howard could’ve played running back. His answer made me smile.
“No. God, no. No, no, no. No.”
Damn straight. But I do understand George’s point. He’s talking about a different kind of athleticism. What David Howard does is not what I think of when I hear “athleticism,” but you see where George is coming from and, well, a Hall of Fame athlete is certainly entitled to his own definition of athlete.
“Bo could play football and baseball and hunt,” George said. “But you put Bo Jackson and David Howard on a golf course. And Bo loves golf. But Howard’s like a plus handicap. He’s unbelievable.”
UPDATE: David Howard returned a phone call from Florida, where he now works as a minor league coordinator for the Red Sox. He was, as you can imagine, pumped.
George Brett has always talked about Howard’s athleticism, but at least to Howard’s knowledge, this is the first time George has gone full monty and said Howard was a better athlete than Bo.
“I’ve never heard that comparison, no,” Howard said. “A friend of mine sent me that link, so I was showing it to some of my coaches here, like, ‘Look.’ I went inside and I printed some copies off and I was handling it to guys, ‘Hey, if you need something to read.’ They couldn’t believe it. Most of the guys said they’d use it as toilet paper.”
I asked Howard if he considered himself a better athlete than Bo, and this brings up a few stories of the first time he was around Bo. It was spring training, 1988, when Bo was at the height of his powers. They were doing a rundown drill, and as it happened, the fielders were Howard and Brett. The runner was Bo. George had the ball, and Howard calls for it at the typical moment. George throws it immediately, perfect timing, the kind of thing where Howard would normally just catch and tag. But now Bo has turned directions.
“I realized right away, I had zero percent chance of running him down,” Howard said. “I had no chance. I just threw the ball back to George.”
Then they went for batting practice, and in the Royals’ complex at the time there was a building behind the right field wall. It was a pretty good shot to reach that building.
“Well, Bo is hitting them on top of that building — and it’s opposite field,” Howard said. “He didn’t even know where he was hitting them.”
Anyway, Howard was a terrific athlete. A multi-sport star in high school, a tennis champion, a 6-foot-8 high jumper, on and on.
But when a Hall of Famer calls him a better athlete than Bo, well…
“I will definitely keep that blog the rest of my life, pinned up in my house,” Howard said.