May 2013

Back Home Again, In Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN — The official attendance on Wednesday was reported as 5,650.  Among those actually in house were a fairly sizable fraction of fans who turned out to cheer for one of the so-called visitors.

Really, though he’d come to Victory Field as a member of the Pawtucket Red Sox, he was one of their own.  A family member.  A friend.  A native of the Hoosier State, back home again in Indiana.

Jeremy Hazelbaker was born in Muncie , where he wound up playing in college at Ball State.  Home when not lured away by professional baseball is Selma, where he starred for Wapahani High.

Hazelbaker took this field once before.  In 2004, he helped the Wapahani Raiders to their first ever appearance in the state championship game as their third baseman.

But between 2009 — when the Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round, and this current trip — Lexington, Ky. was as close to Indiana as Hazelbaker had been on his baseball travels.  Most of his experience in pro ball was confined along the East Coast.  When Hazelbaker was promoted from Portland to Pawtucket late in the 2012 regular season, the PawSox had long completed the portion of the schedule pitting them against the International League West.

This season, however, Hazelbaker has been with Pawtucket from day one.  And for the last seven days, he’s welcomed the opportunity to play closer and closer to home; first in Louisville and now, of course, in downtown Indy.  His roots still firmly in place about an hour and 15 minutes to the northeast, Hazelbaker relishes the rare chance to hear the cheers of loved ones.

“It’s fantastic,” the soft-spoken Hazelbaker said on Tuesday.  “It’s awesome getting to play in front of friends and family, to have a chance to show them what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been working on the past few years.”

No doubt, they’ve appreciated watching their native son at work.  Through the first three games of the series vs. the Indians, Hazelbaker is 5-for-12 with two runs scored, two RBI and a stolen base.  As evidenced by those numbers, Hazelbaker seems impervious to any pressure one might expect him to feel on his homecoming.  It’s not to suggest, however, that he’s been totally relaxed.

“I was nervous,” Hazelbaker admitted.  “I get nervous before every game, but you put (nerves) aside and just like every other game, you do what you have to do and go out there and play ball.”

What Hazelbaker does whenever he goes out there, wherever there happens to be — whether Indiana or elsewhere — is go hard.

“I was coached to run hard no matter what, whether it’s a sac bunt or a ball in the gap or it’s a routine ground ball,” he says.  “I’m trying to beat it out and with my speed sometimes I’ll get a close call and I’ll get (a hit) there that maybe should have gone the other way.  It’s because I hustled, it went in my favor.”

At the announcement of his name for a third at-bat on Wednesday, Hazelbaker stepped to the left-handed batter’s box to the applause of his own rooting section.  He soon delivered one of those balls in the gap, lacing a liner into right-center field.

Naturally — his nature, anyway — Hazelbaker hustled his way to a double.  An error moved him to third base.  And when a pitch in the dirt caromed off the catcher, Hazelbaker broke toward the plate, full bore.  He slid just as the throw from Indianapolis’s Lucas May reached a covering Kyle Waldrop, who applied the tag.

In the eyes of umpire Chad Whitson, Hazelbaker was out on the play.  In the eyes of so many others, he was clearly safe at home.

In Remembrance

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN. — Thinking of the men and women willing to pay any sacrifice while answering the call of our country, I’d like to share some scenes from this Memorial Day morning in downtown Indianapolis.  I’m here to observe a game long considered our National Pastime; made possible because of the citizen soldiers sworn to preserve the nation.

From the USS Indianapolis Memorial:

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From the Congressional Medal Of Honor Memorial:

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A Former PawSox Catcher Uncorked

Cincinnati+Reds+v+New+York+Mets+pgFujLkveX-lFormer PawSox Bronson Arroyo (left) and Corky Miller as members of the Cincinnati Reds.

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Surely, in the 16 seasons since he first reported to Billings, Mont. as a non-drafted free agent signed by the Cincinnati Reds, Corky Miller has picked up a few pounds on his 6-1 frame.  The long peppery curls that bracket his chin would be enough to weigh others down.

No doubt, as well, the roughly 1,200 days and nights that Miller’s spent squatting behind home plate have taken a physical toll on his now 37-year-old body.  But neither added weight nor cranky knees are enough to figuratively slow down the ninth-year Louisville Bat who marked the middle of his long career with a stint in Pawtucket.

Miller had already appeared in parts of four seasons with Louisville, the Reds Triple-A affiliate, and spent another in the Twins system by the time he joined the PawSox during the final days of April 2006.  He actually began that spring as a Mariner farmhand at Tacoma, only to be released after just two games played.

Picked up by the Red Sox, he debuted in Pawtucket on April 25.  A day later, he was in the center of one of the most infamous video clips in minor league history, catching Jon Lester during an at-bat for Durham’s Delmon Young.

Young was called out on a third strike, but lingered in the batter’s box, reportedly ignoring a warning by the home plate umpire to return to his dugout.  Young was ejected.  He reacted by tossing his bat, hitting the umpire in the chest.

Miller appeared in 62 more less eventful games that summer, including one for Boston against Durham’s parent club, Tampa Bay.  He went 0-for-4 with a strikeout in his lone appearance as a Red Sox.

The next three years, Miller moved on to the Braves and White Sox organizations, including limited stops in Atlanta and Chicago.  On June 26, 2009 he was traded from Chicago to Cincinnati for outfielder Norris Hopper.  Ever since, in what’s become an annual autumn rite, Miller’s re-signed with the Reds.  Four times.

Recently, though, while nearing his 500th lifetime appearance for the Bats, Miller hinted that 2013 may mark the last of his playing days.  He’s long considered a second career in the game as a coach.  In fact, one of his biggest advocates is former PawSox catcher Gary Allenson, the 1978 International League MVP.  Allenson, who now manages in the Blue Jays system, worked closely with Miller in the past as a catching instructor for the Reds.

Corky“We’ve talked about it several times over the past several years,” said Miller, who’s made 205 appearances in the majors and 1,009 in the minors.  “Things just keep working out where I’m still able to play, still able to get out on the field.  I’ve learned a lot in the past several years playing.  You never know what would have happened if I would have taken a coaching job.

“But this is looking like probably the last year that I’ll play, so at the end of the season we’ll have to see, as always.  But talks with the Reds are going well, as far as coaching (is concerned).”

He already has the outward appearance of a de facto coach, regularly hitting ground balls to infielders while teammates take batting practice.  And Miller has formed an inner circle with Louisville’s younger catchers, into which they welcome any other Bats.

“Me and Konrad Schmidt and Nevin Ashley, we have fun and we kind of run this team as our own,” Miller says.  “The thing that I’ve learned is that if you can mesh well with the (other) position players and the pitchers and take that out on the field, guys trust you a little bit more.  And that’s the biggest thing in catching, having that trust of not just the pitchers but the infielders.  We’ve talked a lot about how we’re going to pitch with certain guys and what we’re going to do with certain batters.  We’re pretty close.  This is probably the closest catching corps that I’ve been a part of in the last couple of years.”

Considering his longevity in Louisville, it seems Miller and the city have grown inseparable.

“I love it,” he says.  “I’ve kind of grown as the city has grown.  Downtown has really transformed into a place where people want to be.  That brings more fans out.  We’ve always had great fans, but every year it seems like we get more and more.”

Great fans, in a great place.  Not unlike his lone spring and summer with the PawSox.

“Ben Mondor was great to us, he did a lot of things for us,” Miller said of Pawtucket’s late owner.  “That PawSox team was like a family.”

Most notably the starting pitcher and shortstop for the PawSox on that late-April day in ’06 when Miller found himself in the middle of a national news story at McCoy Stadium.  But recalling Lester and Dustin Pedroia long after that unforgettable game they played against Durham, Miller thinks of attributes worth emulating; not the regrettable actions of an opponent.

“Lester was a professional.  He wanted to be perfect, and he (worked) to do that.  Battling the (cancer) that he did, and coming back and being better, it’s just a testament to him and the Red Sox,” Miller said.  “Dustin was one of those guys who in ’05 I just hated playing against.  Once I spent that short time with him, you find out why (opponents) don’t like him, because of the way he plays.  He plays to win.”

Which is to say, he plays the way Miller does.

“Every team I’ve been on I’ve enjoyed.  I’ve had a lot of fun doing it,” Miller summarizes.  “If I hadn’t, I don’t think I’d still be here.  I’d be doing something else.”

Present And Accounted For

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LOUISVILLE, KY. — The first pitch from Louisville lefty Tony Cingrani to Jackie Bradley Jr. was a fastball.  It was taken for a strike, at 7:44 p.m., an hour and nine minutes after Bradley was supposed to see Cingrani’s initial offering.

Which happened to be nearly 13 hours after the Pawtucket Red Sox left T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I. on a US Airways plane bound for Philadelphia.  They touched down in South Philly and shuttled from one terminal to another.  Immediately upon entering Terminal F, they discovered that their scheduled flight for Louisville was cancelled.

Thus began a day-long odyssey.  Much of it exploring the kiosks, newsstands and restaurants of Philadelphia International Airport.  Awaiting word on alternate plans, each of the PawSox was cast in what seemed for much of the morning and afternoon a sequel to the Tom Hanks movie, Terminal.

Finally, the team was summoned to Gate C29.  With athletic trainer Jon Jochim doubling as traveling secretary and coordinating a contingency, the PawSox were rerouted to Louisville — through Charlotte!

The second leg of the multi-city journey got underway and the team landed at roughly 3:44.  Its re-booked flight to Louisville was slated to leave at 3:45; was being the operative word.  Time of departure was pushed back to 4:15.  The wheels didn’t go up until 4:30 p.m. had come and gone.

About an hour later, at 5:43 p.m., the Sox disembarked in Louisville.  A couple of the city’s finest greeted them at the baggage carousel, ready to escort the team’s bus to the ballpark, about 15 minutes away.

Remarkably — and thankfully! — all the personal belongings made it.  Several PawSox had opted to wear their eyeglasses and pack their contact lenses.  Albeit still blurry-eyed, all collected their bags.  And off they went, led away by a police cruiser that never did sound its siren or flash its lights.

The traffic flowed freely and the bus pulled up outside the visitor’s clubhouse at about 6 p.m.

A long day had come to an end.  But a long night was just beginning.  More than three hours after Cingrani’s first pitch, Louisville closed out a 10-0 victory.

Waiting Game

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Greetings from Terminal F of the Philadelphia International Airport, where the Pawtucket Red Sox have spent most of Thursday morning.  The PawSox flew out of Providence, as scheduled, at 7 a.m.  They even arrived a few minutes early here in Philly, only to be alerted that their connecting flight to Louisville was cancelled.  With this evening’s scheduled game against the Bats, commencing an eight-day road trip, in jeopardy, the club waits for contingency plans to be carried out.

Meantime, here a few passing thoughts — recent quotes from manager Gary DiSarcina, actually — about a couple of the recent under-the-radar additions to the Pawtucket roster:

  • Right-handed relief pitcher Chris Martin, who’s yet to allow a run in 26.0 innings overall this year at Double-A and Triple-A, including 5.0 scoreless innings (two hits allowed) for the PawSox:  “He’s very cool, calm and collected…he has good command of his fastball…(delivery has) a great angle, he stays down (in the strike zone)…He’s quiet.  You don’t know he’s really on the team until he gets on the mound.  Then it’s like, ‘Who is this?'”
  • Backup catcher Alberto Rosario, a very solid receiver and game manager with whom DiSarcina is familiar from time spent in the Los Angeles Angels organization:  “It’s great to have a guy like Rosario.  I’m happy with him.  I love his effort.  He made a huge play (picking off a runner in Sunday’s win over Indianapolis).  I was asked about him (by Red Sox front office personnel) and gave a favorable impression.”

Martin, who twice went unsigned after being drafted by major league clubs, eventually went the Independent League route to professional baseball.  At 6-foot-7, with a long stride to the plate that makes him appear even taller, he literally seems to have a huge upside for the Sox.  He has the makings of a late-inning complement to fellow right-hander Jose De La Torre in helping to set up Anthony Carter.

Rosario affords the organization the luxury of having a capable, veteran backup to Dan Butler, so long as Ryan Lavarnway remains in Boston.  His presence on the PawSox also allows the organization to keep the talented Christian Vazquez in Portland, where he can continue developing in the lineup on an everyday basis.  “It’s great for Vazquez,” DiSarcina says.  “We don’t have to push him.”

Beautiful Weekend

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — There’s no measuring the rewards of doing what you love, especially when what you love to do revolves around fun and games.  This past weekend, for instance, I was privy to simple pleasures and special scenes.  Most featured players of the present, as well as future generations of athletes.  A few involved the act of recreating the past.  Following are a handful of images — and reflections — from the last few days that I’d love to share with you.

IMG_1170One of my favorite times during the baseball season are the late-afternoon hours before an evening game, especially when a blue sky is spotted only by a few wispy clouds.  That’s when I truly appreciate the sights and sounds of the sport, as teams warm-up and take batting practice.  And the ballpark comes to life.  There’s the pop-pop-pop of balls landing in the gloves of players lined up side by side by side, playing catch.  The crack of the bat, followed shortly by another, and another; with every round of B.P.  All accompanied by background music and chatter heard ’round the batting cage.

IMG_1191On Saturday, I was fortunate enough to watch a group of  current and former New England Patriots hold their first “Football for YOU” clinic of the season in Newtown, Conn.  In all, more than 30 players, coaches and cheerleaders touched the lives of nearly 500 youngsters from a special community devastated by last December’s senseless and tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

IMG_1186Kids as young as six years old excitedly ran and jumped, passed and caught with joy.  Their enthusiasm was matched by instructions and encouragement from ex-Pats ranging from Gino Cappelletti to Patrick Pass and contemporary stars like Rob Gronkowski and Jerod Mayo.  At the same time, 120-plus girls took part in a cheerleading clinic, before staging a special performance.  The team’s chairman and CEO Robert Kraft also attended.

IMG_1184I was proud of everything I saw.  Not just as a guest of the team’s and a New Englander; but as a citizen.  Period.  All of us should take pride in days, events like this.  Including the PawSox.  One of the local organizers I met has a son on the Newtown High baseball team, which traveled to McCoy Stadium to play Tolman High in late April.  Describing the experience, he spoke with great gratitude.  Like Saturday’s appearance by the Patriots, the Newtown visit to Pawtucket proved unforgettable.

IMG_1198The weekend concluded with a Sunday doubleheader.  Prior to the PawSox encounter with the Indianapolis Indians, resulting in an 11-3 rout in favor of the home club, the Providence Grays met Olneyville in a vintage ball game.  One ball.  One mitt, on the catcher’s hand.  One heckuva sight to see.

IMG_1201It was as if the First Inning of the Ken Burns’ epic on PBS, Baseball, was unfolding before my eyes.  Not something you witness every day.  But indicative of the many somethings you’re liable to experience every day you get to do what you love to do.

JBJ Returns To Lineup

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — The original lineup card for Friday’s series finale vs. the Gwinnett Braves featured Justin Henry in the leadoff spot as the designated hitter for the Pawtucket Red Sox.  A little more than two hours before the first pitch, Henry’s name was crossed off and Jackie Bradley Jr.’s was penciled in.

Bradley, the talented young outfielder who opened the season with Boston and joined the PawSox on April 19, hasn’t played since May 3.  Three days later, he was placed on the disabled list, retroactive to the 4th, with right biceps tendinitis.  About a week ago, in the middle of a trip to Gwinnett and Charlotte, Bradley returned to on-field batting practice.

Tonight he returns to the left-hander’s batter’s box at McCoy Stadium against Daniel Rodriguez and the Braves, after being evaluated by Red Sox Coordinator of Sports Medicine Service Dan Dyrek.

“(Jackie) threw the ball well today,” said Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina, who indicated that Bradley will be eased into action.

Moving forward, DiSarcina will look at and listen to Bradley with the eye and ear of someone whose major league career was cut short after 12 years by recurring shoulder problems.

“You parse through the words, and you watch,” DiSarcina says.  “You watch body language.  You see slumping at times, you see guys picking at their shoulders and moving their arms around (when in pain).  You just watch him.  (He’s) gonna tell you if you watch him.”

Bradley went 6-for-12 with three runs, a double and two RBI his last three games, raising his overall average to .302 and on-base percentage to .400.

“For five to seven days (prior to his injury), he was back to the Jackie we saw in spring training,” said DiSarcina, alluding to Bradley’s outstanding performance for the Red Sox during Grapefruit League action in March.  “We’ve got to be careful to monitor his work.”

Rollin’ With Rick…

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — With this entry, it’s official.  There’s a mutual admiration society in the PawSox blogosphere.

If  you’re a frequent visitor to my neighbor at www.pawsox.com, you know that Rick Mederios often takes the reader along for the ride on the road in his wildly entertaining “Rollin’ With Rick.”  Sometimes he’s kind enough to give you a glimpse inside the radio booth I share with Jeff Levering.  Rick’s always welcome there.  Especially because, as you may know, he often writes nice things about the things we say.

So here’s a little reciprocation.

Before he started rollin’ and writin’, Rick devoted much of his adult life to law enforcement.   Eventually, he was hired as Director of Security at McCoy Stadium, a position he still fills.  Another of his roles involves following and preceding the PawSox on their annual tour of the International League.

Rick transports the hundreds of pounds of equipment essential to the Sox in their 144-game trek through baseball’s regular season.  That means bats and balls, the trainer’s medical trunks and the strength coach’s conditioning gear.  And, every now and then, a few sets of golf clubs for the Sox who like to get out and hit the little, dimpled ball when they’re not striking or throwing the larger one made of stitched-together cowhide.

IMG_0905Wherever his driving duties take him, Rick also packs his computer and a camera.  He then invites us into his world, with both his prose and his pictures.  Many of his photos end up in Rollin’ With Rick, on the PawSox Facebook page and as part of game recaps for the team’s website.

No doubt, somewhere on this site, you’ve seen some of them for yourself.

He puts in a lot of long days and long nights.  To coin a cliche, our Rollin’ Rick gathers no moss.

Case in point, consider Monday night.  The PawSox just wrapped up a series at Charlotte and most — if not all — of the players were on their way to the hotel.   Rick remained at the loading dock, outside Knights Stadium in Fort Mill, S.C.

He wouldn’t be leaving until all the clubhouse lockers were emptied, the travel bags packed and the yellow Penske box truck fully loaded and locked.  At least Rick had company.  Lou Ledoux, the founder of Axis Bats, had flown down there to share the hours behind the wheel on the drive back.

Even when Rick’s on a roll, 845 miles through the night is a bit much for one person.  Super human or not.

To pass the time as he waited for his cargo, Rick decided to pass the ball.  That’s when Jeff  and I came across him.  Rick tossed me the football he was holding, and I thew it back.  He then tucked the ball under his arm and did his best Desmond Howard-impersonating-the-Heisman-Trophy impersonation.

Before long, Jeff and I left for the hotel too.  The PawSox were scheduled to fly out early in the morning.

Rick and Lou stayed behind.  They weren’t quite ready to put the football away with the rest of the baseball stuff and start out for Rhode Island.

The next day, after the team arrived at Boston Logan Airport and bused to Pawtucket, we pulled into the McCoy Stadium parking lot and found the equipment truck, still being unloaded.  It was about 1 p.m.  Traffic between the Carolinas and New England had been backed up in spots.  A long drive was made even longer.

Nonetheless, like the PawSox, their equipment made it home.

Getting it from there to here turned out to be a hard job.  Somebody had to do it.  The Sox were lucky they had Rick Medeiros.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

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FORT MILL, S.C. — About a half hour before the first pitch of Sunday’s matinee pairing the Pawtucket Red Sox with the Charlotte Knights, the sight of a solitary figure in the visitor’s bullpen led me to think of the famous joke about Carnegie Hall.

Though the set-up is re-told in various ways, the punch line is always the same.  And while the origins of the timeless refrain remain unknown, the best explanation, according to the official “History of the Hall” at www.carnegiehall.org, comes from the wife of violinist Mischa Elman.

Supposedly, one day Elman left a rehearsal through a backstage exit, carrying his violin case, when he was spotted by two tourists.

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” they asked.

Without looking up or breaking stride, Elman replied: “Practice.”

Dan Butler wasn’t carrying, but was rather wearing his instruments on Sunday.  Outfitted in most of his catcher’s gear, he was still a few minutes from warming up Pawtucket’s starting pitcher Alfredo Aceves.

Alone alongside the left-field line, he squatted as if awaiting an imaginary pitch from an invisible battery mate.  He shifted right and dropped to his knees.  No way was he going to let the ball that wasn’t there get past him for a wild pitch.  Butler then repeated his actions, this time moving to his left.

When he was satisfied that the figments of his imagination wouldn’t get by, Butler began mimicking what would be his in-game reaction to a stolen base attempt.  He popped out of his crouch and cocked his right hand behind his right ear.  Again and again.

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Butler was training his muscle memory to be mechanically precise.  Like a fighter shadow boxing.  Or a musician rehearsing on his own.

Eventually, Aceves joined him in the pen.  And another thought occurred to me.

How does someone who went undrafted out of college reach the 40-man roster of the major league team that signed him in the late summer of 2009?  Practice.

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Fostering Baseball Dreams

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FORT MILL, S.C. — The cameo occurred in Season 23, Episode 9.  David Howard was nearing the end of a nine-year major league career, mostly spent with Kansas City before concluding in St. Louis.

front.phpHis was hardly a household name, at least outside of Missouri.  Which was part of the point of his inclusion in the 1997 skit on Saturday Night Live known as “Baseball Dreams.”  Among a number of mainly non-stars, ranging from Pedro Borbon Jr. to Gerald Williams, Howard shares a set with the incomparable Will Farrell and adorable guest host Helen Hunt.

Hunt plays the mother of a ‘young boy’ (SNL cast member Chris Kattan), whom she tucks into bed, leaving him alone with his wish of someday becoming a baseball player.  Hunt closes the door behind her, and a parade of big leaguers, led by Todd Hundley, emerge from the boy’s closet.

Suffice to say, in their attempt to inspire the youngster, the ballplayers instead convince him to abandon his dream.  The scene is pretty humorous.  And it’s very ironic.  Howard, whose boyish looks seemed to make him a central-casting member of a Midwestern baseball club like the Cardinals, passes out plastic cups.  Meanwhile, ex-Royals teammate Mike Sweeney, often described as a teetotaler, lugs around a beer keg.

With that and other adult-oriented content, we’ll refrain from linking any video to this family-friendly blog.  But if you’re of proper age, it’s worth a Google for a chuckle or two.

Having done just that shortly after listening to David Howard speak from the dugout bench during the Pawtucket Red Sox current road trip, it’s hard to believe the guy in the YouTube clip is one and the same with the veteran baseball man espousing his own family’s baseball values.Bruce_Howard-1968

Howard is in his 10th season with the Red Sox organization and his fourth as Minor League Field Coordinator.  After devising the daily schedules of drills and games for minor league spring training camp, he oversees instruction throughout Boston’s farm system.

He also is a second-generation major leaguer, the son of former pitcher Bruce Howard.  While David played in more than 600 games as an infielder from 1991-99, Bruce appeared in 120 contests with the White Sox, Orioles and Senators from 1963-68.

Sixteen years after his appearance, live from New York, Howard joined the PawSox Insider radio show.  During our conversation, Howard discussed development of current pros, as well as his own growth in the game as a kid.

For parents of kids with baseball dreams, it’s worth a listen.  The complete interview with Howard, unlike his SNL cameo, follows: