Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park.
But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.
“It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”
For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.
On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.
“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”
Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or 'Hondo,'” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”
Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.
“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”
And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.
“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”
As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday.
“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”