Pure cleanup hitter Howard helps baseball tidy up image

Phillies slugger, coming off 58-homer season, stresses natural approach

February 26, 2007|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard is not thinking about becoming the fresh new face of baseball - or, for that matter, the player Major League Baseball hopes will be its poster boy for now and the future.

If it happens, fine. If not, it apparently won't bother the mild-mannered Howard.

"I haven't really focused on it like that or thought about it that way," said Howard, 27, the Philadelphia Phillies' first baseman and 2006 National League Most Valuable Player. "I've heard different aspects about being the face of this or the face of that, stuff of that magnitude. But I've never really thought about it that way. I just keep it simple and go out and play."

It isn't that simple, though. And Howard seems to understand that baseball, in its everlasting scuffle to rehabilitate its image, needs a guy like him.

He's young, talented, good-looking, articulate and media-friendly.

Oh, and then there's the prevailing thought that the 6-foot-4, 250-pound slugger comes by his prodigious power honestly, eschewing chemicals for natural talent.

"It's tough these days, because there is such a cloud over the game and it's like you can't do anything well without being accused of being on something," said Howard, who has been tested for steroids in the minors and majors throughout most of his six-season pro career. "Right now, it's kind of a sad day where that's overhead."

Make no mistake. Howard stresses that his league-leading 58 homers in 2006 - a Phillies record and tied for 10th best in baseball history - were pure.

And that's part of his appeal. That he could near the 60-homer mark in just his second big league season without the suspicions that have followed the three players atop the single-season home run list - Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

"To me, I just never really saw a purpose in [performance-enhancing drugs]. My personal thoughts were that it's not me," Howard said. "That's not Ryan Howard. ... I just wanted to see how good I am naturally with what I have been given. That's always been my thought process about steroids and all that other kind of stuff."

He said he has known players who have used steroids but has never even been offered the illegal drugs. That makes him prouder of his accomplishments.

"This guy's doing this or whatever, he's on that and I'm [being natural] and I am killing this guy [statistically]," Howard said. "It's kind of like what's the purpose of doing that if you're not getting that super benefit? And I never saw the benefit of doing it."

He also understands what steroids have done to the reputation of the big bashers from this era. McGwire broke the single-season homer record in 1998, but, because of steroid suspicions, was named on just 23.5 percent of Hall of Fame ballots this year. Howard joked he wouldn't want the responsibility of determining McGwire's Hall of Fame worthiness.

"If I had a vote, I probably would have been sick that day."

He also was asked about Bonds, who is 22 homers shy of breaking Hank Aaron's career mark of 755. Bonds' feat could be good for baseball, Howard said.

"If he hasn't tested positive, then yes, definitely. Definitely it'd be good," Howard said.

Starting with meeting Aaron at the World Series - he won the Hank Aaron Award, given annually to the league's best hitter - Howard had a dizzying offseason, attending awards banquets, appearing on talk shows and filming a Super Bowl commercial with, among others, home-decorating guru Martha Stewart. But he said this offseason he had only one nonstop month, whereas a year ago, after he won the NL Rookie of the Year, he was on the road for December and January.

"This year, I had a little more control," he said. "The time constraints, you have got to be organized with it. And I was."

During his January tour, several baseball legends gave him the same advice: Don't put too much pressure on yourself and focus on what you do best.

One Hall of Famer whom Howard talked to in January isn't concerned about how the young star is adapting.

"I had the chance to meet Ryan at the baseball writers' dinner [in New York]," former Oriole Cal Ripken Jr. wrote in an e-mail. "I was very impressed with how grounded he was. ... Having met his family, I am sure he will handle all of this magnificently."

Yet Ripken, the only other player to have won Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in consecutive seasons, said the outside pressure that comes with early success "definitely takes some life management skills because your primary job is to play baseball."

But Howard said he can handle the expectations and distractions - even if it means being the sport's primary marketing tool.

"Sure, as long as it helps get this [steroids] cloud out of the way," Howard said. "If that's how you want to look at it and use me or whatever, so be it."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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