On a crisp Thursday night, though, Howard hardly looked like the same man that once won the MVP award, let alone the man who once played here at FirstEnergy Park, home of the low-single-A BlueClaws.
Howard, beginning his minor-league rehabilitation from a surgically repaired left Achilles tendon, worked here in 2002, hit 19 homers, and had his No. 29 retired on the center-field wall.
Howard, as the designated hitter, went 2 for 4 with a sacrifice fly and three RBIs as the BlueClaws walked off with 7-6 win. But he connected well with only one pitch, slapping three grounders to nearly identical locations a few feet right of second base in his first three at-bats and striking out in his fourth at-bat.
Howard maintained he was pleased with the grounders.
"A hit is a hit, man," Howard said. "I had a good approach in those at-bats, trying to go up the middle, and that's what I did. The shift was just a little different here. They had the shortstop out high-fiving the centerfielder tonight."
In the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded and one out, Howard lifted a 3-1 pitch high to left field. But it died at the warning track for a sacrifice fly. The next batter, Chris Duffy, who resembles Howard, delivered a game-winning single.
Howard was forced to sprint on his third at-bat and didn't show signs of a limp, though his running looked hobbled and forced, likely because of his long layoff. After a single up the middle in his second at-bat, Howard took off on a 3-2 count with two outs and again looked awkward.
"The running portion was the biggest," Howard said. "I didn't really think about it once the game got going. The adrenaline kicked in, and natural instinct kind of took over."
It's not clear yet when Howard will move up past low single-A. He'll be back here Friday playing first base for the first time.
After a long stay at extended spring training, Thursday night was his first official rehab assignment.
"I have been patient for eight or nine months," Howard said. "Another week or two isn't going to kill me. Of course you want to be up there as soon as you can, but I'm not going to rush myself back."
In his first at bat, Howard grounded out to the shortstop, who was playing a few feet right of second base and fielded the ball on the outfield grass. Howard knocked a grounder up the middle in his second at-bat for a single. In his third at-bat, Howard drove in two runs with another ground ball single to the right side that was fielded by the shortstop who couldn't get a clean throw off.
Before the game, Howard took batting practice and fielded ground balls with the team.
This is the same field where his pro days picked up steam. This is the same player who once hit 58 home runs in a single season. But on Thursday night, he looked like a low Class-A designated hitter with an awkward run and waning power – even if he claims he was happy with his three grounders.