CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryan Howard limped down the hallway from the Phillies clubhouse to the cafeteria at Bright House Field, where he would discuss his tedious comeback from a torn Achilles tendon, and stopped to find a man facing a similar plight.
It was Bill Giles, the Phillies chairman, who tore his right Achilles recently while playing golf. All winter, Howard said, people came to him in places such as the grocery store with their own Achilles tales. They showed him their scars.
"I was just trying to get some milk," Howard said, but soon he understood how common an injury it is.
Giles had his own story, but he'd keep it short. His $125 million investment was late for a live appearance on national TV.
"You're coming along better than I am," Giles said.
Howard patted him on the shoulder and kept moving with a hitch, almost as if the batting-practice home runs he had bashed hours earlier had been hit by his twin brother, Corey, as a stand-in.
"He had a very serious injury," manager Charlie Manuel said, and that is a crucial fact to remember when the videos of Howard swinging, fielding, and jogging are viewed in Philadelphia.
Howard, unlike Phillies officials, was not willing to set a timetable Wednesday for his return. Ruben Amaro Jr. and others have targeted sometime in May as a public answer, but they will exert extreme conservatism.
"Ask me in May," Howard said. "I'm not going to put a time limit on it. I'm going to listen to my body and see where we are."
Nonetheless, there was Howard, only four months removed from major surgery, participating in batting practice with his teammates Wednesday. He donned his No. 6 jersey for the first time in 138 days. That was also the last time Howard made public comments, the night a season of unparalleled expectations came crashing down on his balky left Achilles.
He was no closer to a return even as he mashed batting-practice fastballs, laughed with teammates, and chatted up Jim Thome.
Howard's body allowed him to swing a bat about two weeks ago. He is jogging and taking ground balls. But he is not in playing shape. His left calf is significantly smaller in muscle mass than his right. He still walks with a limp after being in a boot for two months.
He's above playing weight, but Howard said he's happy with it considering the time he spent confined to the couch. (He watched a lot of Real Housewives because his fiancée could easily play keep-away with the remote.) In all likelihood, Howard will not appear in any Grapefruit League games. Opening day has been ruled out, too.
"You're probably not going to really get full strength until maybe around the all-star break," Howard said. "Nobody has really said a whole, whole lot about that kind of stuff. But I feel good."
Howard said he has seen only one replay of the swing that tore his Achilles. He still doesn't know whether his bat struck his calf on the backswing because all he can remember from that night was the instant whack, which was probably the tendon snapping.
Then there was the realization that two consecutive seasons have ended in disappointment with Howard at the plate.
"It sucks," Howard said. "I'm not going to lie. It sucks. And I know how it looks to everybody, having the season come down [to one out] and you're that guy. But I try to look at it positive. The last two seasons I got out, so I figure I'm about due. I'd love to be in that situation again."
Howard could not say whether the cortisone injections and previous injuries to his ankle contributed to the Achilles tendon's blowing out. He said the training staff has prevented him from moving too quickly in his rehabilitation even when the competitive juices demand otherwise.
"I think it was kind of a blessing in disguise in that it allowed me to step back and take a look at the whole situation," Howard said. "Get my mind right, get my body right."
One moves at a different speed than the other. Giles challenged Howard to a race: The chairman thinks he can hit the links before Howard is on the field.
But he won't mind if his first baseman beats him.
Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at email@example.com or @magelb on Twitter.