Up until this season, Frank Howard represented the post-World War II pinnacle for baseball in Washington, D.C.
The man once known as the “Capital Punisher” was the lone star on most of the Senators teams for which he toiled in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before the franchise decamped for Texas. A four-time All-Star while in Washington, the 6-foot-7 outfielder and first baseman was known for his prodigious power, topping out at 48 home runs in 1969 and leading the AL with 44 homers in 1968 and 1970.
He was back in town Thursday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 4 of the NLDS and seemed more eager to talk about what the Nationals have going now than reminisce about his Senators days.
“It’s nice to have ties to the past, but there’s nothing more passé than an old ex-jock,” Howard said. “They’ve created their own identity, which they should. I think it’s fantastic.
“You look at that young power arm (Stephen Strasburg) — and they know what they’re doing when they shut him down; he’s a long-term investment guy. You look at the third baseman (Ryan Zimmerman) — I said five years ago after I saw him for a year or two that if he’s not a franchise player, he’s half a step away. Well, he’s made that half a step in leaps and bounds. A bona-fide superstar, franchise player. The young boy (Bryce Harper), I’ve met, but I’ve never seen him play. But they tell me and I know he’s going to be very special. Anything that he’s done this year is just a bonus; he’s only going to get better. The sky’s the limit with that kind of talent.”
Howard went on to add that he believes Harper’s tools rank him with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline. Hi praise indeed from a contemporary of those slugging outfielders.
Howard experienced only one winning season during his time in D.C. (1965-71), leading the Senators to an 86-76 record in 1969. Even that was only good enough for a fourth-place finish in the AL East in the first season of divisional play. So by the time Howard hung it up as a player after the 1973 season, his only playoff experience came with the Dodgers in their 1963 World Series sweep of the Yankees.
Still, Howard continues to identify closely with Washington.
“I had my best years here,” he said. “[With] the Dodgers, I was a third or fourth outfielder hitting 25 [homers] a year, platoon player. We had tremendous talent. Here, I got a chance to play every day because, with all due respect to the men I played with — hard-nosed, hustling, talented guys — there just wasn’t enough overall depth, talent-wise, to compete against your better ballclubs.”
Who knows what might have happened, he mused, if the Senators had a Tom Seaver or Sandy Koufax at the front of their rotation?
“We might have been playing in the World Series,” he said. “That’s how close you are and how far away you are.”
Whatever happens with the Nationals, Howard is pleased to see winning baseball back in D.C.
“They’ve done a marvelous job here and I’m happy for them,” he said. “I’m happy for the fans. They’ve finally got something to shout about.”