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Friday, March 29, 2013
Updated: April 1, 10:56 AM ET
Ryan Howard smiling again

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard had the kind of spring that would please any player.

If Opening Day means more to some people than to others, imagine what it means to a man who watched it last year from another baseball solar system.

That man is Ryan Howard, a fellow who now can once again call himself: first baseman, Philadelphia Phillies. A year ago this time, on the other hand, about all he could call himself was a physical disaster area.

He had a torn Achilles that hadn't healed. He was battling a nasty infection near the site of his heel surgery. His own personal Opening Day was still three months away. And while he would manage to limp back to play in 71 games, his season was essentially over before it started.

So now spin the time-machine dial to 2013. To Monday evening in Atlanta, on the ESPN television network. To the Philles and Atlanta Braves.

To a man who, at age 33, has a renewed sense of what matters and what doesn't. Of what it means to play baseball again and what baseball means to him. Of what's out there for him and his team to accomplish, now that they're both whole again.

It's time, said Ryan Howard, for the Phillies to "get our identity back."

But that's not all. It's time, the Phillies' first baseman said, for him to get back something he never imagined he could ever lose. And you might be surprised to learn he isn't talking just about health.

He's talking about the fun he once had playing baseball, before he somehow let the noise, the heat, the pressures, the expectations of the outside world get to him.

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard looked a lot like the Ryan Howard of old this spring.

The contract. The strikeouts. The left-handed relievers stomping out of the bullpen, by the thousands, to face him. The breaking balls in the dirt. The mounting need he felt to produce as the hitters around him hung out on the disabled list.

Somehow, he got consumed by it all. And he barely realized it. Until his torn Achilles wouldn't allow him to play anymore. But then, as he watched and healed and reflected on what he was missing, it came to him:

Playing baseball had become "work, not play," he said. It was a shocking revelation for a man who had spent his whole life rolling into the park with a smile on his face. And once that lightning bolt hit home, it changed everything.

"With my injury, I just had a lot of time to think," Howard said. "I think there were times where I was too hard on myself. I was trying to make things happen, trying to force things to happen. But that's just the nature of this game. There are going to be times where you see guys swinging at bad pitches, or things of that sort, because we all do it.

"And I think, for me, one of the things that happened was just kind of getting caught up in the hype, caught up in all the expectations from people. When I first came in the league, I had a lot of expectations for myself. I didn't worry about what other people's expectations were. But I think I can sit here now and say I let the outside expectations kind of get to me. And then I started to put a little bit more [burden] onto myself, trying to please everybody."

But not anymore. That's his vow. And he's sticking to it.

"My mindset this year is, I can't do that. I won't do that," he said. "I just want to go back and have fun, just be free of mind and not worry about it."

How all this will affect him on the baseball field, over the long months ahead, no scout or computer genius on earth can say yet. But for what it's worth, Howard is coming off his most productive spring training in years.

He hit .338/.368/.663, and only once all spring went more than five plate appearances without reaching base. His seven home runs were tied for the most in the Grapefruit League. His 12 extra-base hits were tied for second-most in the Grapefruit League. He was healthy enough to play 13 games in a row, after his manager promised, half-jokingly, to "play him till he gets good."

He even had more hits (26) than strikeouts (16), something he hasn't done in any regular season since his MVP year of 2006.

You never know, of course, whether that means he's about to go out and collect another MVP trophy or whether it means he's about to go out and hit .178. After all, the history of great spring trainings and fresh new mindsets tells us anything is possible. Anything.

But for what it's worth, Ryan Howard's hitting coach and manager both see something different about him these days.

"One of the things he told me when he got here," said his new hitting coach, Steve Henderson, "was, he wanted to clear his head when he goes up to the plate and try to get a good pitch to hit, not think about so many things. Just get a good pitch to hit. And all spring, he's been doing that."

Get a good pitch to hit, huh? Excellent idea. Once, there was a time when this man walked 108 times and had a .313 batting average in the same season (in 2006). You could look that up. He hit 58 home runs that year. He also won an MVP award.

But gradually, he slipped away from being that kind of hitter, to the point where last year, he drew just 18 unintentional walks in 292 plate appearances. And that, said his manager, was a product of bad health, a bad approach and the head games of a guy who was putting way too much pressure on himself.

"He demands a lot out of himself," Charlie Manuel said of his cleanup man. "And when he starts going bad, he digs a bigger hole for himself, because he thinks he's got to be carrying the team and things like that. …

"And it's hard for him to walk because he wants to knock people in when they're out there. His determination is more [intense] than [it] looks. Sometimes, it looks almost like he's out of it because he got fooled or something. But that's because his thinking is, 'I've got to do it.' Well, you know what? When he's thinking, 'I want to do it' and not 'I need to do it,' that's when he'll relax and totally focus. And that's when he gets it done."

But after observing Howard for the past seven weeks, Manuel is convinced "he'll be way more patient this year" -- and needs to be.

"The pitcher tries to let him get himself out," the manager said. "But once he gets more selective, once he changes, everything changes. When he hits strikes, he hits the ball hard."

When I first came in the league, I had a lot of expectations for myself. I didn't worry about what other people's expectations were. But I think I can sit here now and say I let the outside expectations kind of get to me. … My mindset this year is, I can't do that. I won't do that. I just want to go back and have fun, just be free of mind and not worry about it.

-- Ryan Howard

Well, one reason Howard hasn't hit many strikes lately is that he hasn't seen many. According to FanGraphs, only 38.8 percent of the pitches he saw last year were in the strike zone -- the seventh-lowest percentage of any hitter in baseball.

But none of the six guys ahead of him made less contact on balls outside the zone than Howard did (50.2 percent). So the more pitches he waves at that aren't strikes, the more he chips away at that fear factor he once carried with him every time he stomped toward home plate with that massive bat in his hands.

"People talk about on-base percentage. Hey, you get that good on-base percentage when teams don't really want to pitch to you," said Henderson. "So he needs to get back that fear factor. Oh, they fear him when they see him walking up there. But if [he's] chasing a lot of pitches, what's going to happen? They're going to try to get him to keep chasing."

But that was one more revelation that came crashing down on this guy last year when he had all that time to think. Now he talks about getting back to the approach he had from 2006-09 (when he walked once every 7.4 trips to the plate), as opposed to last year (when he walked once every 11.7 trips). And, again, he needs to.

"Sometimes, at least for me, it takes stepping back [to see that]," he said. "You kind of sense stuff is happening. But you tell yourself, `You know what? I'm going to get out of it.' But sometimes, it takes that downtime to really make you stop and look.

"It's like that old saying: Sometimes, you've got to stop and smell the roses, and ask yourself, 'What's actually going on?' And that doesn't just have to be on an athletic stage. That's just everyday life. People can get so bombarded in work, sometimes people need to get away from it, to decompress and re-focus. If you get into that everyday grind of just life and work and this is all you do, you know, it's tough. You get lost in it."

So now here he is, another Opening Day approaching, determined not to ever get lost again.

"Last year was tough. It was tough watching," he said. "You learn to appreciate that stuff when it's taken away and you're not able to go out there and do what you normally do. I had a ton of time to think. A ton of time. And I gained a whole new appreciation for the game again."

And meanwhile, his team gained a whole new appreciation for him, too, because it knows now it has never needed him more. The only player on the roster who hit more than 16 home runs last year was the leadoff hitter (Jimmy Rollins, who hit 23).

So a return to full-tilt production by a man who has never thumped fewer than 31 homers in any healthy season -- and averaged 44 a year from 2006-11 -- wouldn't be just a nice story for his team. It's a must.

He and his teammates have enjoyed talking this spring about finding themselves, in Howard's words, "on the back burner," behind Washington and Atlanta. But without a healthy and productive Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay, the three huge difference-makers who went down last year, there's no route on the Phillies' GPS to lead them back to the front burner.

So "it's an important season," Howard said. "For everybody. A bounce-back, comeback, rebound season. … A lot of people have written us off, and that's fine. The game is played on the field."

And that's true, obviously. But the man who might be the key to their bounce-back dreams finds himself reshaped and reinvigorated by all those months off the field. So now, for Ryan Howard, it's time to get back to a job that no longer feels like work.