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Prospecting for Gold

Baseball: The million-dollar question surrounding Kevin Howard of Westlake is whether he'll be offered first-round draft money.

May 29, 1999|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTLAKE VILLAGE — What's all the fuss about?

That's what Kevin Howard wants to know. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Westlake High shortstop blissfully glides along, enjoying every last moment of his senior year.

He has a scholarship to national powerhouse Miami and will be picked by a major league team Tuesday in the amateur draft. He'll compare the offers and decide whether to attend college or begin his professional career.

A win-win situation, just like nearly every team he's played on.

"My choices are simple and my family and I are honest with everybody," Howard said. "There shouldn't be any confusion."

So, what's all the fuss about?

Like any top prospect, Howard has been inspected and dissected by scouts for years. But the diverse opinions swirling around him with Hurricane force are unusual, especially for a player of his ability.

A firm stance, it appears, bothers some scouts.

The Howards, with Kevin's mother, Patricia, taking the lead, have spelled out precisely what it will take to get the Will Smith hit song "Welcome to Miami" out of their heads: Draft Kevin anywhere, but offer a signing bonus equal to that of a first-round pick.

Patricia Howard, an attorney, realizes the signing bonus is the only opportunity for her son to cash in on his amateur value. Should his demands not be met, he'll have three years at college for the sting to subside and his value to increase until he is eligible for the draft again.

While there is no question that Howard, a left-handed hitting infielder, is a coveted pro prospect, most scouts rank him a rung below the first round, primarily because he isn't fast.

"His bat's going to do the talking and I think he is going to play in the big leagues," one scout said. "But does that translate into first-round money right now?"

That's the million-dollar question, perhaps literally. Signing bonuses for first-round picks last year ranged from $750,000 to more than $3 million.

Scouts squirm when faced with a broad range of possibilities on draft day. Which way do you go with Howard?

* Draft him in the first round or lower and cough up first-round money.

* Draft him lower than the first round, dig in your heels in negotiations and hope he lowers his demands.

* Draft him after comparable talent is long gone, even below the 10th round, offer a substantial bonus and hope he's changed his tune.

* Ignore him.

More than one scout already predicts Howard's end, suggesting he will be overwhelmed academically at Miami and return home within a year, reduced to playing for a junior college.

However, those who best know Howard believe otherwise.

"He's going to excel no matter what road he takes," said Larry Howard, Kevin's father. "I don't sweat it."

Howard inherited a relaxed demeanor from his father, a mild-mannered jazz musician who is the polar opposite of the typical high-strung sports parent. But he doesn't take a relaxed approach to improving his game.

"The perception is that everything comes easy to him, but he busts his tail," said Nez Balelo, Howard's private batting instructor.

Chuck Berrington, who became coach at Westlake midway through Howard's freshman season, watched his star player mature into the leader of this season's team that finished 19-6-1.

"He grew up a lot this year," Berrington said. "He's made other players better by taking a huge interest in everyone on the team. The attitude he brings to the dugout is unbelievable. He has a big-time competitive spirit."

Howard is about as seasoned as a high school player can be. He joined the Westlake varsity as a freshman transfer from Crespi and withstood open hostility from parents of seniors who believed the precocious 14-year-old should wait his turn.

His even-keeled response to the mean-spirited comments offered the first glimpse at his uncommon composure. He excelled under pressure at a young age, leading Thousand Oaks Little League teams to a 13-year-old World Series championship in 1993 and a national title in 1995.

Howard's sophomore year at Westlake established him as a pro prospect. Early in the season, he pulled a 92-mph fastball from eventual first-round pick Jon Garland of Kennedy down the right-field line for a double that drove in two runs. At least a dozen scouts witnessed the hit and began scribbling in their notepads.

There was no letup. Howard played third base, batted .512 and the seeds of him possessing first-round potential were sown. He spent the following summer gaining national exposure on the U.S. Junior National team.

His decision the following fall to play varsity football threw scouts for a loop, but Howard was simply displaying another side of his personality: He wanted to enjoy every aspect of high school.

He also played varsity basketball as a junior and was late joining the baseball team as a result. He slumped badly early in the 1998 season, yet rallied to bat .366 and help the Warriors advance to the Southern Section Division III final.

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