BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. - When Matt Howard arrived in Kokomo last May, he had no idea what to expect as the first base coach for the expansion Kokomo Jackrabbits. But once the season started, there were the large crowds and the unfinished but award-winning stadium. And then there was the termination. No, not his termination, but the termination of the first Jackrabbits field manager that resulted in Howard taking over the team mid-season. No, he did not see any of that coming at all.
Five months later, Jackrabbits ownership removed the interim tag from Howard and named him the field manager for the 2016 season. But now, he knows what to expect.
“I am a baseball guy,” said the 26 year-old Howard. “I am chasing the dream of becoming a college baseball coach. Kokomo is a really good spot to be and I couldn’t ask for a better situation. Anytime you have a first year, you don’t know what you are going to get; but despite the firing, I think we did a good job of keeping the ship moving.”
Howard took over a team whose identity seemed to be about on-field temper tantrums, mostly courtesy of the first manager. Once Howard took over, the team made a run for the playoffs, finishing 15-15 under his watch and coming within one game of a Prospect League playoff berth. In fact, it was not until after the final game fireworks display – and an incredible walk-off win to close the season – that Danville defeated Terre Haute to knock the Rabbits out of the playoff picture.
Now it is time for Howard to lead the squad for an entire campaign, much to the delight of MKE Sports and Entertainment, the ownership group of the Kokomo franchise.
“Matt’s return to Kokomo gives us great confidence heading into this season,” said Dan Kuenzi, senior vice president of operations for MKE Sports. “We have a roster packed with elite talent from around the country. He carries himself on the field like a big league manager and that is what we want with our franchise. That confidence will carry over to our players who are here trying to be just that, big leaguers. With Matt leading the way this season, we feel a championship is within reach.”
Howard agrees, saying the 2016 roster is 100 percent revamped and will feature speed on the bases coupled with some long ball hitters.
“The roster, as of right now, is 100 percent full,” said Howard, who is in Kokomo as a full-time employee of MKE Sports, which also owns the Lafayette Aviators squad. “We have a good group. We have put together a roster of guys from all over the country and from different divisions; small schools and big schools. We looked for players that wanted to play every night and could win ball games. I think we have the right roster to win.”
The son of a legendary Philadelphia disk jockey, Rolls Royce Howard, arrived in Kokomo after a solid collegiate baseball career and three seasons in the Frontier League. He is a 2011 graduate of Slippery Rock University, where he played two seasons for the NCAA Division II program. As a senior, he hit .401 and was named the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Division Player of the Year as well as earning All-American honorable mention status. As a junior, he hit .395 and was named a second team All-Atlantic Region performer. At LaSalle College High School, he was named first team All-Catholic League in baseball and track while leading the baseball team to the 2005 Catholic League title.
On the field, Howard also knows a little about winning a championship. He twice played in the Major League Baseball-funded RBI World Series. In 2007, his Philadelphia Phillies squad defeated defending champion Los Angeles 2-1 in Dodger Stadium to win the prestigious 2007 Senior Boys championship for 16-18 year-olds. He was also a two-time winner of the 60-yard dash competition held during Workout Day at the World Series. He will take all of that winning experience onto the Jackrabbits field.
“The guys will get here May 24, and we will put them through some light workouts and see where we will go with a rotation and batting order,” said Howard. “We have a couple of guys from Butler University. We have two from the SEC in Missouri, which is huge for us to get into the SEC and will open our doors to big schools going forward. We have some big boys coming to town and our pitching staff should be strong.”
Howard is also excited about the Prospect League All-Star game coming to Kokomo Municipal Stadium next season.
“A lot of people are excited about the All-Star game coming to Kokomo,” he said. “And not just people form Kokomo. When I went to the Prospect League All-Star game last year in Richmond, people were saying they wished it was in Kokomo. We should put on a good show for everyone and hopefully have some players on the field as well.”
Howard said with Kokomo being an expansion team last year, he was surprised by the way the city rallied around the team and its players. Kokomo was third in the Prospect League in overall attendance.
“There is no better place to play than in Kokomo in the summertime,” he said. “With the way the community supports us and the way people pile into the stadium – I have never seen anything like it before. I am excited for the new season. And it is only going to get better in the future.”
The manager said he also wants the Jackrabbits players to give-back to the local area.
“We want to become a part of the community – we want our guys to get out in the community, not just play in the community,” said Howard. “That is important, especially with how the community supports us.”
The Kokomo Jackrabbits season begins at home on May 27 when the new squad from Lisle, Illinois, visits Municipal Stadium. For more information on the team or to purchase tickets for the 2016 season, visit www.kokomojackrabbits.com.