* Howard Starkman (left), here with longtime Toronto Blue Jays colleague Paul Beeston, retired this spring after 38 years with the club. He was a PR pro and a special projects guru. ....
By Bob Elliott
The first time I met Howard Starkman, I didn’t know what he looked like.
Couldn’t pick him out of the 100 or so well-dressed executives, scalpers and rounders milling around the lobby of the old Lord Baltimore hotel the day before the 1979 World Series opener.
Ronnie Thompson and I had driven from Ottawa to watch the first two games after Howard Darwin contacted the Toronto Blue Jays executive so we could buy two tickets.
We phoned his room and Starkman said he’d be down in five minutes.
We looked and looked.
Finally, there was a guy who looked a lot like a guy I’d seen around the press room at Maple Leaf Gardens on my two visits to sample Stan Obodiac’s sandwiches with the crusts removed.
We paid for the tickets and headed back to our motel. It was not quite the headquarters hotel. It was in Reisterstown, Md.
The next day, Thompson pulled back the curtains to see snow on the window ledge. We didn’t know the snow was sitting on five-foot ledge, but Game 1 of the Pittsburgh Pirates-Orioles World Series was snowed out.
The next night we saw Doug DeCinces hit a two-run homer at Memorial Stadium putting the Orioles up 5-0 and knocking Bruce Kison from the game. The Orioles prevailed 5-4 with Mike Flanagan getting the win.
Pittsburgh’s Manny Sanguillen singled off Dan Stanhouse to score Ed Ott in the top of the ninth for a 3-2 win in Game 2.
* * *
Larry Millson, who churned out more words on the Blue Jays than anyone else since the doors opened at Exhibition Stadium in 1977, was a hockey writer for The Telegram before he saw the light.
He lived near the Gardens and Starkman offered him a ride home from the airport after a Leafs trip in 1970. As the car motored along, Starkman asked Millson “why are you guys always so negative?”
Millson said: “Well, you guys haven’t won the Cup for three years.”
No matter the story we wrote in the Sun, who the Jays were talking to -- the Cleveland Indians about Buddy Black, Baltimore about Flanagan, draft choice John Olerud, the New York Mets about David Cone, the Mets about Tony Fernandez, to the Yankees about moving Cone there, the Philadelphia Phillies about Paul Quantrill, moving Olerud to the Mets and countless others -- Starkman’s reaction was always the same.
“Look, why don’t you wait until we announce it?” he’d ask.
“Well, my boss wants me to find out what teams you are talking to,” I’d say.
“YEAH WELL, IT’S MY JOB TO KEEP IT A SECRET!” he’d yell.
The worst blow up came Dec. 2, 1990 at the winter meetings in the basement of the O’Hare Hyatt in Rosemont, Ill. We’d written two days in a row how the Jays had been trying to trade for Devon White. The Anaheim Angels and the Jays called a press conference at 10 p.m. Toronto time. This was pre-Twitter time.
We knew it was White ... but who else was in the deal? I walked past the P.R. work room where Tim Mead, a dear friend from the Angels, was printing the press release and said “come on in.”
I walked in, Howard turned from the Xerox machine, exploded and ejected me quicker than Joe Brinkman running Cito Gaston.
Ten minutes later -- seemingly hours on deadline -- the trade was announced: Junior Felix, Luis Sojo and Kenny Rivers to the Angels for Willie Fraser, Marcus Moore and White.
The next day, GM Pat Gillick, assistant GM Gord Ash, manager Cito Gaston, a dozen or so scouts and even Tommy Craig all asked the same thing:
“What did the heck did you do to poor Howard?” they wondered.
Howard was loyal to them.
They were loyal to Howard.
Finally, I answered that I had walked into a room that I was invited to walk into.
Thanks Howard, I apologize.
* * *
A day-one employee with the Jays, he was without a doubt the most loyal employee in baseball, in newspapers or elsewhere in the sports world that I ever came across.
In the spring of 1989, long before the internet thing, John Robertson wrote in his Toronto Star column how he’d like to tell his readers more about a player but “the official Blue Jays media guide was not out yet.”
I read the story in Howard’s office, a light bulb went off and walked outside. There were Jays general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Gord Ash. I suggested someone tell Howard that they had read the Sun -- someone from Toronto had flown in -- and we’d run a chart on how many days the media guide was late.
And it was running daily until the guide came out.
This was the time period we were running a chart every day of the winter meetings and at 450, 500, 550 etc. days Gillick had gone without making a trade (629 days of inactivity).
Next day ... nothing from Howard. Zero explosion.
Next day ... zero reaction.
The third day I was in the lunch room grabbing a Diet Coke and Howard stomped into the room, saw me and headed for the buffet. He picked up a paper plate and asked, “did you guys run some stupid chart today?”
I said, “why Howard, you know Wayne Parrish, he has us running all kinds of chart every day and most of them are stupid.”
“Well, did you run a chart about the media guide being late?” he said slamming the potato salad onto his plate.
“Well, we haven’t played a game yet, when should the media guide come out?” he asked.
Taking a deep breath and trying to sound like a newbie arrogant Hogtowner, I said, “the day I arrive in Dunedin.”
Howard slammed another dollop of potato salad onto the paper plate so hard that the plate collapsed.
Out I went to find Ash.
“Well, we forgot about it, then we mentioned it to (president) Paul Beeston, so he asked on the conference call ‘hey Howie, what’s the deal with the media guide anyway. Mr. Hardy wants to know. Spring training is like Christmas -- it’s the same time every year.’” said Ash.
Ash and Gillick had taken this prank to reach a whole different level.
Mr. Hardy was Peter Hardy. Beeston didn’t wear socks. Gillick had his cowboy kickers on the desk, but anytime Hardy’s name came up it was “Mr. Hardy.”
No wonder Howard was angry.
Time to put an end to it.
Gillick and Ash both giggled as they barred me from Howard’s office.
That day I wrote at the park rather than the hotel and at the end of the day I went in to see Howard. He was fiddling with three or four paper clips, tangling one inside of another.
Remember, he could not crank up the Google in those days.
“Hey Howard, about the chart ...”
“I know all about the chart.”
“Hey Howard, there wasn’t any chart.”
“Oh really, well I have a better source than you.”
Howard believed Beeston over me.
Finally, I said, “Howard, who told you the chart was in the paper, who teased you? It was a gag.”
He argued for a second and then the light went on and he fired the paper clips against the wall.
Thanks Howard ... for not firing the paper clips at me.
* * *
One night in Milwaukee, the Jays sent something like 14 men to the plate and scored about eight or nine runs.
In the bottom of the eighth -- my story finished -- I sat down beside Howard to shoot the breeze in the press box.
“Aren’t you going to file?” Howard asked after the second out was made.
“I’ll file in the top of the ninth, plenty of time,” I told him.
“Ah, they’re shaking hands,” Howard said.
I neglected to change the innings on my score sheet after the first.
* * *
Howard moved upstairs, leaving the P.R. department to be a director of special secret projects.
We never knew what they were, but he was always working on something: Rogers Centre hosting the World Baseball Classic, putting together the deal for the Jays to go to Montreal with the New York Mets.
He always jokes how someday he’s going to write a book: on the media.
Since he moved away from the day-to-day goings on, he has become a dear friend, always having time to pass on advice, as he has done for countless others.
* * *
Now, as you read this, you might think that over the years Howard might have slipped me some inside info over the years.
Howard wouldn’t even tell you who was starting for the Jays the next night, saying as he often did, “it’s in the notes.”
Thanks Howard ... for nothing.
* * *
Vice-president Stephen Brooks held the Jays quarterly town hall meeting last Thursday at the Rogers Centre, Howard’s last day.
Howard didn’t want to throw out the first pitch.
Didn’t want a release to go out.
Daughter Marnie’s crack scoreboard crew put together a video tribute on the big board, which featured her brother Ian, along with the dandelions of journalism: Hazel Mae, Rod Black, Gord Stellick, Bob McCown, John Shannon, Evanka Osmak, Brian Williams, Scott Moore, Phil King, John Iaboni, Richard Griffin, and an NHK film crew from Japan.
Broadcasters with other teams: George Grande and Suzyn Waldman.
Current and former Jays: Dan Plesac, Bobby Cox, Nick Leyva, Al Leiter, Gord Ash, Shirley Cheek, Cito Gaston, Fred McGriff, Buck Martinez, Dave Winfield, Roy Halladay, Alfredo Griffin, Joe Carter, Bill Singer, George Holm, Pat Hentgen, Carlos Delgado, Tommy Craig, Robbie Alomar, Pat Gillick and Bob Nicholson and Leanna McCarthy.
Current Jays employees: Jerry Howarth, Alex Anthopoulos, Mike Shaw, Jay Stenhouse, John Gibbons, Charlie Wilson, Stephen Brooks, Tom Farrell, Mark Ditmars, Honsing Leung, Donna Kuzoff, Danielle Bedasse, Anthony Partipilo, Rob Jack, Mario Coutinho, Sheila Stella, Mary-Anne Sturley, June Sym, Mike Hirshfeld, Erik Grosman, Sue Mallabon, Emma Marshall, Darla McKeen, Mike Hook, John Griffin, Chris Schmidt, Sam Platsis, Piero Aceto and Jeremy Zulaf,
Fellow day-one employees: Jeff Ross, Len Frejlich and Ken Carson.
Friend: Michael Trenton.
Former Maple Leafs GM: Jim Gregory.
Executives with other teams: Bob DiBiasio, Dick Bresciani, Tim Mead, David Beeston, Derek Hall, Tim Brosnan, Ellen Veronica Harrigan, Russell Gabay, Katy Feeney and Phyllis Merighe.
President Paul Beeston then said what so many others have been saying to Howard for the past 38 years: