Second Acts Ken Howell And Pat Combs Reach For Spring's Redemption

Posted: February 22, 1992

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The best part about the first day of spring training is that it reminds us how little baseball resembles real life.

In real life, nobody gets to pretend that all that bad stuff in the past never happened and nobody gets to start all over with just as much chance as anybody else to be a star.

But in baseball, that happens every year. It happens on the first day of spring training, a day when everybody has gone undefeated for the last 117 days in a row - and feels like it.

On the first day of spring training for the Phillies yesterday, Pat Combs could walk to the mound for the first time in six months and start reminding everybody that he once was regarded as the big hope for the future around here.

And on the first day of spring training, Ken Howell could pick up a baseball and begin rebuilding his once-promising career, one pitch at a time.

Those two guys embody what the first day of spring training is all about. And no one can appreciate more than Howell and Combs what it means to be throwing baseballs in Florida in February.

"This day has probably been the biggest thing in my mind for the last six months," said Combs, whose painful two-win season last year ended with an Aug. 26 elbow operation.

"The day after surgery, I told my wife, 'It'll be a long road back.' But one thing I can't wait for is the opening day of spring training. I knew I would never really be over it in my mind until I could get back on the field, do the first day of throwing and really feel like part of the team again."

The last time Howell really felt like part of this team was more than a year and a half ago. It was Aug. 5, 1990, that Howell last started a Phillies game. That was back before Terry Mulholland's no-hitter. It was before Tommy Greene ever put on a Phillies uniform. It was barely three weeks after Jose DeJesus won his first game for this team.

Howell was the big man on this staff back then. Now - two shoulder operations later - it's Mulholland, Greene and DeJesus who have this team made. All Howell is guaranteed is his paycheck.

He was asked yesterday if he felt as if he'd had something stolen from him in that year and a half. Howell laughed.

"To be honest with you," he said, "I feel like I've been stealing from them.

"I got paid a lot of money last year to do nothing but rehab," Howell said. "So now I've got to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'I've got to give something back.' That's my motivation. I've got a mission here. I've got to show the Phillies, and Bill Giles and Lee Thomas: 'Hey, you made a good deal.' I've got a lot to make up for."

Howell threw yesterday like a guy who hadn't pitched in a year and a half. But at least he didn't grab his shoulder the way he did last spring. At least this year, if he ever gets back in sync, he has a shot.

"This is a time where now I've got to battle back," he said. "I've got a lot of competition here, but I look forward to it. It's not like I'm 24 years old now, where if I get hurt, I'll have another chance to heal and come back. I'm 32. So I've got to show everybody I'm healthy and that I can still pitch.

Combs, on the other hand, is still only 25. But this is a crossroads year for him, too. If he doesn't regain his spot in the rotation, young studs such as Andy Ashby and Tyler Green might yank it away. And in baseball, once you lose something, you might never get it back.

But Combs insisted: "I don't feel any pressure. I still feel like I've got a job. I don't feel like I ever lost it."

But two years ago, he and Howell were the pitchers this team counted on most. Now, says manager Jim Fregosi, nobody is counting on them at all. They won't be pressured. They won't be pushed. If they're ready, they'll make the club. If not? Well, said the manager, "I've got a lot of options."

But it is better to be one of the options than to be no option at all. It is better to be pitching than visiting the trainer. And mostly, it is better to be part of the world of baseball, where life starts all over on the first day of spring training, than it is to be part of everyone else's world, where life never stops - and they never reset the scoreboard to zero.

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