The journey through minor league baseball is not for the faint of heart. It's a war of attrition that's discarded many stellar players over the years.
To break through and get the well-earned call to join the major leagues, if only for the proverbial cup of coffee, is a moment on which players spend countless nights dreaming.
That dream became reality for Sam Howard on Friday.
Friday, the 2011 Cartersville High graduate sat at a Cracker Barrel hours before he was set to start against the Omaha Storm Chasers. The left-handed pitcher sat with one of his roommates — yes, minor-league players often need multiple roommates to afford housing — when he got a call from the Albuquerque Isotopes' pitching coach telling him he'd been scratched from his start.
There was a chance Howard would be called up for the first time in his career. If the parent club Colorado Rockies didn't end up needing him, the former Cane would slot back into the Isotopes' rotation.
"We got in the locker room after the game," Howard said recalling his wild Friday, "the manager and pitching coach called me into the office and just pretty much told me straight up, 'You're going into the big leagues. Congrats. You deserve it and go enjoy it.'"
Straight away, calls went out to Howard's family. They awoke after midnight Eastern time to find out Howard would be joining the Rockies on Saturday. Flights were booked, and his mom, maternal grandparents and girlfriend were on hand for Saturday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In the eighth inning, Howard found out he would be called on for the ninth inning if the pitcher's spot in the batting order came up in the eighth. It didn't, so Howard sat back down and watched Brooks Pounders close out a 12-7 loss.
A similar opportunity presented itself Sunday. This time, the ninth inning did belong to Howard.
"I wasn't expecting it, I was hoping, but when they called down it was definitely a surprise," Howard said. "Immediately, nerves set in when they told me the ninth inning was mine."
Since he's a starter in Albuquerque, Howard had been getting stretched a few different times to make sure he was loose — should he be called upon. Despite starting 97 of his 98 minor-league appearances, he had some experience as a relief pitcher during spring training.
After a stress-filled 48 hours, Howard finally felt at ease as he strolled to the mound prior to the top of the ninth.
"You're so happy to be there, but you feel so stressed out," Howard said of the weekend. "Just nervous. All day; all night. Barely sleeping. When I was up there Saturday, Scott Oberg, one of the big-league pitchers, kind of showed me around the locker room, showed me around the video room — looked over some of the hitters in case I went in the game — and he told me to do something. Two hours before the Saturday game, he was like, 'Hey, let's just walk out to the game mound, right now, before everything gets started. Just stand behind the mound and just take a look, just soak it all in. It will give you a better feel than when you get out there and it's actually your time to pitch.' ...
"I did that Saturday, so when they called down [Sunday] and I went out on the warning track to walk to the mound, it was kind of weird. It was like all the nerves and stress I had been feeling warming up and for two days just kind of turned to excitement. It just felt like this is everything you've been working for, just go have fun."
Howard entered in the kind of low-leverage situation he anticipated. With Colorado down 8-3, he had nothing to lose. It helped him execute the plan he had formulated from the moment he knew he was being called up.
"I'd been telling myself since I got called up Friday night, if I got the opportunity to get out there, just go right at them," Howard said. "No matter who's in the box from their biggest players to their rookies. Just kind of an underdog mentality. I knew if I went right at them and challenged them, the odds would be in my favor. That was my goal is to not try to nibble, challenge them with every pitch and make them put it in play."
Howard's plan worked like a charm. He threw nine of his 11 pitches for strikes, leading to a flyout, a groundout, a double and another groundout to close out a scoreless inning.
The initial plan was for it to be a "short trip" to the majors for Howard. Considering Oberg got hurt and sent to the disabled list over the weekend and the overall bullpen struggles for Colorado this season, it's possible Howard's stay could be a little longer.
Either way, he plans on making the most of his stay.
"My whole mindset going in to Saturday's and Sunday's games was if I get to pitch, go right at them, try to help the team win and show that I belong here," Howard said. "I can't control the rest, so if they send me back down, that'll be all right."
For a long time, 2018 seemed to be the year when Howard would get his shot. However, an injury suffered while running the bases earlier this season had appeared to push back his timetable.
He even admitted to having discussed the possible ramifications with his teammates. The higher-ups, though, felt Howard had shown enough over his past two starts to allay any fears.
"I knew as soon as I came out hurt with that injury, if an opportunity came up, it was going to push that back," Howard said. "I actually talked about that with a couple of my friends on the Triple-A team. I missed two starts and was basically out right at two weeks with that injury. When I got called up Friday, I was very surprised, because it was my start day and I was focused on making my start."
The Chicago Cubs originally drafted Howard out of Cartersville High in 2011. He was a 48th-round selection but wisely chose to attend Georgia Southern instead. Three years later, Colorado chose him in the third round.
Even being a high-round draft pick guarantees a player nothing, and Howard had to grind his way through the Rockies farm system. It helped immensely to have a teammate like Jerry Vasto there almost every step of the way.
They've been in lockstep through four levels of the minors. They've been roommates each of the past two years. When Howard got a promotion to Double-A Hartford midway through the 2016 season, Vasto followed just weeks later.
And when Howard got called up Friday, Vasto made sure to join him as soon as possible, earning his promotion Sunday to replace Oberg. Howard and Vasto both wound up pitching that day with the latter getting two outs in the seventh. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it's the first time in Rockies history that two pitchers made their MLB debut in the same game.
Roughly 24 hours later, Howard still couldn't believe it.
"He's like my best friend in pro ball," Howard said of Vasto, another left-handed pitcher. "We've played together since 2015 when we were both on the Asheville Tourists team. That's when we got to know each other, the second half of that season was when we got to be good friends. In 2016, we both went to High-A in California. We got us a house together. We both did good there. I went up to Double-A, and two weeks later, here he came. We were at Double-A together, played together last year, lived together last year, went to Triple-A together this year, [and] both lived together this year.
"Since 2016, we've been talking about making it to the big leagues, pushing each other and motivating each other. The day after I got called up, he got called up and we pitched together in the same game. It's unreal. We talked about it all night on the plane coming to Philly, how we would have never guessed this would have happened in a million years."
There were plenty of people back home in Cartersville who were thrilled to see Howard become the second Cane to reach the majors — after Russ Mitchell earlier this decade.
It's the kind of support that helped Howard make it through several grueling campaigns. The long bus trips, the fast food meals and the cheap hotel rooms were all worth it when he stepped on the mound Sunday at Coors Field.
He'll hope to have plenty more days like that, but, for now, Howard can appreciate where he's been and where's he's at. The future can wait.
"It was a lot of fun, man," Howard said. "It's something I'll never forget. It's hard to find the words to even describe the feeling of everybody reaching out to me from back home and having some family there to make my debut. It's been an unbelievable two to three days, so far."