It was one game, two at-bats. Also, it’s spring training. So take this with a boulder-sized grain of salt. Still, when it comes to Ryan Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies, any good news is welcome.

On Tuesday, Howard delivered some good news.

Hitting cleanup in the Phillies’ spring opener against the New York Yankees (we won’t count the embarrassing loss to the University of Tampa on Sunday), Howard went 2-for-2 with an RBI. And more importantly, he looked good doing it.

Here’s manager Ryne Sandberg, discussing his much-maligned first baseman on Feb. 26, per‘s Matt Lombardo: 

His body right now looks like it will allow him to be more productive. … Just running the bases he even looks better. It looks like he has a much better chance of scoring from second base, much better getting to the cut-off spot playing first base. There should be some more range there with the way he looks from the waist down.

It was worth wondering how the former MVP was doing between the ears after Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told 97.5 The Fanatic‘s Mike Missanelli in December that it would “bode better for the organization not with [Howard] but without him.”

Howard is owed $50 million over the next two seasons, plus a $10 million buyout for 2017. So it’s no surprise Amaro found no takers in the trade market. Howard posted a paltry .223/.310/.380 slash line in 153 games last year and paced baseball with 190 whiffs.

“His lower half has quit on him,” an unnamed evaluator told‘s Buster Olney after last season. “He just can’t move. I think of him as a .240, .250 hitter. He’s not a legitimate 40-homer guy anymore; he’s a legitimate 20-homer guy.”

Given Howard’s trajectory, even those lowered expectations seemed Pollyanna-esque.

I say “seemed,” but you could keep it in the present tense. Again, a little “best shape of his life” buzz and one good spring game don’t erase three years of steady decline.

But imagine if Howard could recapture the form that led him to four consecutive top-five MVP finishes between 2006—when he won the award—and 2009.

How much would that guy fetch, either at the deadline or next winter, especially if the rebuilding Phillies were willing to eat part of his salary? 

That’s jumping way, way ahead. Even if Howard keeps hitting and looking spry in the Grapefruit League, he’ll have to translate that success to the regular season before anyone takes his comeback seriously.

The list of injury-plagued 35-year-olds who have resurrected their careers is a short one.

For the moment, though, Phils fans (always a critical bunch) can be forgiven for looking through rose-colored glasses. 

Howard is an easy guy to root for—affable, energetic and by all accounts a visible clubhouse presence. Last year, as’s Jim Salisbury noted, that all melted away:

There were times in 2014 when you’d look at Howard plowing his way through pregame sprints and wonder if he really wanted to be there. You’d look at him walk dejectedly back to the dugout after one of his majors-leading 190 strikeouts and wonder what was going through his mind. Money can’t buy confidence and Howard’s appeared to be shattered in 2014. 

In addition to his on-field struggles, David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News reports Howard was embroiled in a legal battle with family members “over control of his finances.”

So we’re looking at a mountain of distractions that explain Howard’s plightand cast serious doubt on his ability to overcome.

That doubt won’t disappear tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, no matter what Howard does on the diamond.

Still, for a player who not so long ago ranked among the game’s most feared sluggers, it had to feel pretty good to be doing positive things on the diamond once again.


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