May 25, 2024

How TikTok breakout Jordan Howlett’s baseball dream led him to social-media stardom

Jordan Howlett spends a lot of time looking in the mirror.

That’s where the man better known as “Jordan The Stallion” stands in his San Diego home, filming viral videos for his almost 30 million social media followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.

Howlett is 27, though Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would guess older.

Since establishing his TikTok account in mid-2020, Howlett has grown immensely popular as a friendly neighborhood Gen Z creator, a guy in his bathroom sharing self-deprecating stories, explainers, life hacks and classified restaurant recipes.

Jonah Gercke lived across the street from Howlett when they were teens in Oceanside, Calif. Now, he films Howlett’s YouTube videos. What started as a guy recording on an iPhone in the mirror now occasionally includes on-set collaborations with celebrities, like Method Man. During a recent shoot with comedian Kevin Hart, Gercke was struck by how calmly confident Howlett was taking creative control on set: He had a vision and knew it would work.

A few years ago, Gercke made a documentary short about Howlett.

“I was interested in capturing a moment where somebody is on the cusp of a big break, but is stuck in a limbo period,” Gercke said. “You’re working so hard. You’re equal parts confident in yourself and incredibly doubtful. The moment before incredible success, or incredible failure — what does that feel like?”

The documentary had nothing to do with social media. It was about baseball.

See, when Howlett looked in the mirror in high school, he saw a skinny kid with an afro wearing second-hand clothes. His parents worked hard to provide for their two boys, but they didn’t have much. Howlett was a dreamer. He wanted to make it big, to have fame and fortune, and wipe away his family’s worries. One day, when Howlett was 16, he watched an MLB game with his dad. He imagined being on TV, with his last name and favorite number on the back of a jersey, and thought: That’s the coolest thing in the world.

He decided to become a big leaguer. However, his plan had two problems. The first was that his charter school offered only one sport: archery.

The other issue was that Howlett had never played baseball.

“I knew balls, strikes and home runs,” he said. “That’s it.”

It wasn’t clear to Howlett what separated pros from average Joes, but baseball looked like a career offering longevity and financial security. He sat down and sketched a roadmap to the majors. After reading that less than 10 percent of college ballplayers are drafted, Howlett made it his mission to maximize his odds: Division I or bust. Then he asked Gercke to play catch.

Soon after, Howlett transferred to Oceanside High School, north of San Diego, as a sophomore and showed up to baseball tryouts wearing a flannel shirt, oversized athletic shorts and basketball shoes. The coaches sent him to right field. He lost the first fly ball in the sun. He saw the rest but missed them anyway. Grounders bounced under his glove. Throws sailed. Batting practice was mostly swings and misses.

Before Howlett headed home, one of the best players on the field, infielder Saúl Sandoval-Estrada, approached and said, “Mad respect.”

Sandoval-Estrada, who’d later play at Pepperdine, stayed after practice each day to hit the gym and batting cages. After tryouts, Sandoval-Estrada was hitting alone when Howlett popped into the cages and asked to join. He returned the next night and the next.

“He kept coming back,” Sandoval-Estrada said.

Howlett’s work ethic won him a junior varsity bench spot. He did homework at lunch so he could stay late with Sandoval-Estrada, his after-school baseball sensei. Howlett had bat speed and raw power, but no pitch recognition. Before one game, Sandoval-Estrada warned him about the pitcher’s curveball: “It’ll look like it’s coming at your face, but don’t back out. It’ll be a strike.” Here came a fastball up and in. Howlett didn’t move. The ball caught him squarely in the jaw, and Howlett hit the dirt.

“It was crickets on the field,” Sandoval-Estrada said. “Like, oh my gosh. Is his jaw broken?”

Howlett felt his jaw, got up and sprinted to first.

Arizona Diamondbacks area scout Jeremiah Luster, who was drafted out of Oceanside and played five seasons in the minors, got a call from a coach wanting him to encourage a kid who’d just picked up baseball. That’s how he met Howlett. “The dude was bad,” Luster said. “Like, bad. But he showed up. Every time I was there, he was there. And every time he was a little bit better.”

Coaches initially called Howlett “Chicken Legs,” but the more he trained, the bigger he got and the farther the baseball flew off his bat. Howlett gave his first home-run ball to his parents, who’ve held on to it ever since. Late in his sophomore season, Howlett smacked a game-winning single in the ninth inning, and his team celebrated afterward at In-N-Out Burger.

Now, he’s sharing In-N-Out secrets to his millions of devoted online followers.

Howlett’s brother, Elijah, older by four years, had seen him obsess over Power Rangers as a kid, and later professional wrestling. But he’d never locked on to anything as much as he did his Division I dream.

“There wasn’t a conversation that didn’t either begin or end with baseball,” Elijah said.

Howlett likes to say that the way someone plays baseball tells a story about them. When asked recently what story his play told, Howlett replied, “Desperation. Persistence. Perseverance. Eagerness. It was everything. When I’m playing, you can tell that nothing in the world matters more than the game. I don’t care about what will happen after. I don’t care about what happened before. I am a severely anxious person. I deal with (it) constantly and manage it. When I step on the field, all of that goes away. I can’t worry about that. I only worry about what’s in front of me. So, in a way, it was very tranquil.”

He hid much of that anxiety. Family and friends praised Howlett when he started playing junior college ball at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., after just three years in baseball, but they didn’t know how hard he was pushing himself. Each day, the designated hitter worked out three times, drank two gallons of water, and ate a couple of plates of unseasoned chicken for protein. He gained 40 pounds as a freshman, up to 230.

But he was depressed and lonely. His hell-bent belief he’d go Division I rubbed teammates the wrong way. They didn’t think they were better than JUCO ball. Why did he? Howlett spent his free time watching documentaries about athletes who beat the odds. Most teammates couldn’t relate to his mindset.

In the summer of 2018, D-I UC Riverside held a series of showcases ahead of walk-on tryouts. After Howlett attended the first few, a Riverside assistant reminded him there was no need to go to every open practice. Howlett wanted the coaches to see how quickly he improved, though, so he kept showing up.

The 21-year-old couldn’t walk on without being a Riverside student, so he enrolled and emptied his bank account for the first tuition payment. At tryouts, he smashed a few pitches, flashing his pull power, then waited on a decision. While he waited, sleeping in his car in the parking lot beside the baseball field, another tuition bill arrived — $3,000 he didn’t have.

Then, one night, Riverside assistant coach Justin Johnson called.

“Come in,” Johnson said. “We want to talk to you.”

Howlett hustled across the parking lot. Troy Percival, Riverside’s head coach at the time and a former All-Star reliever, shook Howlett’s hand and welcomed him to the team.

“I’ll always be grateful for Percy,” Howlett said. “He took a chance on me.”

Howlett said his tuition bill went from $3,000 to $0. He’s still not sure how that happened. When he inquired, the school said a scholarship was covering his costs.

In February 2020, Luster, the Diamondbacks scout, was at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Los Angeles for a season-opening series between UCLA and UC Riverside. He was there to watch UCLA’s Matt McLain and Garrett Mitchell, who’d both eventually be first-round picks. But at one point, Luster glanced at the Riverside dugout and saw Howlett leaning against the railing.

“I’m like, holy s—,” he said. “This dude made it.”

Howlett tells stories for a living, so he knows this is where you’d expect a highlight montage. Putting on his Riverside uniform for the first time. (“A moment of excitement and pride I can’t even express.”) Hitting a ball an estimated 440 feet in batting practice. (“Boom. The minute it touched the bat, it was a seed.”) An MLB scout taking notice. (“He asked our coach, ‘Who’s that guy?’”)

But the truth is, Howlett’s baseball dream ended far earlier than he had hoped. He redshirted his first year at Riverside, and he had yet to appear in a game when the NCAA season was shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the last day of his baseball career, Howlett went through infield/outfield drills and took batting practice. “Then I left, thinking we’d be right back.”

Howlett reached Division I. But he never got an at-bat.

He was not a pro prospect, especially with the draft shrinking that season and minor-league contraction ahead. That was it.

But Howlett wanted to say goodbye to baseball. So, he took out a notebook and wrote.

“It was a love letter,” he said, “but it was also a desperate cry for people to please understand what I just went through.”

The four-minute video — with Elijah’s editing and Gercke’s footage — is the oldest and one of the least-viewed on Howlett’s YouTube channel, but perhaps the most important personally.

Less than a week after uploading “Dear Baseball” in May 2020, Howlett posted his first TikTok, a Stephen A. Smith clip overlaid with the words: “One day imma be viral. This thick stallion will run wild.” Elijah had started on TikTok first, making short “The Daily Show”-style videos spoofing the day’s headlines. His little brother soon found a niche, creating motivational content and videos showcasing his observational humor. His first viral video was about his uncle’s laugh. When Howlett hit 10,000 followers, Sandoval-Estrada said, “That was mind-boggling to us.” Then, someone recognized Howlett at a theater. “I never thought that would happen,” friend Jason Koski said.

As the follower count skyrocketed, friends saw Howlett working tirelessly to build an audience, striving for success on social media the same way he had on the diamond.

“His success is not by accident,” Sandoval-Estrada said. “It’s not some viral, random-chance opportunity. (It’s) a direct reflection of the work he put into baseball. Put that work ethic on top of his personality, which I promise you is authentic, and translate that to social media — it’s a wrap.”

Howlett’s secret sauce on social media is a recipe in its own right. His content is consistent. Viewers start a video knowing what to expect. He’s filming in a bathroom mirror. Beard. Glasses. Phone in his left hand, notebook in his right. He’ll say, “Come here,” zoom in, and then take a deep dive into an uncontroversial — or playfully controversial — topic. It’ll be entertaining, maybe enlightening. That’s just Jordan The Stallion.

Most followers know nothing of Howlett’s life before social media stardom. But he believes he’s only gotten this far because of baseball. The Division I dream that consumed eight years of Howlett’s life set him up for the career that came next. His personality became more of a draw than his power.

The Chicago White Sox invited Howlett to throw out a ceremonial first pitch last season. It was just as he imagined as a kid, with his last name and favorite number on the back of the jersey. Howlett bounced the fastball but beamed anyway.

“It meant absolutely everything to me,” he said. “That was probably more of a closure moment for me than anything else. Having my last name on a jersey, and an announcer saying my name on a major-league field, on a mound, and people can see me. That’s something I wanted as a kid. That was something I wanted my parents to see. Now, that’s a moment no one can take from me.”

Recently, Luster was at a high school game, watching one of the top prep pitchers in the country, when a couple of scouts started talking about Howlett.

Luster pulled out his phone and texted Howlett.

Dude, the scouts at this game are showing your TikToks in the stands.

None of them had seen him play baseball. They just liked his content.

(Top photos: Randy Shropshire / Getty Images for TikTok; Courtesy of Jordan Howlett)