Music bounced from the stadium speakers as another day’s pre-game work of infield and batting practice had recently wrapped. Sweat rolled off Howard’s arms and across his forehead. It soaked his workout jersey. It was everywhere. It was awesome.
The sun was out. The humidity was building. The temperature crept toward 90 degrees. For the first time in a minor-league season that often features cold and wind and even snow, it felt like summer. It felt like baseball.
Yeah, Howard nodded, this is what it’s all about. The grind of getting through the early part of spring. Dealing with the cold and the wind and the snow. Get to a day like this one, and it’s hard to have a care in the world.
“It’s beautiful,” Howard said. “It feels like baseball. You’re getting those spring training vibes again with the sun, got the glasses on, sweating. It feels good. I love it.
“I’ll take this every day.”
Take it on this day because the previous one was designated an off day for the High-A Cubs, who are in a stretch of 12 home games over 13 days. With the way Howard and the Cubs were working — they had won eight straight heading into Thursday’s game against Fort Wayne — days off aren’t wanted. Or warranted. They want to keep playing, keep competing, keep winning.
But there was no game Monday, which allowed for Howard, the first high school player since 2012 (Albert Almora, Jr.) selected by the Chicago Cubs in the first round when he was taken with the 16th overall selection in the June 2020 amateur draft, a chance to decompress. Not think the game. Do some laundry. Even vacuum his apartment. Yeah, the 20-year-old kid who signed for $3.7 million actually vacuums.
That down time lasted only for a few hours. By noon, Howard had to head for Four Winds to get in a lift, to be around his teammates, to never let the game stray far from his thoughts.
Off days are good; off days are needed. Still, the game is always there. It has to be if you want to do what Howard wants to do and play it at its highest level. The view from that Four Winds dugout was sweet, but the view one day from the third-base dugout at Wrigley Field is the ultimate.
“You get that one day off, you take advantage of it,” Howard said. “Chill, relax your mind and get ready for the next day. I’m just trying to get better every day — that’s why I’m here.
“I’m here to work and get better so I can keep moving up the ladder.”
It’s a hard climb. It’s a tough climb. It can be long. It can be frustrating. It seems endless. But it’s a climb that Howard believes he can make. Believes he will make.
Learning to let it all go
Those aforementioned two words are there on Howard’s Twitter bio page. No explanation given; no explanation necessary.
Want to chase your professional baseball dream?
Want to show (not necessarily prove) why you deserved to be taken in the first round? Why you’re currently ranked the No. 14 prospect in the organization and the No. 2 shortstop?
Want to work past a sluggish start in your first season in A ball in 2021 when you struck out 17 times in your first 34 at-bats?
Don’t want to get caught up in your current numbers — .244 batting average with one home run and 11 RBI in 82 at-bats before you landed on the injured list late Wednesday with a hip issue — and feel pressed/stressed to do more?
“Work hard, don’t change for anybody,” Howard said of what those two words mean to him. “Believe in yourself at all times. The reason that I got here is because I’ve been me my whole life. I’m going to keep being me.”
► Noie: Meet Cubs manager Lance Rymel
That means Howard will keep working. Keep having fun when it’s time to have fun, but get serious when it’s time to be serious. Watch him gobble up grounders during early infield work. Each play is approached with a purpose. He smothers another, then uses those cat-like quick hands to flip it to second, or fire it back in. Over and over. It’s repetition. It can be redundant, but man, does he make it look smooth.
Thus, Howard’s nickname — Silk.
Same goes for when he steps in to take his right-handed swings off the pitching machine. Connect and direct a few back up the middle. Take some the opposite way. Pull a few. He doesn’t go deep often, but what he does do is stay consistent in his swing, his approach, his belief that he’s getting better while taking it the proverbial day by day.
That’s his life. That’s the baseball life. He makes it all look easy.
“He likes to smile, but he knows when it’s time to get to work,” said South Bend manager Lance Rymel. “That’s what I appreciate about him.”
Nothing seemed easy this time last year when Howard was learning life as a pro in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina under former South Bend manager Buddy Bailey. The game was hard as Howard hit .225 with four home runs and 31 RBI in 302 at-bats over 80 games. Bailey, who’s been around too many baseball clubhouses to count, helped Howard understand that the game can be frustrating. Helped him also to understand to stick with it.
“He’s got so much knowledge about the game,” Howard said of Bailey. “You learn so much from him.”
This is what Howard learned from Bailey and about last season — you can (and will) overthink the game if you let yourself. Strike out a couple times with runners in scoring position last night? Let it go. Fail to field a grounder that would’ve turned into a 6-4-3 double play? Forget about it. Having not played his senior year at Mount Carmel (Ill.) High School because of the pandemic, Howard seemed in such the rush to get that year back all at once last season.
Until he understood not to dwell on yesterday or worry about tomorrow. Once he learned to do that, he was good. Life was good. It was really good the previous 14 games for Howard. Prior to being hurt Tuesday in a collision at first base, he had hit .320 with a home run, eight RBI, seven runs and three stolen bases over that two-week stretch.
“The game is a lot mental,” he said. “You have to take every day as a new day and you have to stay in the moment — each pitch, each out. The past doesn’t matter. You have to take those experiences and learn from them and keep moving.
“I’m still grinding to get to where I want to be.”
Home indeed where the heart is
The pressure to perform for Howard should be intense. Immense. Here he is, basically the hometown kid raised in the South Suburbs picked in the first round with life-changing/generational-changing money in his bank account and ticketed by many as one of the guys who can help the organization recapture its World Series magic of 2016.
What a story it would be if the kid who once was more of a White Sox fan than a Cubs fan winds up playing short at Wrigley. That’s the stuff of movies, right? The spotlight is always on the first-round guy. The next can’t-miss guy. It shines even more when that guy is a local guy.
Howard wouldn’t have it any other way. Touted as a Top 10 pick two Junes ago, Howard wasn’t hurt about going No. 16 in the draft. He may have been the opposite when he got the call that all draft hopefuls dream of taking.
“That it was the Cubs was icing on the cake,” he said. That was the best scenario.”
Why? Howard believes he’s built for this. All of this. Handling the expectations. Dealing with any pressure. Having to show that he belongs in the Bigs. Howard has a timetable to get there, and he’s not shy about sharing it.
“I want to get there as soon as possible,” he said. “Whenever that happens, that happens. But I’m grinding. I’m going for it.”
Going for it as the first Ed Howard, not the next Javier Baez. Every so often, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Howard will do something in a game that will draw comparison to Baez. It happened recently when catcher Pablo Aliendo threw down to second to try and cut down a runner but threw high. Angling over from short, Howard leaped and snared the throw that seemingly was ticketed for center. He swiped through with the tag for the out.
Just like Javy, was the thought in the South Bend dugout.
“The athleticism stands out, bar none,” Rymel said. “The abilities that he does have are so good.”
But they’re his. He’s not Baez, who left last season for the New York Mets and now plays for Detroit. The second coming of Baez? How about the first coming of Howard?
“You just help him be the best Ed Howard he can possibly be, whether that be in the weight room, in the batting cage, in the field,” Rymel said. “You ask him, ‘Hey, what can we do to help you?’”
Easy. Just keep working. Just keep grinding. On this day, this hot and humid and summer-like day, infield practice was over. Cage work was complete. So was the pre-game conversation with a reporter. All that was left for Howard was a quick uniform change back in the clubhouse and then another nine innings. On the diamond. In the box. Playing the game he so loves.
Warm days, cold nights, none of it matters when five minutes after seven — game time — arrives.
“That’s the fun time,” Howard said. “This is the best.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Chicago Cubs top prospect Ed Howard has major league dreams