"He's coming up now," one of them said.
They were talking about me.
"You can't be down there," I was told by Ron, the affable security guy who offers me a sarcastic greeting every day during spring training. "This isn't spring training."
Ron was following orders.
I was in search of Ryan Howard. I wanted to be able to tell our readers what the Phillies first baseman's routine was like here in Clearwater. I had been told by the team's media relations department that he wasn't conducting any interviews until he begins playing in games as part of his rehab assignment.
I was here working on stories about some single-A Clearwater players and the Boston Red Sox, who were playing in St. Petersburg before their weekend series in Philadelphia, so I figured I'd be able to watch Howard hit and field some grounders, too.
I never did see Howard Wednesday. I did catch a glimpse of utility infielder Michael Martinez running sprints and playing catch on the Carpenter Complex fields as I stood near the tiki bar, where a handful of patrons watching the 10:30 a.m. Threshers game were sure it was 5 o'clock somewhere.
My search for Howard intensified, but only slightly, Thursday morning. I entered the doors to the Threshers offices, said hello to the congenial receptionist, and took the elevator to the third floor, where the press box is located. As I reached Whale Beach, the open area from which reporters can watch games in spring training, I noticed Jim Thome taking batting practice.
I didn't realize at the time that I was witnessing a forbidden sight.
I continued to the press box. It was locked.
Two flights of stairs down, I was back on the ground floor of the ballpark and watching Thome take batting practice while Martinez got his running in. (I determined through my observations that the disabled Martinez can run again.)
Suddenly, Howard emerged in red shorts and red T-shirt. He carried two bats and headed for the cage, accompanied by a man in a blue shirt.
As Howard prepared to hit, I was spotted, standing in plain sight in the stands along the third-base line. A Threshers employee told me I had to leave the ballpark. I pleaded that I wanted to get into the press box and start writing my stories about the Red Sox and Clearwater players.
Too bad, I was told. No one from outside the Phillies organization is allowed to watch Ryan Howard work out. I was escorted out of the ballpark.
Outside in the parking lot, I called Phillies communications director Greg Casterioto and told him of my predicament. He explained his concern of the 24-hour news cycle and how general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and team president David Montgomery should not have to learn on Twitter if Howard were to have a setback while I was watching.
After a sometimes heated discussion, we reached an agreement that I could reenter the ballpark and watch Howard's workout, but there would be no interview afterward and no tweets either.
I reentered, headed for the press box, and was spotted by Howard on Whale Beach.
"What are you doing here?" Howard asked. "Spring training is over."
Yes, it is, and has been for more than six weeks. For Howard, however, spring training has just begun, and a lot of people in Philadelphia want to know how he's progressing in his rehab from the infection setback after his Achilles tendon surgery.
If you're willing to put down $20 to $40 a ticket for a ball game and you have an interest in the team, it's not unreasonable to want a firsthand progress report about the Phillies position player making the most money. If this were spring training, reporters would be watching Howard work toward returning to the field. We're paid to be the eyes of the fans and we have access to the places they cannot go.
Not in this case, however.
After placing my belongings in the press box, I headed back to watch the workout. It appeared as if Howard was about to begin doing some work in the field. I can't tell you for sure because Doug Mansolino, the team's minor-league infield coordinator, was not going to stand for a reporter watching him work with Howard.
Long story short, Mansolino made sure I was removed from the ballpark a second time. When I paused to continue a phone conversation with Casterioto, Mansolino gave me his best big-league stare-down.
I hope for the Phillies' sake he's better at working with infielders. It's obvious he takes himself way too seriously.
"Dude, relax, I'm leaving," I told him.
"It's Doug, not Dude," he bristled.
News, even when it's not tweeted, travels fast in the 21st century, and before I reached my hotel room I received a phone call from Amaro.
"I just feel uncomfortable having it be a public issue," Amaro said. "I feel more comfortable - and I feel this way about every single rehab assignment - that we have them prepare for the season in their own private way. You don't have access to them during the course of the offseason, so why should this be any different?"
We do have access during spring training, so why should this be any different?
"Because we just don't feel in this particular case that it's necessary for the public to know," Amaro said. "It's more of a case-by-case basis. People weren't in watching Chase [Utley] doing his rehab, so there is no reason they should be watching Ryan do his rehab."
The funny thing is I really don't think the Phillies are trying to hide the truth here. They are just trying to hide the player for the sake of hiding the player.
"I don't know when he's going to be back and the player doesn't know when he's going to be back," Amaro said. "Obviously, the complication of having the infection pushes this back considerably.
"He didn't have the benefit of continuing his strengthening exercises for his ankle and calf. He is still strengthening his calf and he's working on his baseball skills, getting prepared for game situations. When he's baseball ready, we'll get him to Philadelphia."
Until then, Ryan Howard will work under a cloak of secrecy, and beware of minor-league infield instructors if you try to break it.
Contact Bob Brookover at email@example.com
or on Twitter @brookob.