June 24, 2002
By Dan VanderPas
Post-Crescent assistant sports editor
Baseball isn’t only about home runs, stolen bases, strikes and balls. Joan Howell makes that clear.
Even though the Appleton woman has enjoyed a love affair with America’s pastime since before the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series in 1957, baseball is more than wins and losses for her, too.
To Howell, who has been wheelchair bound for about four years, baseball is an invigorating night out. It gives her the sense of satisfaction that goes with being a part of a team. It’s great therapy.
Howell, 54, has coped with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system that results in the loss of muscular coordination, since 1976. At times since then, there were moments when she wondered if fighting the good fight could get any worse. There were humid summer days when life became an unbearable battle with fatigue.
But baseball and other sports have been her oasis. She enjoys watching the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers on television even though they’re not playing well this year. There’s nothing like being actively involved at the ballpark, though, and that’s what Howell is doing these days.
Howell and her husband, Randy, have been following youth baseball since their son, Matthew, competed in Little League, and the old Grand Chute/Freedom/Center League.
Randy coached his son through the years, and Joan was their best fan.
Later, Matthew played American Legion baseball and then moved to the Appleton Rebels. When he graduated from the league in 1999, the Howells stayed on as volunteers with coach Mike Clish and the Rebels. Randy is a base coach for the team, while Joan is a loyal statistician.
She sits in her wheelchair during games and charts the action with her laptop computer. There’s a special baseball-scoring program downloaded in the computer that enables her to fill in lineups and keep track of every play.
When the program was installed in the computer, Joan had a couple of practice runs as she watched games on television. Now, she prides herself in being accurate.
“The hardest part is getting the lineups into the computer 10 minutes before the game,” she said. “I know that if I miss a play, I can check the official scorebook in the dugout. I prefer sitting alone and not talking too much during the game, though, because I don’t want to miss anything.”
Clish appreciates what Joan and her husband bring to the Rebels.
“Joan shows the loyalty displayed by some of our people through the years,” Clish said. “Joan and Randy are always there. Rain or shine, Joan shows up. She always has a smiling face. She’s always cheerful.”
Joan flashed that big smile last Monday during a doubleheader in Sheboygan.
The Rebels had just executed a rundown and tagged out two runners.
“They did it perfectly,” Joan said. “There were about five throws. It was so great to pull that off. The best part is watching the kids improve throughout the season.”
Since Joan records and stores all of the Rebels’ statistics in her computer, she can tell Clish how many innings pitchers have worked during the previous week or month.
She also can advise him about players who aren’t getting much playing time. All she has to do is look it up.
In the game of life, though, Joan didn’t get many years of playtime herself. She’s proud to be a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh graduate and former physical education teacher for 12 years, locally in Kaukauna as well as in cities in other states during her husband’s 10 years in the military.
But when she learned that she had multiple sclerosis, the family was devastated for a time.
“She was in her late 20s in 1976, it was the Fourth of July and we were in Germany,” said Randy, who will celebrate 33 years of marriage with Joan next month.
“When we learned of the diagnosis, we found out what we could about MS. We knew things would happen.
“When she was diagnosed, there wasn’t the treatment that there is today. We knew things would gradually get worse. We knew we’d have to learn to deal with it.”
At times, dealing with multiple sclerosis felt like getting hit with a beanball. In 1984, Joan had a severe attack, and was forced to use a cane. She still wanted to teach.
“In my head, I thought I could still teach,” she said. “But in my heart, I had to convince myself that I couldn’t.
“There are times when I’m down. I feel like I was totally ripped off. There are days when I feel sorry for myself. But that doesn’t get you anywhere, so you might as well accept it.”
Now, Joan and her husband count the little victories. They try to live each day with a smile, and they don’t take a minute for granted.
Joan appreciates it on those hot nights when considerate parents of players bring her ice for her neck or wet towels. She loves the interaction with the boys of summer, too.
“Baseball isn’t boring,” she said. “Going to more than 30 Rebels games at home and away during the season isn’t boring. You meet a lot of nice people. I never get tired of sitting. I’m used to it.
“There are 17- and 18-year-old boys I would have never gotten to meet without baseball. Since this disease robbed me of my profession as a teacher, keeping score makes me feel like I’m contributing something. If I didn’t love baseball, I wouldn’t be there.”
Dan VanderPas can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 230
Copyright © 2001, Gannett Wisconsin Online