Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Philly's M(ost) V(aluable) P(ick-me-up)

To baseball writers across the land, it is now official: The Phillies’ Ryan Howard was the most valuable player in the National League in 2006.

In Philadelphia, a city sport-scape increasingly marked by dreariness and despair, the Bunyanesque first baseman with the powerful personality and home-run swing to go with it, continued to be the most valuable pick-me-up.

As Howard so perfectly summed up with one word yesterday, Philadelphia is “starving” for a winner. He is doing more than his part to win something for Philadelphia and the fans he applauded yesterday. And, as his win yesterday showed, he is doing so in both rapid and impressive fashion.

One year removed from being named the rookie of the year, Howard easily outdistanced the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols to win the MVP in his first full major-league season.He is the first Phillie to be named MVP in 20 years and the first pro athlete in Philadelphia to capture such an honor since Allen Iverson won the NBA’s MVP in 2001.

“I never would have thought it would happen this fast — rookie of the year, home-run derby [crown], and now the MVP,” a humble Howard said as he addressed a news conference and crowd of family, teammates, and Phillies officials at Citizens Bank Park yesterday afternoon.

Even before Howard spoke, his growing import on the Philly sports scene could be measured in the well-wishes sent his way. Not only did the usual suspects — Mike Schmidt, Darren Daulton, Gov. Rendell — weigh in via video messages, but Iverson, like the Flyers’ Mike Knuble and the Eagles’ Donovan McNabb, took time from a troubled season to wish Howard well.

Iverson, who taped his message yesterday morning at Sixers practice, issued a “God bless.”

Knuble thanked Howard for “putting baseball back on the map in Philadelphia.”

McNabb? In a taping that predated the quarterback’s season-ending knee injury Sunday, implored Howard to “continue on with everything that you have done.”

To do that, the man who turned just 27 on Sunday will have to top two seasons that have been both historic and impressive. For Howard is the only player other than Cal Ripken Jr. to follow up rookie-of-the-year honors with an MVP.

He shattered Mike Schmidt’s single-season club home-run record by hitting 58. That total and his 149 RBIs were major-league bests.The homers were the most ever by a second-year big-leaguer. The RBIs were a record for a second-year National Leaguer.

Howard’s numbers — so dominant during the season — were equally impressive when the balloting by the 32 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America was announced.

He received a total of 388 points to Pujols’ 347, based on tabulations that reward 14 points for first place, nine for second, eight for third, and on down to one for 10th.

Howard won 20 votes for first place to Pujols’ 12. His only other votes were for second (12), while Pujols settled for 19 second-place marks and one for third. Chase Utley tied for seventh.

Howard, who joins Chuck Klein (1932), Jim Konstanty (1950) and Mike Schmidt (1980, 81 and 86) as the only Phillies to win the MVP, didn’t pretend to know what caused the writers to separate him from Pujols. “That’s up to you guys,” he joked during an early-afternoon conference call with members of the BBWAA.

What Howard does know is how much he appreciates finishing ahead of a player who’d never finished lower than fourth in the balloting in any of his six seasons.

“That definitely means something,” Howard said of Pujols, who led the NL in batting with runners in scoring position (.397) and slugging (.671), and finished second to Howard in home runs (49) and RBIs (137).

“Just to be able to compete against a guy like Albert is a feat in itself,” he said.

Howard’s ability to shrug off the competition mirrors his ability to defy labels, such as those that suggested he would be vulnerable to the sophomore jinx, to lefthanded hitting, and to the weight of replacing the tremendously popular Jim Thome.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel wasn’t surprised that Howard shred each issue. “It just tells you the kind of person he is,” Manuel said. “He’s just a man. I’ve never had to reassure him, even back in the spring [when Thome was still a Phillie], because the only thing he wanted to do is go out and play, try hard. He did, and he determined who’d get the job.”

What he did with it — well, that was a lesson in itself, said Phillies pitcher Geoff Geary, who likened Howard’s growth as a hitter to no less than Barry Bonds. "I’ve been with Ryan for a couple years now, and what’s neat is to see how he’s adjusted,” the reliever said. “He makes the adjustments more quickly now than he did in the minor leagues. He’d developed patience.”

Indeed, Howard conceded that the growth that made him most proud in 2006 was with walks — the ones he drew rather than the intentional sort. They totaled 108 and, he said, fit in with his game plan of continuing to learn and grow.

The walks, of course, did not drive the writers’ votes. What did, in part, was the Phillies’ near-miss playoff run with a strong second half of the season, something Howard fondly, succinctly called “the run.”

“Ryan Howard played in only one meaningless game all season — the last one,” said Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, explaining, in part, his vote for Howard. “So that was the context his numbers needed to be placed in — the same as Pujols’. Every hit, homer, RBI, etc., meant something.”

To the Phillies, to the fans, to the voters and, in the end, to the MVP.