PHOENIX — The voicemail message went unanswered overnight. J.P. Howell did not recognize the number, but he felt awkward once he realized who it was.
The voice on the other end belonged to a man he once punched in the ribs and slammed into a Dodger Stadium camera well.
And now they had to share a clubhouse?
“I’m like '[expletive], dude. We hired Turner [expletive] Ward,’” Howell said. “Not knowing him at all. Thinking ‘This is weird, so weird.’”
In the days after the Dodgers chose him as their new hitting coach this winter, Ward ingratiated himself with his players in a variety of ways. He studied video of the lineup. He watched Adrian Gonzalez, Joc Pederson and Justin Turner hit in person. And he called Howell to defuse any tension lingering from their one-sided dalliance in a brawl between the Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013.
“I just wanted to clear things up,” Ward told Howell when they connected a day after the initial message, “so you don’t get me in the clubhouse when we get there.”
Howell found himself laughing. Ward sounded so “gentle” over the phone, his soft Alabama drawl offering a contrast to the image cast by his stern eyes and lantern jaw.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m hoping you don’t want a rematch,’” Howell said. “Because I think if we went one on one, he’s a big boy. I liked the atmosphere a lot better during the brawl than I do one on one with that guy.”
Fifteen years removed from a 12-year career in the majors, Ward still looks like he could engulf Howell. Ward stands 6 feet 2 and maintains a brawny figure. Howell has a slender frame and a deceiving arsenal of pitches. He has carved out a career by flinging mid-80s fastballs and spinning curveballs from the left side. Caught inside that melee, size did not matter.
In the sixth inning, Ian Kennedy clipped Yasiel Puig in the nose with a fastball. Greinke answered in the seventh by plunking catcher Miguel Montero. Rather than leave the matter settled, Kennedy drilled Greinke in the shoulder in the bottom of the frame. Umpire Clint Fagan ejected Kennedy. That did not defuse the situation.
Both dugouts emptied and bullpens opened. At the time, Ward was Arizona’s assistant hitting coach. He entered the fray to help Kennedy escape harm. As the bodies converged, Ward locked up with reliever Ronald Belisario. Their tussle brought Ward into Howell’s vision. The two men had never met, and Howell had no idea who Ward was.
“All I saw, at that moment, was a guy with his head down, looking like he was going to try to tackle me,” Howell said. “Dude, he was trying to get the hell out of there, when you look at the film. But when you see a guy spinning around and look up like that, you’re like ‘Oh [expletive].’”
Ward sounded philosophical about the mix-up. “That’s how we learn from every kind of situation,” he said. “Sometimes perception is not reality.”
Howell slugged Ward twice in the midsection. He grabbed the back of Ward’s jersey with his left hand and drove him toward the camera well. Ward’s midsection crashed into the railing. Montero intervened by grabbing Howell’s face and flinging him down. The scrum swallowed up Ward.
Howell talked to Montero later and squashed any discord. Ward insisted he harbored no animus toward Howell — “He’s just trying to protect his players,” Ward said — but the two never spoke.
Their paths diverged after the fight. Howell re-signed with the Dodgers after that season and solidified his place as a left-handed portion of the bridge to closer Kenley Jansen. Howell finished 2015 with a 1.43 earned-run average. He has established himself as a vibrant force inside his clubhouse, quick with a quip or a word of encouragement, eager to defend teammates.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the first time he’s met you or if he’s known you for 10 years,” Clayton Kershaw said. “If you have that same uniform on, he takes it to heart. He’s willing to back his guys. It’s an admirable quality to have. You know J.P. has your back.”
Arizona promoted Ward in 2014. No longer an assistant, Ward helped players like Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock blossom into offensive terrors. His work caught the eye of his in-division rivals.
Added Zaidi, “I think he really created a sense of camaraderie and teamwork among the position players in Arizona, that we would love to emulate here.”
In a big league clubhouse, the paths of a hitting coach and a middle reliever rarely cross. One lives in the batting cage and video room; the other resides in a bullpen on the other side of the park.
Howell understood Ward did not need to reach out to him. He found the gesture touching. Ward considered it a necessary step to avoid lingering awkwardness.
“It was such a good conversation because it just opened the door,” Ward said. “I know exactly what J.P. was doing in that situation, doing what you would want any guy on your team to do. We had a really good laugh about it.”