As soon as the Cubs drafted Mount Carmel shortstop Ed Howard 16th overall on Wednesday night, ESPN took a pause in its draft programming to mention Cubs president Theo Epstein’s role in organizing a league initiative in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, including $1 million in donations to related organizations.
Major League Baseball made it a significant part of its draft broadcast – with executives, including Epstein, silently holding Black Lives Matter signs – at a time protests over police brutality and systemic racism continued into their third week following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Which meant that on this night, in this national moment – and especially in this sport – it would be part of Howard’s story no matter which team selected the top black high school player in the draft.
But then it became literally a made-for-TV moment when Howard’s hometown Cubs selected him just two days after Epstein vowed to “look inward and question my own assumptions” and to use his significant stature to effect change in the game and his organization.
First-round pick of one of the sport’s marquee franchises? Spotlight of playing for the hometown team? And symbol for institutional change – role model for a new generation?
That’s a lot of ground to cover, even if he is the best defensive shortstop in the draft.
But Howard not only seems to know what he’s getting into – he seems to embrace it.
“I’ll definitely be a role model,” said Howard, who got his first taste of the role at 12 as a star on the Jackie Robinson West Little League team that played in the Little League World Series championship game in 2014.
“That’s definitely something I’m big on,” he said. “I’m big on being not only a great player on the field, but I’m big on being a great person off the field. My parents are real into that. They push me to be my best self all the time.”
If Howard seems mature for his age at 18, the process might have started five years earlier when that Little League team went from the world stage and a White House visit to having its national title stripped for residency-rules violations.
“I learned a big life lesson at 13 years old,” Howard said during an interview with On The Soil, a video podcast by thebigs.us. “We went down there and we played, and a few months later they took the title away. They took us out of the history books. I was 13 years old, and I was getting a lot of hate comments and things like that on social media. so it kind of opened my eyes at a real young age.
“If anything I feel like it just taught me to always be levelheaded,” he added, “and keep working, because just as many people can love you when you’re at the top, and when you fall the haters and people come with the negative comments as well. It just showed me to keep pushing.”
Whether that’s a glimpse into what the Cubs saw and liked in Howard behind the quick bat and exceptional glove at a premier position, it at least suggests he has a sizable head start on handling whatever inherent challenges he might face in living up to the hometown hype and, perhaps more so, in his efforts to become one of the few black Americans in the big leagues.
Howard said he knew about Epstein’s comments earlier in the week, when one of the most powerful executives in the industry pointed a finger at himself for his own shortcomings in the game’s racial gaps on the field and in management – and promised to seek real change.
“I agree with what he said,” Howard said. “There’s a lot of African Americans that can play. There’s not that many in the league right now, but I definitely think there’s a lot more coming. It’s just my draft day, so in a few years I’ll be there.”
Howard has never lacked for confidence. His drive, passion and work ethic seem as elite as the practice routines that Cubs scouting director Dan Kantrovitz said were Triple-A to major-league level. And Howard has strong mentors in the game, ranging from his father to White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson.
If it does wind up leading to the kind of range off the field that he already shows on it, maybe he’ll even be the kind of leader for the next generation that nobody has the right to ask him to be – but that the moment craves. And that he doesn’t seem afraid of.
He still has to hit well enough, develop, stay healthy and get there. He’s got a long way to go.
And so does Epstein.
But Howard has his eyes wide open.
And, he said of Epstein, “I hear what he’s saying. I feel like what’s going on in the world is real crazy. We’ve all got to come together and realize we’re all the same; we’re all human. …I think bringing diversity is good for baseball. It should be diverse. There’s a lot of great players, a lot of African Americans can play.”
Why Cubs draft pick Ed Howard can handle made-for-TV expectations originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago