- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — Ryan Howard was sitting in the dugout doing yet another national television interview when Jimmy Rollins spotted Philadelphia’s slugger on camera.

Rollins, the Phillies’ shortstop and occasional prankster, walked over and sat directly in Howard’s view, trying to distract him from answering questions. Howard never even flinched.

He’s just as unflappable at the plate, no matter the situation or circumstances surrounding the team.

Playoff pressure doesn’t bother Howard. Intentional walks don’t faze the reigning NL Rookie of the Year. Even unfounded suggestions of steroid use haven’t affected him.

No wonder the soft-spoken big man with an even bigger swing is having perhaps the best season of any second-year player in major league history. Including a 5-4 loss to Houston last night, Howard is hitting .316 with 58 homers and 145 RBI. He broke Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt’s single-season team record of 48 homers set in 1980 with a month remaining on the schedule.

Babe Ruth didn’t have as many homers or RBI in his second full year as a hitter. Neither did Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Ralph Kiner, Mickey Mantle or countless other Hall of Famers. Joe DiMaggio drove in more runs (167) but had fewer homers (46).

Only five players — Barry Bonds (73), Mark McGwire (70, 65), Sammy Sosa (66, 64, 63), Roger Maris (61) and Ruth (60) — have reached the magical mark of 60 homers. Howard has a chance to join that elite group.

“He’s the best second-year player I’ve seen. His future is unbelievable,” said Cubs manager Dusty Baker, who managed the San Francisco Giants when Bonds went deep a record 73 times in 2001. “To get him out, you have to trick him, and that won’t last long. He has great raw power and great hand-eye coordination.”

Perhaps more impressive, Howard almost single-handedly has catapulted the Phillies into the playoff race after the team was dismantled at the trade deadline.

Philadelphia was 47-54 when it made the most significant of several midseason deals, sending right fielder Bobby Abreu and pitcher Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees for four minor leaguers July 30. General manager Pat Gillick said then he didn’t expect the team to contend until 2008, and nearly everyone figured the Phillies were finished.

But with Howard leading the way, Philadelphia (82-74) is tied with Los Angeles in the NL wild-card standings.

“We’re in the position we’re in because of what he’s done,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.

Since winning the Home Run Derby during All-Star week in Pittsburgh, Howard has 30 homers and 74 RBI. And he has done it with virtually no protection in the lineup. Pat Burrell, who usually batted fifth behind Howard, has struggled so much he has been platooned down the stretch. Even All-Star second baseman Chase Utley, who hits third, has slumped since his 35-game hitting streak ended.

Until the Phillies find a consistent hitter to bat behind Howard, managers will continue to put him on base. Howard has been intentionally walked to start the ninth inning in a tie game and to put the tying run on second base in a one-run game.

“If that’s what they want to do, I can’t control it,” Howard said.

His incredible season makes Howard a leading candidate for NL MVP. St. Louis’ Albert Pujols and New York’s Carlos Beltran figure into the mix, but the Cardinals have led the Central Division all season and Beltran has Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Delgado surrounding him in the Mets’ lineup.

“He might be more dangerous than Barry Bonds ever was in his prime. I’ve never seen anyone in the major leagues who is treating the game almost like an oversized kid in the Little League World Series,” Schmidt told reporters after visiting with Howard before a game at Florida.

“Ryan actually is transcending the game. Baseball’s not a game where one individual can become bigger than the game itself, where you have to game plan for one hitter.”

A scary thought for opponents: The 26-year-old Howard is still learning and improving. After hitting .143 against left-handers last year, Howard made a few adjustments and has doubled that average this season. If he cuts his strikeouts down from 170 to around 100, he will be even more dangerous.

“He’s very coachable,” Manuel said.

Howard hasn’t let success change his personality or enlarge his ego. While other prominent players on the team rarely are seen when reporters are in the clubhouse, Howard almost always makes himself available to the media. He rarely turns down interview requests, even though it’s an extensive list that grows daily.

Howard treats fans with the same respect. He poses for pictures, signs autographs and is cordial. Sometimes he goes out of his way, too. One night after he hit his 55th homer in Florida, Howard was sitting on the team bus when he noticed the woman who caught and gave him that ball among a group of fans gathered outside. He got off the bus, walked through the crowd and took a picture with her.

“I’ve never come across a player who handles everything so well. He’s real. He always says the right things,” said Chris Wheeler, a longtime broadcaster with the Phillies. “He was raised the right way.”

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