CLEARWATER, Fla. -- At bat No. 1: The giant leads off the second inning. "Batting fourth, the first baseman, number six, Ryan Howard." A pretty strong dose of spring-training cheering swells. "C'mon, big guy," goes a female voice on the second concourse. He bats against the Pittsburgh right-hander Kyle McPherson. He takes a called strike. He blasts an unusually hasty single through the hole to right.
Ryan Howard has begun to look like Ryan Howard again, and if you can't feel good about that, then find your cloud and settle in beneath it and have your pity party and leave alone the rest of us. Not only does this development brighten one of the game's finest people after a crummy 2012 recovering from a crummy Achilles injury suffered in the crummy closing play of the crummy closing game of 2011...
Not only does it lend Howard's at bats that feel of something potentially eventful, something you ought to eyeball...
No, it also demonstrates how crummy times have value.
At bat No. 2: Chase Utley has doubled to right in the fourth, and Howard stands in against McPherson. With his right hand, he holds the bat forward in that way he does, for several seconds. The audience watches on a preposterously sunny day with temperatures yet lagging at 64 with the wind-chill probably about 58. Howard takes a ball low. Then, he lashes a lazy fly to right.
The man with 300 home runs has batted .333 this pre-season with four home runs and 13 RBIs and one home run on March 3 that escaped the Bright House Field premises.
Maybe it's because of this hot start that the Phillies consider themselves very much part of the National League East contention axis with Washington and Atlanta.
What's more, he has gone around with fresh gratitude.
"I think you get a renewed vigor," he said in a conversation after the game. Last year, he missed all of spring. He also watched all of spring, whether present or rehabilitating before a TV -- and that wasn't the greatest. All the usual grind and drudgery he knows so well by age 33, he missed at age 32. So if he could wring some meaning from a 2012 season of injury and infection and a debut only in July and a .219 batting average and 99 strikeouts and some special hell against left-handers, it's here:
"I think what you definitely get is that appreciation," he said, later adding, "It's every day, just being out here, just being able to play in games."
At bat No. 3: A Coast Guard plane buzzes barely overhead, bound for the Gulf. Utley has singled to right to put runners at first and third. Howard arrives against left-hander Andy Oliver, and he absolutely mashes the first pitch. It blasts its way toward left-center. The crowd gasps. Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen runs it down on the warning track. The crowd makes an aah. The smash does score the first run of the game. The crowd builds a cheer.
"You kind of find a renewed passion for what you're doing," said the popular former National League MVP (2006) whose off-year contributed to Philadelphia's 81-81 downer in 2012. "Feeling good about being out there, kind of getting a fresh start. You get a whole new feel for spring training, excited to be going out and being in spring training."
He continues: "I think, at times, as players, we kind of get into a daily mix. You get so caught up in work every single day. Baseball players, athletes in general, usually people don't understand, you get to an elite level of your sport, you don't understand how it's a year-round job. People don't see the behind-the-scenes stuff, the workouts at 5 a.m., what it takes for you to remain at this level."
So, he said, that doesn't allow much time for savoring. "Sometimes you get lost in the grind. I wouldn't say you lose the appreciation," he said, but sometimes it does make a pattern.
None of that means he ever took all this for granted. He hit 33 home runs with 116 RBIs in 2011. He long has stood for an unmistakable version of joy. Only now comes the winter and the spring after the nadir, playing every day, only one game off so far, with manager Charlie Manuel noting the first baseman's gathering readiness, with Mike Schmidt advising him some and stoking hope with comments about Howard making more contact.
As Howard heads for the clubhouse door, he closes the chat with, "Last year I spent working hard to get back to this."
At bat No. 4: Just one more turn at a potential event. Pete Orr has just homered. Howard takes a ball in the dirt from left-hander Mike Zagurski with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the eighth. He fouls one back. And as the winter starts to get to the spring, Howard blasts one to the opposite field. The crowd gasps again. Josh Harrison hauls it in on the warning track, but the thing screamed so loudly on its way that it did seem to carry promise.