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.


39 Responses to “The Secrecy Surrounding Howard’s Progress”

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  1. midgley's folly says:

    more graphs, less fan.

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    • sirvlciv says:

      Less of these comments, IMO.

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      • midgley's folly says:

        the comment was a bit monday-morning catty, i suppose, but i only meant to imply that the author might have chosen to publish this post on his phillies blog, where it would have been more appropriate.

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    • Tim says:

      “Monday-morning catty”? Who says that? What are you some kind of queer?

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      • midgley's folly says:

        when ryan braun’s testosterone was (allegedly) four times the highest level ever previously recorded on a drug screen, did anyone consider the possibility that internet anonymity might be the culprit?

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      • Garfield says:

        I hate Mondays.

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      • Tim says:

        Aww, she got offended. Whatever you need to make yourself feel better, hun.

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      • BX says:

        Can we leave the homophobic slurs on ESPN’s boards? Or, better yet, nowhere? Please?

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      • PGH says:

        I’m sorry but I agree with Tim, who says that?

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      • Jason B says:

        Sure, “Monday morning catty” was an odd phrase to use. But impugning someone’s sexuality over a poorly-chosen comment makes me think that Tim is all of twelve years old. (And it’s usually the case that those who rail against homosexuality the loudest are masking their own sexual confusion.)

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  2. eric_con says:

    I really appreciate this article. As a Phillies fan, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one left in the dark about what is going on here.

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  3. This is the first person that seems to more than remotely understand what Brookover was doing: shining a light on the Kremlin-esque tactics being unnecessarily employed when it comes to injured players. Contrary to the uninformed saying otherwise, he is *not* complaining about the Phillies making his job harder; if anything, a piece like this may do it all by itself.

    By putting the spotlight on what Seidman aptly terms “petty secrecy,” he turns the table on the Phillies and demonstrates why people ought to be rightfully skeptical of anything the teams says regarding player injuries (or anything else, really). In layman’s terms, he’s calling the Phillies on their bullshit.

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    • don says:

      Kremlin-esque? Holy hyperbole, Batman. Everyone should take anything any team says with a huge grain of salt, and Amaro seems to take special glee in obfuscating, but I don’t think the Phillies will be sending any leaks to Siberia.

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  4. Jon says:

    The other side of the argument is that Howard’s status is private information of the Phillies, which may offer them a competitive advantage. For instance, if the Phillies know the Howard has suffered a setback, but this is not public knowledge, they might try to swing a deal to obtain a player who could replace him for a while. If the setback was common knowledge, the other team would have greater bargaining power, knowing that the Phillies were in dire need.

    Of course, private information is not always an advantage. For instance, if the Phils wanted to deal for an infielder to strengthen their bench, other teams might assume that Howard’s rehab was going poorly and demand a high price. However, by holding the information secret for now, the Phillies gain the option value of this information. If it is to their benefit to reveal it at a later point, they can, but once the cat is out of the bag they lose control over their bargaining position. Thus the optimal strategy is to stay mum for now.

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    • Okra says:

      I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t buy it. For all intents and purposes, Howard is 100% untradable due to his health and contract. And not providing any updates on his progress can only be seen as a red flag to any team interested him. If everything was going swimmingly what would the Phillies gain by not reporting that? Not to mention all traded players go through extensive physical examinations.

      What really gets me is just how silly and “petty” it really is. I can understand an NFL team being secretive about injuries because other teams can go after that player’s injured area. But in baseball that’s not the case. Everybody knows Howard has an ankle injury. Whether it’s mild or severe wouldn’t change how teams pitch him.

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      • Sam Samson says:

        I think Jon was talking about a scenario whereby the Phillies are trading for an infielder as cover for Ryan Howard, not trading Ryan Howard.

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  5. Evan says:

    Howard has now had two surgeries on his ankle since last season and has been unable to do much with that leg the whole time. Two weeks into rehab how can anyone expect an update ? I’m no doctor but he must be at least a few weeks away from guessing at a timeline for a return. My guess is the guy has nothing good to say and doesn’t feel like doing any interviews.

    The story here exists only because people get paid to write and speculate, so they have to put something down on paper.

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    • Jon says:

      If this is all it is, why go to such lengths to deny media access to Howard?

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      • TFINY says:

        @Jon It’s possible that Howard has asked the Phillies to keep reporters away, because he feels like crap that he can’t play, and doesn’t want to do an interview.
        @Josh, I believe that the point was that the Phillies could trade for a replacement, but if the trading team knew that Howard was not coming back, they would ask for more, because their bargaining position would be higher.

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      • TFINY says:

        Whoops, the Josh comment should be below. Sorry.

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      • Bill says:

        Yeah, the only thing I can figure is that Howard’s rehab is not going well, but Amaro feels knowledge would hurt his bargaining position during trade negotiations. I have no problem with the secrecy if Amaro feels it be to his advantage. I can’t see any reason why they would be this secretive if Howard’s recovery was going well.

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    • Josh says:

      The only team stupid enough to trade for a guy with an injury status shrouded in mystery, is the Pirates. No self-respecting team would every think of trading for him.

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      • piratesbreak500 says:

        That’s a bit low. Especially since the Pirates generally trade contracts away. Though our imports do get hurt (see Burnett, A.J.)

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  6. Howard’s (slow-moving) rehab process has been updated by the Phillies every five days or so. I don’t really see the need for more information than that. The argument in Brookover’s story that “people who pay for tickets” deserve to know more details is silly. Obviously, Howard will be back when he’s back, which probably won’t be for another month plus. To the extent that information about his rehab is made public, it’s at the discretion of Howard and the team to do so.

    That said, I don’t begrudge the Philly media any attempts to get additional info. All I’m saying is, they don’t have a right to be provided that info by the team.

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    • Sam Samson says:

      A fact which the writer explicitly acknowledged when writing

      “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.”

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      • Yes, I read that.

        But it also says, “The situation can easily be argued from both sides” which is pretty weak, and I don’t think both sides of this argument have equal legitimacy.

        It’s not like the Phillies haven’t been offering updates, they HAVE, they just aren’t inviting the media to watch Howard work on the day-to-day of his rehab for legitimate reasons (he tweaks his leg, the reporter fires up a tweet, and the internet explodes with speculation, potentially complicating things for the team). Statements like “It’s hard to see how offering updates on Howard’s rehab would actually affect his rehab” don’t really square with the rumpus that’s already being stirred up about Howard’s rehab in the Philly media and online, and when you take into account the heat that Joe Mauer got last season while trying to come back from injury, it just makes more sense to keep Howard rehabbing behind closed doors and provide updates as legitimate milestones are reached.

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  7. Hunter fan says:

    You could also rewrite this article and basically replace the name Howard with Utley.

    As a Philles fan it is quite irritating. Part of embracing the team is knowing the status of its star players.

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    • Utley has knee problems that will persist for as long as he continues to play baseball. He’s now with the team and taking grounders before each game in addition to batting practice. In the next couple of weeks, if things progress, he’ll be headed to a 1-2 week rehab assignment, and if all goes well he will be back with the team.

      It’s not like the Phillies are completely silent on these matters.

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  8. Richie says:

    I’m sure part of it is CYA for Amaro regarding Howard’s contract. Injury risk is a common argument against long-term big-dollar deals, and in this case the realization of that is just frosting on one already very bad cake for Amaro.

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    • Bill says:

      I don’t see this. Every day Howard misses makes his contract look worse and worse. I don’t see how hiding the extent of his injury makes his contract look any better. At some point, we will know how many games this injury is going cost Howard.

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  9. Sam says:

    Your first hand has a “but” in it. Kinda confusing.

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  10. joser says:

    While I grant it’s unlikely, is it possible that it’s Howard who doesn’t want his rehab under any scrutiny? IANAL, but if that was the case I believe that HIPAA would require the Phillies to take reasonable measures to ensure his privacy — and while their behavior in this case might seem extreme, it might be considered reasonable by them (or at least their lawyers).

    Again, it doesn’t really smell like that to me (at the least, you’d think someone in the organization would say something about Howard requesting privacy), but (since I’m not a lawyer) I’m wondering if that’s at least a plausible interpretation of events.

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  11. BurleighGrimes says:

    This article was really interesting IMO bc I enjoy the specificities of how different organizations deal with their players.

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  12. JoeS says:

    Being from Philadelphia, the big argument on sports radio right now is whether the Phillies should become buyers or sellers. The Phillies are first in attendance right now and everyone has hopes that they make the playoffs and re-sign Cole Hamels at the end of the season. My guess (and fear) is that the Phillies know Howard and Utley’s injuries are more serious than everyone thinks. If the fans knew those two guys were going to miss even more significant time, attendance would plummet and hope would be lost for the season.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      I thought Philly had the greatest fans and this high attendance/payroll was sustainable and they’d never have a down year because they have “Yankee-like money”?

      BTW, this isn’t directed at the poster above despite this being a reply to them (weird). More a talking point coming from someone who got really sick of all the phuckin philly love.

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  13. Jon L. says:

    I can think of two reasons not specifically mentioned above why the Phillies might not want to talk about Howard’s progress:

    1. If I’m a nice local guy like Ryan Howard, and millions of fans are eager for me to return in early June (or any specific time), I might push really hard on the rehab and ignore any signals from my body that something might be going wrong.

    2. If I’m most other Phillies players, I might be reminded that I have to press to make something big happen at the plate whenever new articles come out about Ryan Howard’s progress and how anemic the offense is without him and Utley.

    I don’t think these news cycles are much help to players who are either playing or rehabbing, and unless the news is that Ryan Howard is expected to play this Tuesday, I don’t think they add much to the fans’ enjoyment either.

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