Ryan Howard was 24 when he hit his first major-league home run, a two-run shot off Bartolome Fortunato of the Mets on Sept. 11, 2004. It was Howard's 10th at-bat as a late-season call-up at the end of his fourth year in the Phillies organization.
Looking back now across the long spread of his career, that moment seems inevitable. Howard became one of the great power hitters of his generation. Of course, he would make it. Of course, he would succeed. Of course, he would announce himself quickly against a struggling reliever who was fortunato never to face him again.
That isn't the way the major leagues work, however. Nothing is guaranteed at that level, and no success is preordained. Howard was big and strong and had potential, but he had to play four seasons of college ball at Missouri State before being taken by the Phillies in the fifth round of the 2001 amateur draft. There were 139 players selected ahead of him, but if the future were so easy to see, there probably wouldn't have been any.
The Phillies saw enough in Howard to like him but not as much as they liked Terry Jones apparently, a shortstop taken in the fourth round who never advanced past Class A and whose claim to fame was being second cousin to Rodney Peete. The year Jones made his final appearance in small type at the back of the Phillies media guide, Howard made his first on the cover.
The lesson is that faith is fleeting within a baseball organization and not always well-placed. But for a player to make the big leagues, confidence and belief in oneself are everything. Howard always believed. He always thought he could own the next pitch. He thought so during those four seasons in the dripping humidity of the Missouri Valley Conference and during his first short season of professional ball at low-A Batavia, when he hit just six home runs in 203 plate appearances. He kept believing the following season at Lakewood, where he hit 19 home runs in 570 plate appearances.
The organization was intrigued, no question, but little was assured. Class A is a long way from the big leagues. The pitching would get better at every step. The breaking balls would be thrown for strikes, or the tantalizing appearance of them. The water would get deeper, and it would be up to Howard to swim.
Well, he did fine, and eventually he wasn't the only one who fully believed any longer. Everyone knew what Ryan Howard could do. The arc rose like a great drive toward the bleachers, crested, and then, over the course of 13 major-league seasons, it gradually gave way to the pull of time and gravity. Now he finds himself back where he started. Only one person is truly convinced he can hit in the big leagues, and Howard sees him in the mirror every morning.
Nothing has changed in his mind, except the 21-year-old draft pick is now 37. He scuffled to find a team willing to offer a minor-league contract this season, landed with Atlanta's triple A affiliate, and got a chance to hit his way back to the major leagues. The Braves took a look, with one eye on Howard and the other on a May stretch in which they would play seven games in American League parks with a designated hitter. That stretch began Tuesday night in Houston, one day after Atlanta ended the experiment by releasing Howard. He was hitting .184 with one home run in 11 games.
The easy reaction is to wonder why Howard didn't know the end has arrived, why $190 million isn't enough to peaceably enter a stage of life where sliders on the outside corner will no longer bedevil him. How many times does a man have to turn from the plate and take that lonely walk back to the dugout before it all becomes clear?
The answer is that it is Howard's business and no one else's. He is not tarnishing his career. He is respecting it. If some other organization gives him another chance, he will take it. The result will probably be the same, but he has been a ballplayer all his life, and he will continue to think like one even when no one will give him a uniform. There is a steeliness of purpose there that can't be shut down on command.
Howard's last major-league home run, a bookend of the first, was also a two-run homer against the Mets. He hit it on Oct. 1 against Bartolo Colon, the last of 382 for his career. At least we assume it was the last. It's easy to mark a player's first one, but no one knows right away which is the last. As Howard trotted around the bases seven months ago, he didn't think it was that one. He still doesn't.
If you liked Ryan Howard because he believed in himself enough to get to the major leagues in the first place, when the list of believers was not very long, then you are honor-bound by the love of the game to like him now because he somehow believes he can get there again.