"I think you can take it for granted," Howard said. "Because of the everyday grind of just doing things, you never get a chance to open your eyes and say, 'Look, you know what, I'm playing baseball for a living, and I get to enjoy what I'm doing.' I would get so locked in and so intense, thinking, 'I've got to do this, and I've got to do this, and I've got to do this.' And then, boom, it was all broke around me."
The darkness came on the final day of the 2011 season when he hit a season-ending ground ball to second base and collapsed a few feet in front of home plate with the Achilles injury. A 102-win regular season had been tarnished by a first-round playoff exit against the St. Louis Cardinals, and the agony was only beginning for Howard.
No winter workout routine. No hitting until February. Then a spring training setback because of an infection that kept him inactive again until the end of March. No big-league games until July followed by the greatest on-field struggle of his career for the remainder of the season.
Howard, 33 and in his 13th professional season, decided the best thing he could take from it all was a positive attitude.
"You have to retune and regain that appreciation," he said. "I love being able to come in here and joke and laugh and create the relationships I have with all these guys. I'm able to go to different cities and compete and play, and I totally regained the appreciation for what I do."
The Big Piece is at peace and in a good place on the eve of the 2013 season.
You could tell he was headed in that direction when he arrived in spring training with a giant grin on his face and a lot more strength in his surgically repaired left Achilles. Asked what he did to improve his hitting in the offseason, he talked more about his state of mind than his rehabilitated left leg.
"A lot of it was kind of mental," he said. "I told myself, 'I'm not even going to stress it or worry about it.' I know it's in there. I just have to let the inner me come out at the plate and be relaxed. I have to trust myself, trust my ability, and let it fly."
He gave a similar answer when asked about his severely declining numbers against lefthanded pitchers, who tend to throw him a steady diet of breaking balls that dive out of the strike zone. He hit .264 against lefties in 2010, .224 in 2011 and .173 in 2012.
"It's a combination of listening to the noise and trying to please people," Howard said. "People say, 'Oh, he can't hit lefties.' I have to show them I can hit lefties. Obviously to get to the big leagues you have to hit lefties and righties. It's putting all that stuff aside and just trusting my abilities. I know I can hit lefties. It's just a matter of being relaxed."
That seemed like only words at the time, but Howard backed them with his best spring training since 2009 when he slugged 10 Grapefruit League home runs, then hit 45 more in the regular season. This year, the Phillies cleanup hitter left Florida with a .338 average, a .368 on-base percentage, and a 1.030 on-base plus slugging percentage. He hit seven home runs. He hit lefties, and he even beat the shift a few times by punching base hits to a vacated left side of the infield.
"It definitely gives you confidence," Howard said of his impressive spring training.
Ryan Howard has a healthy body and a healthy mind as the Phillies head into Monday's season opener in Atlanta. He has the darkness of the 2012 season to thank for both.
Contact Bob Brookover at email@example.com. Follow @brookob on Twitter.