Howard not shying away from spotlight
Defending NL MVP embracing his position as role model
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard, the easygoing, affable National League Most Valuable Player who has soared to greatness and role-model status in 1 1/2 seasons, strolled into the Bright House Networks lunchroom for his national news conference on Sunday.
Before the first question, he glanced over the microphones and asked the media, "Any new questions out there?"
There weren't. The nearly 30-minute session touched on a potpourri of topics, ranging from his hectic offseason as baseball's newest ambassador, his plans for a follow-up to an MVP season, his thoughts on having not received a long-term contract offer and his views on being perceived as the first "all-natural" home-run hitter of baseball's post-steroids era.
It was that kind of day, though Howard's sincere and well-thought-out responses were refreshing. The guy can't help himself. On steroids, he acknowledged that there's a "dark cloud over the game and it's like you can't do anything well without being accused of being on something. It's a sad day when that's overhead."
Howard hopes to get all that cleaned up and places continued faith in baseball's drug testing program. He's heard unfounded whispers of cheating as he was approaching 60 homers last season, and Howard doesn't figure to hear them again. Those doubters have turned to ardent supporters of doing it the right way, and Howard is the poster boy.
"I never really saw a purpose in [steroids]," he said. "My thoughts are that it's just not me. That's not who I am. I want to see how good I am naturally with what I've been given."
Asked if he ever reached a point where he had a choice to make, Howard said he's never been offered anything, but he has known guys who have taken them. His performance against those chemically-enhanced peers convinced him that he'd chosen the right path.
He's just that much better.
"That was another thing that just showed me, this guy's doing this or doing that and I'm just me -- and I'm killing this guy," Howard said, eliciting laughter. "So it's kind of like, 'What's the purpose of doing that?' I just never saw the benefit."
Howard is fine with the notion that baseball needs someone like him, and he doesn't shy away from the spotlight that will surely burn on his forehead. He can't escape it, so he embraces it. It's his responsibility.
"As soon as you put on a uniform, you're a role model," he said. "When you're in a Minor League town and have kids coming up to you, [you are one] whether you want to be a role model or not. Once you get up here, it's no different. Kids are looking up to you."
Howard's magical 2006 season included many personal highlights, which have often been cited. There was the three-homer game against the Braves and the monster shot he hit in Washington that established a new franchise record. There was the seven-RBI performance against the Yankees and a shot off Florida's Sergio Mitre that landed near an ice-cream stand on Ashburn Alley.
With Howard's higher profile has come increased demands on his time. An MVP tour will do that to a person. Howard toured the banquet circuit and made public appearances, joking that the month of January was pretty much "booked."
Commercials have trickled in, too, including a shoot he filmed for the NFL Network. You also may have seen him slicing mushrooms in the background of a spot that ran during the Super Bowl. Topps also plans to feature Howard on its trading cards packages.
Since he doesn't figure to get any less popular this season, Howard has to balance getting ready for the season with being the most popular man in the clubhouse.
"Basically, I'm in control," he said. "You know what's important is getting your work done. If [the outside stuff] interferes with getting your work done, you've got to cut it out. The main focus is you're here to work and play ball."
While primed for the next stage of his career, Howard remains as dedicated and down to earth. Though this was Howard's first official appearance, the fact is that he's been in town for about a week -- well before the reporting date for position players -- working out and hanging around with teammates.
"It tells you what [kind of] guy he is," manager Charlie Manuel said. "It tells you what he wants to do. It tells you how anxious he is to get going and what he feels like he has to do to continue his success. That's his message. If anything, [other players] look and say, 'Ryan Howard's here early.' But it just says more of who he is."
For those who don't know, Howard is the most feared hitter in the Phillies lineup, the one who bashed 58 homers and drove in 149 runs on his way to winning MVP. A 48 at-bat stretch from Aug. 25 to Sept. 8 produced 12 homers. With Pat Burrell struggling in the fifth spot in the final month, Howard rarely saw any pitches to hit.
As impressive as the home runs and the RBIs -- and an indicator to Manuel that Howard will see little drop off -- is the first baseman's .313 batting average.
"He had a tremendous year," Manuel said. "Can he duplicate that? He definitely has the ability. It's a matter of playing out the season. If you pull out Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio's [baseball] cards, they had better years than others, but were consistent throughout their career. Howard's no different. This guy hits the ball. The biggest surprise [last season] was that he hit .300. If he duplicates that, he's definitely going to hit homers."
Howard joked again when asked to reveal his goals for 2007, but guaranteed that he expects more from himself than anyone.
The specter of a long-term contract will continue to dog Howard. The Phillies have contacted his agent, Casey Close, and are believed to be working toward a one-year deal worth as much as $1.25 million, a record salary for a player with less than three seasons of Major League experience. A multiyear extension could arrive after the season when Howard becomes eligible for arbitration.
Howard, staying true to character, isn't concerned.
"I'm sure everyone here's been promised something and never had it come true," Howard said. "My outlook is that everyone can say what they want, and, hopefully, that day comes."
The fans and Howard's teammates can be certain that their human highlight reel won't stop producing. Rest assured, the organization has every intention of keeping Howard in town for a long time.
"He's not only been outstanding for Philadelphia, but for the game," Manuel said. "When you watch him hit and how far he hits balls and [see] how many home runs he hits and his high batting average and the way he comes across, his personality, this guy has all the ingredients. He does everything well."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.