The Secrecy Surrounding Howard’s Progress

The Phillies knew their slugging first baseman would miss some time when he fell to the ground on the last play of their 2011 Division Series with the Cardinals. Without any setbacks, his ruptured Achilles tendon would keep him sidelined through April. While recovering from surgery, he suffered an infection near the tendon that was serious enough itself to require surgery. The setback made his May return unlikely and gave him another roadblock to clear before being allowed to rehab.

His rehab got underway two weeks ago, and that’s all anyone knows right now.

There haven’t been any updates about his progress or lack thereof. We know that Howard is physically in Clearwater, Florida, working out at the Phillies training facility, but that’s it. Nobody knows what type of work he is putting in, when he might start playing in rehab games, or any sense of when he might return to the major leagues. Apparently, that is by design, since the organization is going to great lengths to prevent reporters from watching or talking to Howard.

On Sunday, Philadelphia Inquirer writer Bob Brookover wrote a detailed description of his recent trip to Florida, in which he attempted to report on Howard’s situation. His retelling sounds like one of those Jason Bourne movies, complete with employees on walkie-talkies monitoring his every move, mysterious phone calls from the powers that be and a general shroud of mystery pertaining to valuable information.

Brookover was initially stopped by a security guard after passing the closed weight room. He proceeded to the press box, which was locked, and was basically told, too bad. He made his way onto the field to watch Jim Thome take batting practice, when Howard emerged from the tunnel with a minor league instructor. A Clearwater Threshers employee spotted Brookover and notified him he had to leave, and that nobody outside the Phillies organization could watch Howard or speak to him. After a call to the Phillies communications director, a deal was struck in which Brookover could stay as long as there were no tweets or interviews.

That agreement was short-lived, as the instructor accompanying Howard ensured Brookover was removed a second time. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was quoted as saying he feels uncomfortable with Howard’s rehab going public. The communication director reiterated the organization’s fear that it would learn of setbacks on Twitter if reporters were allowed to monitor the situation. The organization also presented the argument that it isn’t spring training anymore, and this is no different than the offseason, when reporters don’t have access to the players.

The situation can easily be argued from both sides. On one hand, the Phillies haven’t been very forthcoming with information in recent years, especially pertaining to injuries and recovery times. But while it’s easy to paint them villains in this scenario, they are well within their rights to deny access to Howard’s rehab. It may not be popular, and it sure seems odd to offer no updates, ever, but as a privately-run organization, management can not only make a decision like this, but it doesn’t really have to justify it to reporters or fans. Such activity won’t endear the organization to the fanbase, but are people really going to stop buying tickets because they don’t know how Howard is doing?

On the other hand, this seems like petty secrecy, like the Phillies are hiding Howard for the sake of hiding him and not to hide any misinformation. How hard is it to offer a vague, general update on Howard’s progress, just to remind fans that he is on his way back and that he hasn’t suffered another setback? He is the Phillies highest-paid player, deservingly or not, and to question why fans want to know how he’s faring while denying said update comes off as extremely condescending and out of touch with reality.

No, the Phillies don’t have to provide updates on his health, but it doesn’t benefit them at all to withhold such information. If they came out and said Howard will return on June 10, sure, it might put unnecessary pressure on Howard, but they are smarter than that. They could offer a vague return period, like the second or third week of June, or even just the hope that he returns in June. If he returns sooner, great, if not, it’s not like they were tied to a specific date. That, and not being able to learn of a potential setback before the media, are their biggest fears in this situation, and both seem fairly minor. It’s hard to see how offering updates on Howard’s rehab would actually affect his rehab, so while the Phillies can act in any manner they so desire, their stance on this specific situation leaves much to be desired to the masses seeking any type of update, vague or not.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.