Think of Ryan Howard, and what comes to mind?

Well, let's see. Tall. Strong. Baby face. Slugger.

What? You mean "garden gnome" didn't roll off your tongue?

Not unless you're one of the marketing whizzes for the double-A Reading Phillies. They've outdone themselves this time.

With apparently way too much time on their hands in the off-season, they managed to come up with the weirdest giveaway I've ever seen: the Ryan Howard Garden Gnome.

In the minor leagues, it's always about the swag. The offbeat promotions are part of the entertainment, everything from toilet-seat night to Lewis and Clark bobbleheads. After all, promoting the game is just as important as winning it.

And who's complaining?

Tickets for the major-league Phillies are among the priciest in baseball. Add food and parking, and a game at Citizens Bank Park can easily set a family of four back $500.

Even J-Roll isn't worth breaking your bankroll.

Which brings us to Ryan and your garden.

I don't know whether to laugh hysterically or to run.

The Ryan Howard Garden Gnome, the R-Phils' featured giveaway Aug. 3, depicts our slugger in pinstripes, sporting a waist-length gray beard and a pointy little R-Phils elf cap.

Face all Vaselined up, grinning from ear to ear, kneeling on one knee, and, as he is prone to do, holding a bat like a billy club - all ready to beat back those menacing garden snails.

Say what?

"He's there to protect your garden," affirms Kevin Sklenarik, the team's director of operations. Fans are sure to "enjoy them and display them in their gardens."

Well, OK. I can laugh with the best of them.

But, hmm. This is all starting to veer dangerously close to lawn-ornament territory, and we all know that history.

The original jockey statue, standing proud and usually carrying a lantern, shepherded runaway slaves to safety during the days of the Underground Railroad, explained Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple.

But as time went on, lawn jockeys were often caricatured as a stooped-over black man with dark skin and painted-in white eyes and big red lips. They were usually displayed on lawns of homes in the South and served no real purpose other than to diminish African Americans.

So you can understand why this Howard gnome thing creeps me out, even if the team's intentions were to tout its former star.

"People in general think all gnomes are pretty," Sklenarik says.

Have you ever checked out those trolls? Yeah. Pretty scary.

Turns out there are so many different kinds of gnomes that it's not even funny. Giggler gnomes and fiddler gnomes, hiking gnomes and soccer gnomes (for you World Cup fans).

The tiny humanoids originated in Germany and come in all different shapes, colors, and sizes. Apparently there are so many in Europe that a movement has been started to free them from their garden plantations.

In the United States, www.freethegnomes.com calls on owners to stop oppressive gardening and advocates liberation for garden gnomes everywhere.

I'm willing to march. Are you?

No justice, no home runs! Free Ryan Howard!

Don't get me wrong. I'd do a Ryan Howard giveaway, too. He was and forever will be the R-Phils' biggest draw.

And, no doubt, fans will flock to Reading on gnome gnight to claim their prize.

"Anything we do with Ryan is big here," said Sklenarik, who explained that because Howard played for Reading, the team doesn't need the Phillies' permission to use his likeness.

Uh-oh.

What else needs protecting?

Contact Annette John-Hall
at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com.