2006 NL MVP Howard Aims Even Higher In 2007

By Todd Zolecki
Updated: February 19, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It has been a whirlwind winter of award shows, accolades from Hall of Famers, and a TV-commercial shoot with Martha Stewart, Janet Reno and LL Cool J.

Not exactly a typical off-season.

But Ryan Howard’s 2006 wasn’t typical. He hit .313 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs to be named the National League’s most valuable player in his first full season in the majors. He made his first all-star team. He won the Home Run Derby. He won nine other awards, from the Silver Slugger to the Josh Gibson Legacy Award. He is a major reason that Phillies season-ticket sales are up about 1,200 from last season and that expectations are at their highest in years.

“I do actually want to improve on that,” Howard said Sunday at a news conference at Bright House Networks Field.

But is it possible?

Could he possibly have an encore?

His numbers aren’t exactly easy to replicate, much less improve upon. Pitchers certainly will be more cautious with him, especially with runners on base.

In his final 21 games last season, Howard hit .328 (22 for 67) with two home runs and 11 RBIs. He walked 28 times (14 intentional). Compare that with the 16-game stretch before when he hit .464 (26 for 56) with 13 home runs, 26 RBIs and 14 walks. He appeared to remain patient at the plate but didn’t seem to see the pitches in his wheelhouse that he had seen in the past.

However, manager Charlie Manuel said he isn’t worried about that.

That whole pitching-around-Howard thing? He said it’s about patience.

“You’ve got a guy on the mound who’s very competitive,” Manuel said. “They don’t want the hitter to beat them. So they’ll pitch around him and they’ll walk him. But believe me, if he’s patient, the pitcher will run out of patience. And the competitiveness in the pitcher will come out, and all of a sudden he will start going at him. And if you’re patient, you’ll get balls to hit. He’s going to get all the chances to hit 40 or 50 homers.”

Phillies fans probably expect 60. Maybe 70. Maybe more.

“I know going into this season that there are going to be a lot of outside expectations,” said Howard, 27. “The key words are outside expectations. I think no one can put more pressure on them than themselves. That’s why you have goals. You set your goals, then go out there and try to achieve your goals… . If you have your goals and they’re reasonable and you can achieve them, then by the end of the year, you should be happy, and I think everybody else will be.”

So what are his goals?

“I have my goals,” he said. “I know what they are, and I’ll stick to that.”

As Howard pursued 60 home runs last season, he had to answer countless questions about possibly being the first “clean” player since Roger Maris to hit 60 home runs. Obviously, besides Maris and Babe Ruth, the only other players to hit 60 or more homers are Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Everybody knows about those three.

Bonds could break Hank Aaron’s career home-run record this season. Howard met Aaron at the World Series, where he received the NL’s Hank Aaron Award. Aaron said that he was happy Howard decided to “carry the torch, not only as a ballplayer, but a complete player.”

Howard seems comfortable with that responsibility.

“Sure, as long as it helps get this cloud of the way,” he said, referring to the suspicions of prevalent steroid use in baseball. “If that’s how you want to view me, so be it. I’m going to go out and still try to do what I can.”

The Phillies will try to do what they can to keep Howard happy. The team and Howard’s agent, Casey Close, are in discussions about a new contract. If a deal is worked out, more will be expected from Howard.

“I think it’s cool,” he said of the attention he receives these days. “It means you’re doing something and people recognize you for it. There are times that you go to places, mostly in Philadelphia, where you’ll go out and eat and people will come up to you. But for the most part, people are pretty good about waiting for you to get finished with your meal and coming up. I really don’t have a problem with that. The fans in Philadelphia have been good to me.”

Baseball fans everywhere seem to have taken to him because of his likable personality, his ability to hit home runs, and his clean image.

Does baseball need Ryan Howard?

“I really haven’t thought about it that way,” he said. “I’ve heard different aspects about being the face of this and the face of that, but I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Aaron has.

“I believe he said in his speech that the game needs someone like me,” Howard said. “He told me to keep doing what I’ve been doing and to stay the same.”

As long as he keeps hitting home runs, Philadelphia should be happy.