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Looking For His Pitch
Steve Rushin
April 06, 1992
With a name like his, in a town like New York, why isn't Mets slugger Howard Johnson a commercial smash hit?
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April 06, 1992

Looking For His Pitch

With a name like his, in a town like New York, why isn't Mets slugger Howard Johnson a commercial smash hit?

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Homeowner HoJo has since been domesticated. Kim has assigned him the tasks of paying the bills and balancing the checkbook. In exchange, she occasionally inspires a Mets win, as she did last July 12 in New York. The Mets and the San Diego Padres were tied in the ninth inning at Shea that night. New York had a runner on second, Kevin McReynolds striding to the plate and HoJo entering the on-deck circle. That's when word came from equipment manager Charlie Samuels that Kim was about to give birth in a Long Island hospital to the Johnsons' third child.

"I have to get going," HoJo told McReynolds. "You gotta win the game, dude."

McReynolds graciously singled in the go-ahead run, and Johnson ran for the parking lot. His car was ushered onto the Long Island Expressway by a police escort fortified with Mets fans who heard the events unfold on their car radios and who abandoned their vehicles in Shea's parking lot to help direct HoJo through traffic. He arrived at the hospital 20 minutes before his daughter Kayla was born. Who says New Yorkers are rude? "Not me," says HoJo.

Sure, they booed him at a Knicks game after Johnson went 1 for 18 in the 1988 National League playoffs. True, through the magic of call-in radio, he could hear himself or his team disparaged at any hour of the day in New York, until he stopped listening last season. But, he says, "my relationship with the fans is good. They know I'll be out there every day, getting my uniform dirty. They don't see me loafin' or Cadillacin'. I think I've earned the respect of the working man who pays good money to see a ball game."

As for the rest? HoJo will tell you he made the only endorsement that really matters to him on Halloween of 1990, when he dedicated himself to God, accepting the invitation of a cerebral palsy-afflicted evangelist on a videotape he had been watching. "Since then, nothing else seems so urgent," Johnson says earnestly, though not in any heavy-handed way. At the ballpark his religious beliefs are like hotel Bibles—they come out only if a visitor is interested.

And, remarkably, as we have noted, visitors to Johnson's locker need not take a number. "It's strange," says Kim, "but it's always been that way. He's always been under-publicized, under-writ-ten-about, considering his stats, considering that he's broken records. It used to really bother us. We've accepted it now. There are reasons for everything. The Lord is keeping him humble."

His wife, his life, religion. Howard Johnson has found a lot of things without necessarily looking for them. He found Kim while shopping for a car at a dealership in Detroit. He found new life in his career through a trade on Pearl Harbor Day. He found the Lord on the devils' night. So why should he need a searchlight to find the spotlight?

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