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Hit and Run

Scouts Say Kevin Howard Should Protect a Potential Million-Dollar Future in Baseball by Giving Up Football. But the Westlake High Junior is Having Too Much Fun Scoring Touchdowns to Become a One-Sport Star

September 25, 1997|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — What in the name of Ken Griffey Jr. is Kevin Howard doing wearing shoulder pads?

Baseball scouts are calling it the $1 million question.

That's the kind of money they say the Westlake High junior with the Griffey-like, left-handed stroke could get as a signing bonus after his senior year.

Unless he picks up a Festus-like limp from a crack-back block.

There's a reason a doctor and an ambulance are at every high school football field on game night. Serious injuries happen.

And Howard has more at stake than most. But what 16-year-old can resist risking his neck for great fun?

Playing free safety and wide receiver is fun. Scoring touchdowns as Howard did the past two weeks on a reception and an interception return is fun. Playing Hart tonight in a game televised on Fox Sports West 2 will be fun.

"I'm only going to get one chance to play high school football," he said. "I love it. I don't want to be kicking myself forever for not playing."

But he will kick himself even harder if an injury keeps him from playing professional baseball. That is if he can kick anything.

"We're talking about him being a millionaire, about his future, not about having fun," said Dennis Lieberthal, a scout for the Detroit Tigers. "If he stays healthy and improves just the normal amount through maturation, he can be a first-round draft pick. That sounds like fun."

Among the scouts to make pitches to Howard, Lieberthal might be closest to the infielder's ear. Lieberthal's son, Mike, is the Philadelphia Phillies' catcher and a Westlake High product who is a friend of Howard's brother, Sean.

While waiting for Mike outside the visitor's clubhouse at Dodger Stadium after a game this summer with the Howard brothers, Dennis did his best to convince Kevin to spend the fall hitting hardballs.

Mike emerged from the clubhouse, shook hands all around, and asked Kevin: "Are you going to play in the NFL some day?"

Howard: "Uh, no."

"What's wrong with you?," Lieberthal said. "You don't give up a lifetime for one or two years of fun."

Howard stood his ground, but he understands the Lieberthals are only looking out for his best interest. In fact, he's flattered. Were he not such a hot baseball prospect, no one would care.

How good is he?

Sparky Anderson, who managed Cincinnati and Detroit to World Series titles, predicted great things for Howard after watching him help the Thousand Oaks Little League 13-year-old team win a world championship in 1993.

Howard has traveled the globe playing ball, most recently touring Taiwan with the Junior National Team in August. Closer to home, he batted .512 with six home runs and 36 runs batted in as Westlake's sophomore third baseman.

"I think he will be a very high profile prospect," said Gil Kubski, a scout for the Baltimore Orioles. "At the Area Code games last summer, he showed he belongs. He has very good hands and he will hit. He definitely has a future in pro ball."

Yet Kubski is in the minority of scouts who believe Howard ought to play football without being showered with unsolicited advice. Another is Bill Hughes, a scout for the Colorado Rockies who was an assistant football coach at USC.

"Never deny a kid the fantastic experiences he can get in high school," Hughes said. "There is no guarantee he'll get anything in pro baseball. These are what eventually will be the good old days to him, and he needs to maximize that."

Howard, 6 feet 2 and 170 pounds, is a good but not great football player. He compensates for average speed with exceptional agility, soft hands and the confidence of a seasoned athlete.

Howard played youth football from the sixth through the eighth grades and sat out his freshman year because he attended Crespi High and was concentrating on making the varsity basketball team.

Oh, yeah. Basketball. Howard plays that too. He averaged 8.4 points a game for Westlake last season.

"If there was one sport that had to give, it would be basketball," Howard said. "But I plan on playing all three sports all four years."

Despite the well-meaning advice he gets from the baseball-first crowd, Howard hasn't been pushed by the Westlake football and basketball coaches.

Jim Benkert, the football coach, is simply happy to have him.

"Above and beyond everything else, Kevin Howard is just a super kid to have in my program," Benkert said. "There is no superstar stamp on his forehead. He is unassuming. He fits right in. He carries blocking dummies to the shed and does all the menial things everyone else does."

Said Howard: "I'd have to say Coach Benkert is the most understanding of the coaches at Westlake. He knows baseball is my first sport. He never once said during the spring or summer that I needed to come to more football. He said come when you can and left it at that."

Westlake baseball Coach Chuck Berrington echoes Benkert's sentiment, although he might cough a little when he does it.

"Kevin loves playing sports and competing," Berrington said. "I can't say, 'Kevin don't play football.' It's his choice."

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