It was near the beginning of the movie “Bull Durham” when the fictional minor-league lifer, Crash Davis, walked into the manager’s office and introduced himself: “I’m the player to be named later.”
Ryan Howard didn’t have to introduce himself in Gwinnett two weeks ago. He had no plans to pursue Crash’s minor-league home run record. He spent most of his career crushing pitches in the majors. He hit 58 homers in 2006 and averaged 44 homers with 133 RBIs for a six-year period.
He doesn’t need the thrill of a liner off the bull in the outfield. He has had bigger honors: rookie of the year, MVP, NLCS MVP.
Crash’s career was about bus rides and meal money. Howard’s last contract earned him $125 million, and he made more than $190 million in his career. So what was he doing in the minors Wednesday night, playing a game for the Gwinnett Braves against … the Durham Bulls?
“There’s more in the tank,” Howard said. “I’ve told guys, ‘When you walk away, don’t do it with something still left in the tank because you’re always going to wonder, ‘What could I have done?’”
Nobody knows for sure what he can still do. But this seems certain: The Braves’ $750,000 gamble on Ryan Howard makes a lot more sense than the Hawks’ $70.5 million gamble on Dwight Howard. They share only a last name.
Ryan Howard is 37 years old. He was never the same after suffering a torn Achilles in a 2011 divisional playoff game. He clubbed 262 homers from 2006-11 but only 96 from 2012-16. The Phillies declined an option and said goodbye to him after last season, but they felt so connected to a player who grew to be one of the more popular in franchise history that they honored him at the end of the season.
The event came off as a retirement announcement, but that never was Howard’s intention.
“I knew I wanted to continue to play,” he said. “I think things kind of got misconstrued with the send-off. People thought I was walking away from the game, but it was never that.”
He just wanted to play. A couple of teams talked to him, including the Braves. They signed him last month to a minor league contract for relative minimum wage.
They probably figured it was worth it just to keep him off somebody else’s roster because Howard had wrecked Braves pitchers for most of his career: 52 homers, 155 RBIs, .280 batting average, .935 OPS, multiple villages burned to the ground.
The Braves are looking at Howard as a potential left-handed bat for their anemic bench, as well as a potential DH for road inter-league series. There are three trips to American League cities in May: Houston (9-10), Toronto (15-16) and the Los Angeles Angels (29-31). They also play at Oakland on June 30-July 2.
But can Howard still hit major league pitching? He had 25 homers, even if hitting only .196 last season. But he was far better after the All-Star break (.262 average, .932 OPS) than before it (.154, .567).
Condition-wise, he’s still in relative spring training with Gwinnett because of the late signing and was hitting only .179 (5-for-28, all singles) after eight games. But in his second at-bat Wednesday, he slapped a 2-2 pitch over the left-field wall at Coolray Field for a two-run homer.
“Everything is a work in progress,” he said of his swing.
“I know I can still do it. The numbers in the second half showed that.”
But he wouldn’t speculate how close he was, saying: “Major league pitching can be different from this. You can go from an extended time when you can’t hit anything, and then you go to the major leagues and you hit everything. I’ve seen guys who’ve done that after rehab stints.”
If Howard doesn’t make it, it won’t be for a lack of work. He worked for two hours on the field before Wednesday’s game, including two batting-practice sessions, stretching, fielding and light running.
“It’s not like he’s just showing up to hit BP and going back to the clubhouse,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill said. “He does everything everybody else does.”
This hasn’t been easy. Howard spent 16 years with one organization and, as he said, “Once you leave the minor leagues, you want to not come back.” When Howard won his MVP award in 2006, Gwinnett teammate Ozzie Albies was 9 years old.
But he never considered retirement, even if he couldn’t help but feel a bit jilted by his exit from Philadelphia.
“At some point in people’s lives, you always go through something that is not necessarily what you want it to be,” he said. “Instead of sitting there and singing woulda-shoulda-coulda’s and being upset about it, you just take the opportunities that are given to you and make the most of it.”
After the Durham series, Gwinnett travels to a weekend series against the Charlotte Knights. The big-league Braves will be at home against St. Louis. Howard likely will be on the bus. Like Crash, he’s just trying to get to “The Show.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.