Monday, January 29, 2007

The Spoils of an MVP Season

Ryan Howard poses with
The Kenesaw Mountain Landis
National League Most Valuable Player plaque presented him by the Baseball Writers Association of America at the New York chapter's 84th annual dinner Jan. 28.

Ryan Howard with father, Ronald. The New York writers also honored Howard with the Sid Mercer Player of the Year Award, an honor not won by a Philadelphia Phillies player since Mike Schmidt in 1981.

The Mets' ageless Julio Franco (left), winner of the New York chapter's Milton Richman You've Got To Have Heart Award, poses with Howard.

MVP Trophy completes Howard's Haul

NEW YORK - The Ryan Howard off-season awards tour is all but complete - as is the Phillies first baseman's haul from his MVP season.

On the night of Jan. 28, Howard rounded out his collection of hardware in style, officially receiving the Kenesaw Mountain Landis National League Most Valuable Player trophy, the award voted him by the Baseball Writers Association of America after his breakout 58-home run, 149-RBI campaign in 2006.

Surrounded by family, manager Charlie Manuel and a large contingent of Phillies front-office personnel, Howard was presented the plaque at the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America's 84th annual dinner by no less than Tony Gwynn, an outfielder who is scheduled for induction into the Hall of Fame this summer.

The youthful Phillies first baseman - flanked on the dais by the likes of Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson and the soon-to-be inducted Cal Ripken - was joined by his fellow 2006 BBWAA national award winners.

That group included managers of the year Jim Leyland of Detroit and Joe Girardi, formerly of the Florida Marlins; American League MVP Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins, rookies of the year Hanley Ramirez (Florida) and Justin Verlander (Detroit), and Cy Young Award winners Brandon Webb (Arizona) and Johan Santana (Minnesota).

"Truly an honor to be here," said Howard. "Last year, I never would have thought it. The company here - Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Reggie Jackson - I've got to admit it, I'm still a fan and I am in awe."

The New York writers reserved a special place for Howard, making him the next-to-last recipient, followed only by Toast of the Town co-recipients Jose Reyes and David Wright.

Howard, previously honored this winter by writers in St. Louis and Boston, was afforded the best-supporting role by the New York writers thanks to his having won two awards. He was also given the New York chapter's Sid Mercer Award as player of the year. The latter is the second such honor for Howard in less than a week. Last Monday, he was feted as the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association's player of the year.

"I don't know if he'll get 58 home runs, again, but I tell what - I watched him practice, I watched him prepare," said Gwynn, who recalled Howard's work ethic when Howard traveled to California to practice with Gwynn's college baseball team at San Diego State University.

"For two days my guys sat there with their mouths open, not watching Ryan Howard hit with power, but watching Ryan Howard hit off a T. We were dumbfounded, the things he did with a baseball bat were truly amazing."

Scenes From An Exhibition - Of Baseball Greats

Ryan Howard and father, Ronald, with Howard's Kenesaw Mountain Landis National League Most Valuable Player trophy presented to the Phillies first baseman at the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America's 84th annual dinner Jan. 28.

Left to right, Mets manager Willie Randolph; Arlene Howard, wife of the late Elston Howard; Rachel Robinson, wife of the late Jackie Robinson; and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who was awarded the William J. Slocum Award for Long and Meritorious Service by the New York writers. The chapter also saluted Jackie Robinson's legacy, marking the 60th anniversary of the fall of the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, winner of the New York Writers' Ben Epstein "Good Guy" award (left), stands with Mets manager Willie Randolph and Mets team owner Fred Wilpon.

Marty Noble, veteran baseball columnist and the editor of the New York chapter's dinner magazine (left), presents the St. L0uis Post Dispatch's Rick Hummel with a framed compilation of the salutes to "The Commish's" pending enshrinement into Cooperstown. Hummel will enter the Hall of Fame as the 2006 J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner.

The Mets' ageless Julio Franco (left), winner of the New York chapter's Milton Richman You've Got To Have Heart Award, poses with Howard.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Howard Patiently Awaiting Windfall

Ryan Howard last night accepted the Outstanding Professional Athlete Award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, knowing full well that the monster numbers from 2006 that secured the honor will take a backseat to the numbers he will command at the bargaining table.

That much was assured when Howard awoke Sunday, the day after attending Chase Utley's California wedding, and learned his Phillies teammate had signed a seven-year, $85 million contract extension through 2013.

"I was happy for him," Howard told a news conference audience before the writers' 103d annual dinner last night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. "That was a pretty good wedding gift. "
If Utley's good fortune or that of free agent Alfonso Soriano (who signed for eight years and $136 million with the Cubs) whetted Howard's appetite for a long-term deal, the National League MVP refused to let on.

Speculation? "I kind of leave that up to you guys," said the 27-year-old Howard, who set a franchise record with 58 home runs to go with 149 RBIs. "There's nothing that I can do about salaries or who's on the team. I don't make the decisions in the front office. What I can do is control what I do on the field. Until it happens, nothing's happened, so I don't worry about it. "

The Phillies have said that Howard's contract talks will not begin until their remaining arbitration-eligible players, pitchers Brett Myers and Geoff Geary, are signed.

When negotiations do begin with the first baseman, the Phillies have the leverage and could even stipulate a salary if the two sides do not agree. Howard is one season away from arbitration eligibility and will not be in line for free agency until 2011.

Even if the Phillies unilaterally renew his deal, Howard insists it will not knock the smile from his face. "I'm playing major-league baseball," he said, beaming. "I'm happy every day. "

He has noticed, however, that there is no such thing as a small development in the increasing limelight. Howard saw that when his recent change of agents caused a buzz. "It was just some differences, but it was handled," he said. "It's resolved. You just move on and go from there. "

As for honors such as last night's, Howard liberally applied grace, humor and humility. "You guys are the greatest," he told the sportswriters, laughing. Besides, said the onetime mass communications major at Southwest Missouri State, "I'm partly one of you guys. "

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Truth Will Set Big Mac Free

As one of the 77 percent of the Baseball Writers Association voters who did not put Mark McGwire's name on my Hall of Fame ballot, I offer this open letter to the man who must feel his fall from grace is now complete, and irreversible:

Dear Mark:

I know you were routed in your initial battle to win inclusion in Baseball's Hall of Fame. That was bound to be the fate of the first big-name batter up for consideration from the steroid era.

Received only 23 percent of the necessary 75 percent of the votes needed for election had to be a stinging slap. But as much as it may have hurt, understand this, and understand it quickly: even though that battle was lost, you can still win the war, but only if you use the time left to you wisely, with the best interest of the game in mind.

You have 14 years to do so. That is the number of years of eligibility you still have left on the writers' ballots.

That decade and a half will seem like an interminable amount of time, but only if you view it as a painful period in which you are destined to twist slowly, endlessly on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.

But what if you go on the offensive, Mark?

Come clean about the steroid era, including any involvement you may have had in it. Then invite baseball to join in its version of a truth and reconciliation initiative of the sort that made a lasting peace possible in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela confirmed his genius and strengthened a nation. Can you help save a game?

Baseball, the national pastime, is worth saving. And it can only benefit from the kind of healing and cleansing that the truth about what drugs did to it and its records can bring.

Lives may not be at stake, just reputations such as yours are; that was brought home with brutal force Monday when your bid for immortality was rebuked, and infamy was offered, instead.

Now you know: Baseball is a game that depends on reputations - and heroes - unlike any other. Yet your one saving grace could be that if there's anything baseball fans, and people in the country as a whole, love more than a hero it is a repentant hero.

Pete Rose has never understood that. He's yet to accept the fact that three simple words - "I am sorry" would not only bring forgiveness for his gambling indiscretions. They would bring down the walls that keep him barred from the game, from the Hall to this day.

So be smarter, and less self-destructive than Rose, Mark. Be the first to show him the way. Don't continue to relegate steroids to a past you refuse to speak on. Blow the lid off the era and let the air, and light in.

Then dare others, from Barry Bonds to the other countless number of players who also know the truth to follow your lead.

Do that and you will prove that not only were your home runs powerful, but so, too, is your desire to heal the game. Then, and only then, will you have a chance to be judged truly Hall-worthy.