Dale Howard laughed the other day while discussing an experience common among parents who look back to another school year flying off the calendar. When the end draws near, they invariably think about the beginning and wonder how they arrived, you know, here.
It seems like yesterday when his son, Nick, was packing up his belongings and heading off to the University of Virginia. He’s now down to his final college baseball season, his final tournament, before jumping into another phase of his life after college. Man, it all happened so fast.
Howard and his wife, Paula, flew to Omaha for the College World Series, where Nick will compete for a national championship. Virginia will play Ole Miss this afternoon in the first game of double-elimination bracket play. Nick, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound flame-throwing beast, is the best closer in the country.
“What a way to spend Father’s Day, watching the College World Series,” Dale Howard said. “I wouldn’t be going to the College World Series unless it was my kid playing. It’s been a hell of a ride, man.”
Rides? Dale Howard knows plenty about rides.
Four days after Nick Howard was selected 19th overall by the Reds, he was on the mound getting the final three outs against Maryland to punch Virginia’s ticket to Omaha. The Cavaliers (44-13) are the third-ranked team in the country and the top-ranked team left in the tournament.
For three years, Dale and Paula have driven to every weekend home game. It was a minor chore when they lived in suburban Washington, D.C., about 2 hours from Charlottesville, Va. For the last two seasons, they learned every bump in the road while covering the 8-hour drive from Western New York to UVA.
You may remember the Howard family from West Seneca. Dale and his identical twin, Dennis, were two of the best players in the area. Dennis also was a hard-throwing righty, and Dale was his catcher. They graduated from West Seneca West in 1977, which was some graduating class.
Dennis played for UB, was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays and reached Triple A before he retired. Dale played for Canisius and started a career in sales. Local baseball lifers still argue over who had the stronger arm. Dennis threw 90 mph fastballs to the plate, and Dale threw just as hard back to the mound.
Dennis Hartman was a running back at West who earned a scholarship to Syracuse. Gordy Gronkowski followed him after a scout visiting Hartman found Gronkowski pounding balls over the fence in batting practice. The two struck up a conversation about football, and Father Gronk ended up with a football scholarship.
I’m guessing you heard of Gronkowski, whose five sons earned Division I athletic scholarships. Three played in the NFL. Rob is one of the best tight ends in the league. Glenn is playing for Kansas State. Another tidbit: Hartman is the godfather of Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian.
Is there always a Buffalo connection?
Nick Howard’s parents were high school sweethearts who left the area when his mother, the former Paula Lovelock, landed a job with Estee Lauder. Nick was born in Connecticut and blossomed into a star at St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase, Md., after his mother took a promotion in Washington. St. John’s for years had one of the top prep programs in the country. Nick reported at 6 a.m. every morning for weight training. He stayed late for practice. And he never came close to burning out. The chiseled right-hander was throwing 90 mph as a junior, when his father stopped catching him.
Did I mention that his father was a catcher?
“I tried everything,” Dale Howard said. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I even went out and got new glasses, figuring that was it. That wasn’t it, man. He just threw so hard, and everything just moved. I was still impressed that I could play catch with him. But to catch him as a pitcher? Hell no.”
The Cavaliers couldn’t keep Nick off the field. He worked his way into the starting lineup as a freshman and batted .346 while posting a 3-0 record with a 2.81 ERA as a reliever. In 2013, he batted .323 while playing third base and shortstop and had a 6-4 record with a 3.38 ERA as in 12 starts on the mound.
Howard is one of the best two-way players in the country, but pro scouts project him as a pitcher. He consistently throws in the 93-95 mph range. His curveball and change-up are deadly when combined with a two-seam fastball that tops near 100 mph. He had a 2.05 ERA in 28 appearances this season and set an Atlantic Coast Conference record with 19 saves. He’s two saves from tying the national mark for one season.
“He has worked hard,” his father said. “It was a constant grind for him, but he was so passionate about baseball. We never had to push him anywhere because he wanted to do it. As parents, what do we do? We support our kids. We made a lot of sacrifices. As long as he showed that passion and hard work, it was a no-brainer.”
Dale and Paula Howard moved back to Buffalo for the same reason many people return. They wanted to be near their mothers after their fathers died. Paula left her gig with Estee Lauder. Dale landed a job with Balkan Beverage, a non-alcoholic division of Try-It Distributing.
With their kids grown, it was time to come home. Their other son, Matt, 28, returned to Buffalo with them. “I’ve never found a place as good as Buffalo,” Dale Howard said. “The only reason we moved out of town was the money was better and it was an opportunity for our family. We always missed Buffalo, and we’re glad we’re back. What better way to celebrate this than with my brother and my family.”
Last weekend, with Virginia in the playoffs, the Reds picked Nick in the first round. The junior is expected to leave Virginia after this season and sign with the Reds, who see him as a starter. He’ll be in the same organization as Mark Armstrong, who was taken in the third round last year out of Clarence High. Armstrong, 19, is finding his way in the minors. The Reds will be getting a polished 21-year-old in Howard, whose ability and experience at Virginia could accelerate his ascension to the big leagues. Marco Gonzalez, a lefty picked 19th overall last year, signed a $1.85 million bonus with the Cardinals.
If Howard pitches well enough this summer to earn a chance in Cincinnati, he’ll give his parents a break. Cincinnati is about five hours away. Pittsburgh is three hours. They can drive to Philadelphia and New York in less than seven hours. The Reds play in Cleveland in early August.
“I still can’t believe it’s happened,” Dale Howard said. “It’s just an amazing thing. He has worked so hard. It’s just been a dream come true for all of us. What do you want to see as parents? You want to see your kids in the right direction and succeed as best as possible. The day he was drafted, we all just hugged and couldn’t believe it. But here we are. It’s been a journey.”
You wonder where it will take them next year on Father’s Day.