Jay Howell was the biggest addition to a rebuilt and incredibly strong bullpen for the Dodgers in 1988, but he could have easily been remembered as a Niedenfuerian goat had things broken differently.
Howell not only blew a lead in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Mets, and suffered the only Dodgers' loss in the World Series, but his biggest gaffe was getting suspended for having pine tar on his glove in the NLCS. In Game 3 against the Mets, Howell was brought in to start the eighth inning with a 4-3 lead. But against his first batter, Kevin McReynolds, Howell was ejected. Sam McManis of the Los Angeles Times explained:
Howell admitted to lacing the outside heel of his glove with pine tar and rubbing his fingers in the substance before each of his six pitches. He said he was aware that it was in violation of a rule, but he said it was a bad rule--and a bad ruling.
"I thought at the time they would throw the glove out of the game and let me continue," he said. "I didn't think they'd throw me out. "I've used it in cold-weather situations when the rosin bag doesn't work. I know a lot of pitchers who use pine tar, because when the weather's cold like it is today (43 degrees and raining), rosin makes the ball slick."
The Dodgers succumbed to a five-run Mets rally in the eighth inning, and fell behind in the series, two games to one. Catcher Rick Dempsey was understandably peeved, again per the Times.
"We're going for all the marbles with our No. 1 relief pitcher out there and they do that to us," Dempsey said angrily. "He's been pitching too damn good all season for this to happen. It's a prayer answered that (the Mets) got him out of there. I think it's ridiculous. I don't think it's fair."
In Howell's defense, even the Mets argued on his behalf.
"I don't feel that what Howell did is as bad as what others have done," Wally Backman told Ross Newhan of the Times. "Pine tar doesn't make you throw the ball harder. It doesn't make his curve break more. It's different than a guy using Vaseline or sandpaper."
"Do it at the start of next season if you have to. Make it 10 days if you want," said Keith Hernandez. "But I feel it's wrong to suspend him now. The teams have come too far and worked too hard to have a key player suspended at this point of the playoffs."
Luckily for Howell, the Dodgers rallied in the series, and Howell himself rebounded in the World Series against the Athletics.
How acquired: The Dodgers got Howell along with Alfredo Griffin from the A's in a three-team, eight-player trade on Dec. 11, 1987, that also saw Jesse Orosco came to Los Angeles from New York. The Dodgers sent longtime starter Bob Welch and relief pitcher Matt Young, to Oakland, and sent reliever Jack Savage to the Mets in the deal.
Prior MLB experience: Howell pitched briefly in the National League, one season each with the Reds and Cubs, but began to establish himself with the Yankees. After bouncing in between the starting rotation and bullpen in 1983, Howell found his niche in relief in the Bronx in 1984. Howell was 9-4 with seven saves, a 2.69 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 103⅔ innings, then was one of five players traded to the Athletics for Rickey Henderson in December 1984.
Howell made two All-Star teams in his three seasons in Oakland, and saved 29 games in 1985. His 61 saves from 1985-1987 were 11th most in baseball, and he is the answer to the trivia question who was the A's closer before Dennis Eckersley.
1988 age: 32
1988 stats: After offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow, Howell was used sparingly in the first month of the season. He wasn't placed on the disabled list but managed to pitch in only five of the first 23 games of the season, and didn't allow a run until May 4. On the season, Howell struck out 70 in 65 innings, and was 5-3 with 21 saves and a 2.08 ERA.
Regular season game of the year: Howell recorded the final six outs on May 14 against the Phillies to protect a one-run lead, and struck out four batters. It was one of eight two-inning saves for Howell on the year.
NLCS performance: Howell had quite the series to forget against the Mets. He entered two games with a lead, once in the ninth inning and once in the eighth inning, and in both games contributed to a Dodgers loss. A two-out Gary Carter double in Game 1 turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 loss, and though Howell didn't take the loss in Game 3 his outcome was much worse with the suspension.
Howell was initially suspended for three days by MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti, though it was later reduced to two days. Howell was available to pitch in the final two games against the Mets, though he wasn't needed as the Dodgers were throttled by David Cone in Game 6 and Orel Hershiser pitched a pennant-winning shutout in Game 7.
World Series performance: The postseason slump for Howell continued into the World Series, as his first fall classic appearance against his former team ended with Mark McGwire hitting a walk-off home run to win Game 3. But Howell recovered the next night in Game 4.
Despite fielding a starting lineup with 36 regular season home runs, the Dodgers led Oakland 4-3 in the seventh inning, but the A's were threatening with two outs and a runner on second base when Howell was summoned from the bullpen. A walk and an error allowed his first two batters faced to reach base, and Howell had to face McGwire, his nemesis from the previous night, with the bases loaded.
This result was much different in Game 4, as McGwire popped out to first base, and Howell held Oakland scoreless for the final two innings to seal the win and give the Dodgers an insurmountable 3-1 series advantage.
Post-1988 playing career: Howell was an effective relief pitcher for the Dodgers for five seasons, and had an ERA of 2.18 or lower in four of his five years in Los Angeles. Howell saved 85 games as a Dodger, including a then-club-record 28 saves in 1989, the third and final All-Star season of his career.
Howell's 2.07 ERA as a Dodger is the lowest in franchise history with a minimum of 200 innings, and his 170 ERA+ is also tops with the same criteria.
Howell pitched in 1993 with the Braves, though he didn't pitch for Atlanta in the playoffs, then ended his playing career with the 1994 Rangers.
Where he is now: Howell coached baseball at Cal State Northridge from 1998 to 2005, and worked briefly on the radio postgame show for the Braves. But more importantly, as recently as 2012, Howell and his wife have become antique furniture dealers.
Howell is reportedly on Twitter at @braindeadheaver, though the account is not verified.