Cubs' No. 1 draft pick Ed Howard thrives on big stage


Ed Howard IV was a fixture at Mount Carmel High School’s baseball facilities years before he attended school there.

His older sister, Chanel Howard, was close with shortstop Jerry Houston. During his senior year, Houston would pick up 11-year-old Ed Howard on his way to campus. They’d work out or take batting practice together.

Caravan coach Brian Hurry remembers watching a young Howard field ground balls with the Mount Carmel players who would go on to win the state tournament that year. Howard fit right in.

“I think the bigger the stage, the better he plays,” Hurry told NBC Sports Chicago. “He’s never intimidated.”

Howard has been in the spotlight since he was in middle school, when he and the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars made it all the way to the 2014 Little League World Series final. Leading up to Wednesday’s 2020 MLB Draft, national attention has again turned to Howard. The 18-year-old shortstop is a likely first-round pick. ranked him No. 15 in this draft class, while Baseball America gave him a No. 20 ranking and identified him as the top high school shortstop. While most mock drafts project Howard to be selected lower than the White Sox’s No. 11 pick or the Cubs’ No. 16, it wouldn’t be unheard of for the hometown kid to land in Chicago.

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Howard’s first baseball memories are of his mother tossing a beach ball for him to hit with a wiffle ball bat. Not long after, their front and back yards became daily training sites for Howard and his father, Ed Howard III.

“Even though he was a normal kid like any other five-year-old running around with a lot of energy,” Ed Howard III said of his son, “once you would get him on the field or playing ball or playing catch with him, he could just calm down and concentrate. He just had the ability to learn so quickly that it was so easy to teach him baseball, football, basketball. And he was advanced at each sport.”

As young as seven years old, Ed Howard IV knew baseball was the one he’d stick with.

“I just think it was my passion,” Howard said. “I just gravitated towards it.”

So, Ed Howard III decided it was time to find a coach who could get the most out of his son’s talents. That’s how Ed Howard IV came to join Lou Collier’s 10-and-under travel ball team, a few years ahead of schedule.

Collier had created the Lou Collier Baseball Association after returning home from an eight-year MLB career and a stint in the Korean Baseball Organization. His mission: developing youth baseball players, especially on the South Side of Chicago.

“He’s the guy who taught me my fundamentals at such a young age,” Howard said. “Offensively and defensively.”

They worked on footwork with cones and ladders. Once Howard got that down, they dropped to their knees and isolated glove work.

“I learned the right way,” Howard said. “So, when I got older and I was just having fun with it, just making plays, I was doing it the right way.”

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Tens of thousands of fans packed into Howard J. Lamade Stadium for the U.S. title game at the 2014 Little League World Series. Another 5 million tuned into the nationally-televised game. Back in Chicago, the Cubs game had halted for rain, and fans streamed to the concourse to watch their hometown team in the Little League World Series.

“I like that feeling,” Howard said of playing in front of a packed ballpark. “I feel like that feeling motivated me to keep pushing and getting better because I wanted to make those few weeks in Williamsport a reality, I wanted to play in front of crowds like that every single day.”

In the final inning, Howard had moved from shortstop to close the game on the mound. With two on and one out, the go-ahead run stood at the plate.

The ping of the bat reverberated around the ballpark as Las Vegas’s Josiah Cromwick drilled a comebacker into the grass between him and Howard. No better time to have on the mound the infielder who Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin nicknamed “Silk.”

Howard snagged the one-hopper and turned 180 degrees in one fluid motion. His throw to second base started a game-winning double play.

“I remember the whole crowd getting up cheering, and everybody was chanting U-S-A,” Howard said. “So, just moments like that, I can still play those memories in my head just like it was yesterday.”

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Howard and his father watched the Little League World Series together for years without expecting to end up there themselves.

“You don’t see a lot of African American teams in that tournament,” the elder Ed Howard said.

In 2014, Jackie Robinson West became the first all-black team to win the U.S. championship. The underdog story included a title-game re-match with a Las Vegas team that had beaten Jackie Robinson West 13-2 earlier in the tournament. Cue the media frenzy.

Jackie Robinson West went on to lose to South Korea in the final, but the team had already made history.

The White Sox and Cubs both hosted Jackie Robinson West after their triumphant return. The City of Chicago threw a victory parade; thousands attended. President Barack Obama invited the team to the White House.

So, after all that build up, the fall out was just as extreme.

In 2015, Little League baseball stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title. The organization found that the team included players from outside its designated boundaries. It was a national story, and Howard and his teammates were caught in the middle of it.

“When I was 12, 13 years old, it just showed me, always stay level-headed,” Howard said. “I don’t play this game and do it for fans or anything like that. I just do it for myself and my family. I feel like that’s what it taught me at a young age.”

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By the time Howard came to Mount Carmel as a freshman, Hurry was plenty familiar with Howard’s talents. He wasn’t fooled by his size – about 5-foot-4 and 150 pounds.

“I think that shaped him big time, whether he knows it or not,” Ed Howard III said of his son. “… To play in one of the most competitive high school leagues in the Midwest as a freshman was big. I don’t even think he knows.”

By Howard’s senior year, he had three season of varsity ball under his belt. He’d shot up to 6-foot-3 and put on 13 pounds over the offseason, thanks to summer workouts with his trainer, Jason Griffin. The Caravan had seven starters returning and was eying a state title.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the Illinois High School Association cancelled all spring sports state tournaments.

The shutdowns could be a disadvantage for draft prospects like Howard, high school graduates from cold-weather states. A strong senior season could have solidified his standing. In a recent mock draft, ESPN MLB Insider Kiley McDaniel had Howard falling to the Rays with the No. 37 overall pick for that very reason.

“No doubt, it’s more challenging this year than it’s ever been,” said Dan Kantrovitz, Cubs vice president of scouting, “but we’ve always been faced with trying to compare players with varying degrees of data. … This year it’s just a little more extreme.”

Howard also isn’t an anonymous teenager just emerging onto big league teams’ radars. He hasn’t been anonymous since he was 12 years old.

“I know whatever happens, it’ll be a great situation,” Howard said. “Just excited to see how it plays out.”

A bigger stage awaits.

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