It’s not everyday you see a former MVP playing in Triple-A baseball, but that’s what we’re seeing right now with the Gwinnett Braves.

Back on April 6th, I was on the air on Duke and Bell, discussing the start of my ninth season as voice of the G-Braves at Coolray Field, when Randy McMichael asked me about Ryan Howard’s contribution this season in Gwinnett.

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I was stunned.  I hadn’t heard.  I thought it was a joke from Randy.

Howard (playing against the Pawtucket Red Sox) will be the DH and play first base for Gwinnett until he is ready to join the big club. (PHOTO:
Will Fagan/Gwinnett Braves

But it was, of course, true.  After missing all of Spring Training, and not being signed by a team, Ryan Howard was inked to a minor league contract by the Atlanta Braves.  He was sent to “Extended Spring” to get ready to play again.

He’s now arrived.  His first game was this past Saturday in Lawrenceville where he went 2-for-2 with a walk and an RBI in a win over the Pawtucket Red Sox in front of over 7,800 at Coolray Field.

“The swing feels good,” Howard told Gwinnett Braves and Fox Sports analyst Nick Green.  “It felt good to be able to get back out there and get my feet wet.”

Howard is taking it slow.  You can tell that the timing of his monstrous home run swing is still off, and he knows he won’t get it back quickly.  Through three games with the G-Braves he is batting .300 (3-for-10) with two RBIs and three strikeouts.  He has been the DH twice and played first base once in three games.

“Right now my expectations are to just do what I need to do here (Gwinnett) and basically kind of let the rest take care of itself, ” Howard told Nick.  “If I get called up to the Braves, I’ll try to contribute whatever way I can over there and just try to help the team.”

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The Braves hope Howard can contribute off the bench this season as well as be a DH when they play at American League parks. (PHOTO: Will Fagan/Gwinnett Braves)

The last time Howard played in the International League without being on a rehab assignment was in 2005 when he played for the Phillies Triple-A team, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons.  Since that time, his numbers are legendary.

Ryan was called up to Philadelphia that season after 61 games in Triple-A and became the National League Rookie of the Year while hitting .288 with 22 homers and 63 RBIs. Then in 2006, his first full year in the Majors, he was named National League MVP with 58 homers, 149 RBIs and a  .313 batting average.  His home run ledger is staggering:  58 in 2006, 47 in 2007, 48 in 2008, 45 in 2009, 31 in 2010 and 33 in 2011.  The 2011 season was his last big year, but he still hit 25 home runs last season for the Phillies, which tied him for the team lead.

So yeah, seeing him at Coolray Field taking batting practice and riding with him on the team charter buses in the minor leagues is kind of surreal.  It’s Ryan Howard for goodness sake!  As Nick Green said:  “[He’s] one of the most prolific home run hitters of my generation.”

His debut with Atlanta may still be a few weeks off though.  It’s obvious he will not be replacing Freddie Freeman at first, but he would be a fine addition to the team as a pinch hitter or a DH when the Braves play at American League parks this season. Seven of those games come up in May.

Until then, the easy-going big man from Missouri is taking it all in stride.  “I’m grateful for the opportunity to be able to get out here (to Gwinnett) and be able to play and hopefully be able to get up to the big club and try to help and contribute any way I can up there.”

And how will he feel once he dons the Atlanta cap?  “It’s one of those things where you are playing against one team and now all of a sudden it’s crazy because you are playing for them, so I’m just grateful for it.”

Howard is 37 years old.  He may not have many years left to play baseball, but let’s hope that soon we get to see a glimpse of the man who has crushed 382 Major League home runs in the past 13 seasons.

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