It is easy to confuse Howard Johnson's for Howard Johnson, the hotel for the man, HoJo's for the Hojo sapiens. What is blue and orange and keeps a Bible tucked away? The hotel or the Mets centerfielder, either answer is acceptable.
How is it possible, then, when the match seems so match, that Howard Johnson does not endorse Howard Johnson's? "They've never asked me to," says the HoJo who led the National League in home runs and RBIs last season. "I'd love to do something with them. The other day I saw a sign for a HoJo Inn. It was a Howard Johnson's, but the sign said 'HoJo Inn.' Perfect."
If only he played in New York, the media capital, then things would be.... He does, you say? He is the best player in the five boroughs? Among active Mets and Yankees, only Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez and Don Mattingly have played in New York longer than HoJo's seven continuous years? And even his nickname—the tabloid-friendly HoJo—sounds like a trendy New York neighborhood?
Then how can it be that he wears Nikes, but that Nike doesn't tell us what Ho knows? Or that while there's a Howard Johnson's in Times Square, this ballplayer isn't—never will be—Broadway Jo?
"When Howard first signed with Detroit, I told him if he ever made it big, he would have to do something with Howard Johnson's," says Johnson's father, Bill. "It wouldn't be like they were signing Bo Jackson. It wouldn't take a lot of money. I can't speak for Howard, but I think he would do it as a lark. But they never called. My gosh, you'd think Ramada Inn would call, just so they could say, ' Howard Johnson stays at Ramada.' "
Hello Muddah. Hello Fadduh. Hello HoJo's. Yo, Ramada: Realize it or not, the 31-year-old Johnson has long been something to write home about. As hotel desk clerks like to say to each other, will you check him out? Since he became an every-day player in 1987, the switch-hitting HoJo has averaged 31 home runs and 95 RBIs a season. Tightly wrapped at 5'10"—"I'm not a monster," he concedes—Johnson went for 38 homers and 117 RBIs last season, and played in the All-Star Game for the second time in his 10-year career. He also became the second player in history to achieve three 30-homer, 30-steal seasons. "There's no reason I can't do it again," HoJo says sincerely about his numbers last season. "But I never thought I'd lead the league in any category."
He is not alone. "I had no idea in my wildest dreams, I'm not that smart, to know that he was going to hit at this pace," says Sparky Anderson, the syntactically serpentine manager of the Detroit Tigers. HoJo played for the Sparkman for three seasons before being traded to the Mets, for pitcher Walt Terrell, on Dec. 7, 1984. Now his ex-manager numbers Johnson among the top 10 players in baseball.
Anderson may have thought HoJo was "too nervous" to play in the '84 postseason, in which Johnson batted only once, but he did HoJo's reputation no favor by saying so. Johnson, for his part, chose to hold his tongue, instead of a grudge, when he was shipped to Shea shortly thereafter. There was no vacancy in the Mets lineup until two years later, when Ray Knight's departure allowed the previously platooning Johnson to play every day at third. He responded with a .265 average, 36 home runs, 99 RBIs and 32 steals, and now you couldn't remove HoJo with a backhoe.
"Howard has never run his mouth off," Anderson says now. "He might not get the attention from the public, but he gets a lot of attention from baseball people. He gets my attention. Whenever they put it up on our scoreboard that Johnson has hit another home run, I say to myself, Oh, my god."
HoJo's serial-error adventures afield have occasionally elicited the same reaction from Mets fans. He committed a league-leading 31 errors last season, three more Es than there are ice-cream flavors at HoJo restaurants. "The Mets will have 21 giveaway dates this season," New York-based Spy magazine reported last spring, "not counting games Howard Johnson starts at third base."