Even in his salad days with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Senators, burly Frank Howard looked a little out of place in a baseball uniform. A 6’7″ leviathan who once tipped the scales at 297 pounds, he waved his bat like a No. 2 pencil. What did opposing pitchers think about when Howard approached the batter’s box? “My wife and family,” pitcher Bob Bolin once confessed.
Now, at 37, the fading Gulliver has arrived in his Lilliput. Released last fall by the Detroit Tigers after an undistinguished season as their designated hitter, Howard has caught on with the floundering Taiheiyo Lions of Japan’s Pacific League. He’s not the first former U.S. big-leaguer to try to prolong his career in Japan—Joe Pepitone, Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, and the Dodgers’ Wes Parker and Jim Lefebvre are among those who have gone the same route before him. But big Frank is far and away the most incongruous. Towering over his Japanese teammates—he looks like a Little League manager on the field—Howard has been an instant spring training sensation. Busloads of fans swarmed about the mammoth American as he laboriously worked himself into shape. “Dekkai (big)!” they murmured disbelievingly, and followed raptly in his size 13 tracks.
Off the field Howard has difficulty prying himself in and out of diminutive Japanese taxis, and he confesses to being a little homesick. His wife and children won’t arrive until June. Otherwise, he’s delighted with most things Japanese. As for the food, he’s exquisitely tactful. “I’ve had tempura and sukiyaki, and I must say I love them all,” says Howard, always a prodigious trencherman. “The raw fish? No, I haven’t tried it yet.”
Whether Howard’s skills have kept pace with his appetite, however, is not yet resolved. He impressed his teammates by blasting two consecutive home runs out of the stadium during an early workout, but later strained his back in cold weather. Howard himself is making no rash predictions. “I’m 38 this August,” he explains, “and I’m at the stage of the game where I have to decide my career from year to year.” For the moment, however, he’s an obliging celebrity. He has shown photographers how he sleeps—on two Japanese-sized beds pushed together; explained to Japanese ladies that he needs three times as much material as normal for his yukata, the native pajama; and even awed the kids when he pedaled a tiny bicycle around the stadium. Lesser men might grow queasy before such open-mouthed scrutiny, but Howard seems unflustered. “Sure they gawk at me here,” he says. But that doesn’t bother me. I’ve been gawked at most of my life.”