It has been a pretty wild ride for Tampa Bay Rays reliever J P Howell since the New Years shiny ball first dropped on January 1,2010. Fresh off his off season wedding nuptials and a honeymoon in the exotic locale of Bora, Bora, the Rays southpaw was experiencing a high point in his life and career after signing a $ 1.8 million salary through arbitration on January 19th for the 2010 season. Little could Howell have known that within the next 30 days, his life and baseball world would begin to resemble the Disney’s Mr. Toad Wild Ride rollercoaster.
The southpaw first began to experience weakness and pain in his left throwing shoulder during the early workouts even before the Grapefruit (Spring Training) season began and he was subsequently would be shut down for further evaluation by the Rays medical staff. Howell even commented to the St. Petersburg Times on March 30,2010 that he “encouraged” by a recent strength test performed by the Rays medical staff on his wounded left wing. Howell was so convinced of the success of his rehabilitation that he felt he could possibly be back in the Rays Bullpen by mid-to-late May. Little did Howell know that his wild rollercoaster ride was only about to begin.
The Rays finally scheduled a simulated game session for Howell at Tropicana Field on May 17th in hopes of possibly sending Howell on a short rehab assignment in the Rays system after the game simulation before bringing back to the MLB roster. Howell suddenly stopped throwing after a total of 12 pitches. His wild adventure was about to make one of it’s darkest moments surface right in front of him. Howell immediately went straight into Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield’s room in the Rays clubhouse.
After a short examination, a Rays teammate was seen bringing Howell’s clothes to Porterfield’s trainer’s room. Before that evenings game against the Cleveland Indians, Rays Manager Joe Madden spoke to the media and told them that Howell had suffered a “setback” and that he would be re-evaluated by the Rays doctors. It was the beginning of the steep rise and then quick freefall for Howell during 2010.
The darkening prognosis was further amplified by the blinding fact that Howell, who was usually one of the most out-going and quotable Rays players mysteriously snuck out of Tropicana Field without talking with anyone. The Rays had him visit Dr. Coco Eaton, the Rays staff orthopedic physician. After an examination by Eaton, it was advised that Howell seek a second opinion from Rays Medical Director Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama. Suddenly the coaster ride again began another rising ascent to the top.
After the announcement, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman revealed that when the Rays first got news of the weakness in Howell shoulder, the team envisioned possibly losing him, but held out hope that Howell could have been back at some point for 2010.The surgery dashed all hopes of a return to the Rays Bullpen for Howell.
Friedman spoke to Howell before he underwent his surgery on May 23rd and Friedman stated, “Obviously he was frustrated, it was an emotional moment for him, going through this for the first time,” Friedman said. “He’s in great hands, he’s a great worker, great competitor, so I would certainly never bet against him.”
After his a short stay in Birmingham, Howell returned to the Tampa Bay area, and released a few statements through the Rays PR Department on his surgery. “I feel like I just went 12 rounds and only punched with my left hand. It feels good to be moving forward and not sitting in limbo wondering what’s wrong. Now each day is a step forward.”
I saw Howell for the first time when his wife was promoting her children’s book, “The Adventures of Dangles” at the USF-St. Petersburg campus during the Times Festival of Reading event. His hair and beard had darkened a bit as hide behind the main area wanting his wife to have her day without any distractions. We spoke for just a brief moment as he quickly told me his rehabs were going great with the Rays staff and in his sessions in Birmingham, Alabama.
Some of his time away from the game had helped him focus his family’s involvement with discoveryourpath.com, which was a charity his wife and him both enthusiastically support. At that moment I initially had the feeling his rollercoaster ride might finally be in its final deceleration stage. But there was one more gut wrenching twist to come.
On December 1st in his pre-Winter Meeting press session, Friedman advised the Rays Republic that Howell would definitely not be starting the season with the Rays. That ended a stream of optimism that Howell could/would be back with the team by Opening Day. Friedman added that Howell was working extremely diligent during his rehabilitation, but would not be ready by April 2011. Instantly I heard the click, clicking sound of the coaster car again as it ascended to the ride’s summit.
Howell was a key component to the rebuilding process of the empty Rays Bullpen that presently only has pitchers Andy Sonnanstine and Mike Ekstrom initially returning for 2011. With this latest news of Howell missing the beginning of another season, combined with an upcoming arbitration decision by the Rays, there was a ever growing cloud of doubt suddenly hanging above Howell’s name.
When the Rays finally unveiled their plan to non-tender an arbitration offer to Howell for 2011, most immediately thought the Rays reliever was destined to not be a part of the Rays rebuilding process. Most saw the move as a cost cutting measure to insure that Howell would instead sign for less than the projected $ 2.35 million dollar arbitration amount. The pure fact that Howell openly stated that he “wanted to be a Ray” spoke volumes about move.
This was just a calculated fiscal move that guaranteed the Rays some financial give and take with Howell. The non-tender gave the Rays a loophole around a rule that limit’s the reduction of a player’s salary to 20 percent ($ 1.44 million). In the background, Howell and his agent were furiously working on a contract when the Rays made their intentions public. Suddenly the rollercoaster ride that seemed to be going downwards fast ultimately ended up taking a upward motion.