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MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

GARY - When he returned to his new home in Albuquerque, N.M., last fall, Howard Battle told his 4-year-old daughter Deezha that he was back for good. No more baseball.

But as Chicago Heights native and famed author Jim Bouton famously wrote, "You spend your whole life gripping a baseball. Then one day, you realize it was the other way around the whole time."

So the 31-year-old, who played for the Blue Jays, Phillies and Braves in three stints in the big leagues, has returned for another tango with the game - this time as a third baseman for the Gary RailCats. Battle, who batted .277 with the International League's Ottawa Expos and the Northern League's St. Paul Saints last season, is one of two players on the RailCats' roster considered a "veteran" by the league's definition.

Northern League teams are permitted to keep up to five such players. Bubba Carpenter, a former Colorado Rockie, also holds that designation.

"Even coming into this year, I really, really thought about it a lot, whether I wanted to come and play," Battle said. "My daughter is going to be starting school in August. I just got a home built and I've barely even had a chance to sleep in it."

Battle's first brush with retirement came five years ago. After a frustrating season with the Dodgers organization in 1997, he signed with the White Sox in the offseason. The Sox assigned Battle to Class AA Birmingham.

He batted only .179 in his brief stay with the Barons before getting his release. Yet, picked up by the Braves' affiliate in the same league, Battle tore it up the rest of the season.

By the next year, he was back in the majors. Battle had short stays with Toronto in 1995 (15 at-bats) and Philadelphia in '96 (5 at-bats).

"If you just play hard and keep being true to yourself, good things are gonna happen," Battle said. "It's a funny game. You've got to stick with it."

Though he didn't get into any games in the 1999 World Series against the New York Yankees, Battle said being part of a World Series team was still one of the most awesome experiences of his life.

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"That was the best feeling, besides my kids being born, that I've ever had in my life," Battle said. "Being that I only had five or six months in the major leagues, to be a part of that, it's hard to describe."

Battle was a fourth-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1990.

"You love to have Howard around," said RailCats manager Garry Templeton. "He wants to play baseball and win games. I talked to him, (RailCats general manager Roger Wexelberg) talked to him. We felt he was a great addition to the team. He's a good pro."

Battle truly believes that this will be his last season - though he was with the Expos organization last year, at age 31, playing in an independent league, he harbors no expectations of ever playing in affiliated ball again.

"I do it every year," Battle said. "I asked myself, 'What's the purpose?' The money's not that great. I thought about it and said I'd give it one more shot because I still love to play. We'll see what happens here."

Battle and his wife of two years, Margaret, have two children - 15-month-old Deion and 4-year-old Deezha.

Though he doesn't have any other post-baseball plans ironed out, he knows that life after his playing career will include time with them - for good this time.

"I think she understands," Battle said. "She's only 4, but kids understand a lot more than we give them credit for.

"She'll be fine."

Jeff Carroll can be reached at jeffcar@nwitimes.com or (219) 933-3373.

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