When your name is Howard Johnson, life is likely to be as much Rocky Road as it is Cookies & Cream. If you're a third baseman, they call you HoJo and think you'll melt at the hot corner. Detroit's Sparky Anderson, Johnson's first manager, had so little confidence in him after three seasons that he held him out of the 1984 playoffs and batted him only once in the World Series. To be sure, HoJo did play third base like a busboy.
So in '84 the Tigers traded him to the Mets, where he improved: He played like a short-order cook. Platooned with Ray Knight for two years, he stumbled, sputtered and fumbled in the field. At the plate he was a switch-hitter who couldn't hit breaking stuff from either side, or much of anything from the right.
But last November free-agent Knight turned down the Mets' offer of $800,000, only to wind up signing for $500,000 with the Orioles. And now HoJo, 26, playing every day for the first time in his career, is hitting .273 with 77 RBIs. As a righty he has 12 homers and is batting .312.
HoJo already has 28 dingers this year, just seven shy of the league record by a switch-hitter (set by Ripper Collins in 1934). He rockets balls out of Shea Stadium into flight paths of planes from La Guardia. He has hit so far so often that opposing managers have accused him of secreting an illicit material in his bat. They've even persuaded the umpires to take X-rays. So far all they've seen is white ash. Teammate Tim Teufel has given Johnson the nickname Norman—more for Norman Bates, the Psycho psycho, than bat-corker Norm Cash. "He's so totally different from last year," says Teufel. "But it hasn't gotten to the point where I won't go in a shower with him."
HoJo has already broken the club's single-season record for homers by a third baseman, and is on the verge of eclipsing the RBI mark. "Hoj has become one of the better players on the team this year," says second baseman Wally Backman, "if not the most consistent." Johnson is making people forget the Mets' other third basemen, which is not hard considering third at Shea has been occupied almost as often as a room in a HoJo motor lodge. Eighty-one third basemen have checked in during the Mets' 26-year history. Don Zimmer was one of nine to play third for the original Mets. After he broke an 0-for-34 slump in 1962 with a couple of hits, manager Casey Stengel said, "We gotta trade him while he's still hot." A few days later he was part of a deal with the Reds for Cliff Cook, who turned out to have one deficiency: He couldn't bend over to field grounders. Since then third has harbored such fugitive immortals as Tucker Ashford, Rich Puig and Sammy Drake.
"HoJo's got the best arm, the best speed and the best power of any third baseman the Mets have ever had," says former Mets shortstop and current coach Bud Harrelson. But Hojo still has dubious hands, and he is in danger of becoming the majors' first triple-30 player: 30 homers, 30 stolen bases and 30 errors.
Being named Howard Johnson has had its advantages. Every Sunday after church, when HoJo was growing up in Clearwater, Fla., the family went to a Howard Johnson's. Young Howard would get a free ice-cream cone because of his name. "I never fessed up I was named for my grandfather," he says. HoJo's father, Bill, had him switch-hitting at four and made him throw with his right hand, although he was a natural lefty, because he thought there were more positions open for righthanders. "Dad taught me more about hitting than fielding," says HoJo. It shows.
Detroit drafted Johnson as a shortstop and turned him into a third baseman in Class A ball. He was 21 when he came up in 1982, but Anderson wouldn't bat him against southpaws. "Sparky was scared I'd make mistakes," Hojo says. So scared that he kept Johnson out of postseason play in '84. "I finally got up enough courage to go into his office and talk to him," Johnson recalls. "He made me feel like I shouldn't have been in there. I'll never forget that."
The Tigers traded him after the 1984 Series. Anderson said Johnson couldn't field or handle pressure. "I feel like I've spent these last few seasons living down those statements," says HoJo with a trace of bitterness. "Of course, until this year, I hadn't done anything to disprove that stuff." Last year Johnson started once in 13 playoff games, and went hitless in five Series at bats.