Redemption of the slugger

Tim Brown

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CLEARWATER, Fla. – A fair amount of time has passed since an athlete has stood above his sport like Ryan Howard, possessing power and quickness and breadth, and been granted the virtuous path.

Certainly it is so in baseball, where the protagonists in a long-ball generation systematically have been sorted from the game's rational limits and separated from their own feats.

The process of categorizing is clumsy, specious and wearying. It is arguably necessary, and entirely impossible.

Only the first several hundred ballots have been cast and counted in the primaries of the performance-enhancing-drug age, and regret is running way ahead. But this week Barry Bonds reports to Scottsdale, Ariz., and Sammy Sosa up the road in Surprise, and Guillermo Mota begins the year on suspension but under a multimillion-dollar contract, and Mark McGwire has no plans to travel to Cooperstown, and human growth hormone will go undetected for another year.

At the same time, Howard, a 27-year-old from Missouri who hit 58 home runs in his first full big-league season, buttoned a Philadelphia Phillies jersey. After a workout of batting practice, shagging flies for teammates and revisiting his defensive footwork, he sat behind a table with a talk-to-me smile.

No one gets out for free. This, Howard seems to suspect. He calls it a cloud, waving at it, as if to diffuse its murkiness. Those who use – or used – are left to their insecurities and, maybe someday, to George Mitchell's posse. Those who didn't are suspected anyway or trampled by those who did. Everybody loses.

Howard seems comfortable in his public corner, however. Perhaps it is his trained humility. Perhaps it comes with clarity of conscience. We may never know. He did come within three home runs of Roger Maris, inspiring talk of "a legit 61" before running out of pitches to hit over the final three weeks.

One cannot choose one's era.

So what is left for Howard is a bat and the next pitch, and then the next question. He returned from 4½ months of relative solitude spent mulling the meaning of those 58 home runs, 149 RBI, .313 batting average and his first National League Most Valuable Player award. He'd met Hank Aaron in an October awards ceremony in Howard's native St. Louis. He'd chatted with Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken while in New York to pick up his MVP trophy. He'd worked out with Albert Pujols.

When he returned for his bat and mitt, he found – as he surely suspected – that little had happened to change his era.

"It's tough these days because … there's such a cloud over the game," he said. "It's like you can't do anything well without being accused of being on something. Right now, it's kind of a sad day where that's overhead. Hopefully, we can get all that cleared up with the whole baseball program in place. It seems to be doing pretty well. Hopefully we can just get this cloud outta here and get back to regular ball."

Howard was born with the gift of heft. He is 6-foot-4 and listed at 230 pounds but appears larger. Already there is talk of him maintaining an optimum weight, both for the sake of the rest of his body and his unbelievably pure stroke. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said Sunday his cleanup hitter looked good, adding, "By the time the season starts, his weight will be exactly where it was last year."

The Phillies, who have designs on overtaking the New York Mets in the NL East and just might have the pitching to do it, will take exactly what Howard was last year. Only five men – Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Maris and Babe Ruth – have hit more home runs in a season. Only Ruth, when he hit 59 home runs in 1921, did it as a younger man.

It has been said that baseball needs a man like Ryan Howard, and it might as well be said that baseball got itself into a lot of trouble the last time it needed big, strong, handsome men to hit home runs.

"I don't know about torch-carrying or anything like that," he said. "To me, I just never really saw the purpose of it. To me, my personal thoughts were just that, 'It's not me.' That's not Ryan Howard. That's not who I am, out there playing. That's something else that's helping me do that. I just wanted to see how good I am, naturally, with what I've been given. That's always been my thought process about steroids and all that other kind of stuff.

"I've never had anybody come up to me and offer me steroids. No. I've never had that. I've known guys that have used it, like, back in the past. I've seen guys that have used it, and that was another thing to me that showed me. This guy's doing this, he's on that, and I'm doing 'me' and I'm killing this guy. So, it's kind of like, what's the purpose of doing that if you're not getting that super benefit? I just never saw the benefit of doing it."

Honestly, to sit across from the man and hear him say it is to believe it. So, yes, maybe baseball needs that, needs him.

Howard said he had no problem with Bonds breaking Aaron's record, seeing as how Bonds has not tested positive for anything stronger than amphetamines.

"Whatever happens, if it happens, then it happens," he said. "I mean, there's nothing you can do to stop it or change it."

He didn't sound as though he had a problem with McGwire's Hall of Fame outcome, either.

"If I had a vote," he said, smiling, "I probably would have been sick that day. Maybe had a cold coming on."

On a cold, dreary October day in St. Louis, Howard said, Aaron had only a little time and used it to impart a piece of well-worn wisdom.

"Just to keep doing what I've been doing," he recalled. "I believe in his speech he said the game needs someone like me and to basically keep doing what I've been doing, and to stay the same."

So he accepts?

"Sure," he said. "As long as it helps get this cloud out of the way, if that's how you want to look at it. You need me, then so be it. I'm just going to go out and still do what I can."

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