Howard relishing opportunities to teach, learnMay 8, 2021
By JIMMY LAFAKIS
A day at the park
JASPER — Ray Howard’s Saturday morning began in ordinary fashion. He arrived at Ruxer Field at approximately 8:45 a.m. and began preparing for Jasper’s baseball game against Daleville. The Wildcats were set to resume the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame Classic, and fans from all over the state made their way into Ruxer Field.
Nothing was unusual for Howard, who coached Jasper baseball from 1977 to 1987. Unexpectedly, the Saturday script flipped in less than two hours’ time. More folks started filing in, and Howard was amazed by what he saw.
It was Ray Howard Day at Ruxer, and the Wildcats wanted to celebrate.
“It was a complete surprise,” Howard said. “I had no idea what they were doing.”
Jasper head coach Terry Gobert organized a surprise celebration for Howard, who suddenly found himself walking through a joyous tunnel of Wildcats. Both sides of the crowd cheered with delight, and Howard put the pieces together.
Everyone on his beloved field was there to honor him.
“Some of them came from a good distance,” Howard said. “Nashville. Columbus, Ohio. Some of them drove across town, but some of them came a good distance. It makes you appreciate it when you know they’re willing to do something like that for a day.”
The Cats (16-2) scored all of their runs in the second inning during their 13-0 run-rule over Daleville, but Saturday’s game meant more than the final score. Before the contest began, Gobert seized the chance to present Howard with a custom plaque at home plate. Gobert served as an assistant coach under Howard, and the pregame ceremony allowed both coaches to reflect.
“I just enjoyed my front-row seat,” Gobert said. “I’ve always wanted to thank him, but it’s a no-brainer. He’s still ‘Mr. Baseball,’ you know what I mean? He works with all levels.”
Indeed, Howard has earned the esteemed “Mr. Baseball” moniker for several reasons. He is the executive director of the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame and provides color analysis alongside longtime Jasper radio voice Walt Ferber.
“He’s a great soul,” Ferber said. “He is such a multidimensional person. He was an outstanding coach. He is greatly responsible for where the Jasper baseball program is today.”
As he took the reins of Jasper's program, Howard bet on himself. He encouraged the Cats to think outside the box and highlighted the importance of pitching and defense.
“Baseball was always big here,” Howard said. “It had never gone to the next step. We were fortunate enough to have a bunch of kids that took off with what we were teaching, the philosophy and the way things needed to be done. It kind of jumped it up to the next level.”
Ken Brelage played for Howard during his first year as Jasper’s head coach. Brelage assumed a leadership role as a senior catcher, and Howard placed his trust in the young man behind the dish.
“He believed in us,” Brelage said. “We didn’t even know quite how good we were, but he did. It was a new coaching philosophy. His philosophy was, ‘I don’t care where you played in the past. I don’t care what position you’ve played in the past.’ He reevaluated that and put you where it was best for the team.”
Brelage and Howard developed a robust player-coach dynamic. During a game against Northeast Dubois, Brelage conversed with Howard at third base. The Jeeps had a talented pitcher on the mound in Mike Archer, but Brelage had an idea.
“I told Ray, ‘I can steal home on this guy,” Brelage said. “He said, ‘What do you mean?’ He kind of looked at me funny. I had played with Mike in Legion baseball in the summer, so I knew how he pitched. He had a slow windup. Ray gave us the steal sign, and I stole home. I stole home on my own, no throw to second. None of that. Just a straight steal. He trusted me.”
Make no mistake — stealing home is quite the anomaly. A catcher accomplishing the feat is nearly unheard of.
The trust paid off. Brelage earned All-Star recognition from the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association under Howard’s tutelage, and Jasper became known for stealing bases and applying pressure. In that sense, Howard successfully passed the baton to Gobert.
“It’s a compliment for me to see that he’s still doing some of the same stuff that we did 40 years ago, 50 years ago when I was coaching,” Howard said. “Some of the drills are the same. Philosophies are different, but the way to go about it is the same.”
Howard set a positive example for the program’s posterity. He bore the fruits of his labor out of repetition and stability.
“He wasn’t an easy man to follow,” Gobert said. “He was so successful. I just think he instilled that consistency every year.”
By his own admission, Gobert had never seen a coach break down pitching, defense and bunting like Howard. Furthermore, he hadn’t met anyone who loved baseball so fervently.
“He likes those tight games, but he wanted to win,” Gobert said. “I’ve never been around somebody who was so driven to win. He set that consistency level. A lot of good schools are good in baseball when their athletes are up. The hardest thing to do for a coach is to win consistently with the cycle of talent. He always found a way to be good.”
Howard expresses his love for the game over the radio airwaves. He has developed chemistry with Ferber, who beams with delight while he speaks about his partner in the booth.
“There are times when I’m working with Ray where I forget I’m on the radio,” Ferber said. “It’s kind of bizarre, but it’s just like sitting with an old friend with a cup of coffee across the kitchen table. That’s kind of the philosophy of our broadcast. People have enough bad stuff to worry about. We want to have something that’s a little enjoyable for you. We bring the baseball game to you, but maybe we make you chuckle a little bit.”
He is rarely away from the diamond, but Howard enjoys hunting turkey and deer in his spare time. His passion for sports guides him to the golf course.
He won’t stay away from Ruxer for too long, though. Baseball is his beacon of light.
“It’s his life,” Ferber said. “It’s what he eats. It’s what he breathes.”
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