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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Waiting Game

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is learning to accept the fact that as a perennial 40-homer threat, opposing teams will usually do anything they can to avoid pitching to him.

October 08, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Aristotle believed patience to be a virtue.

Ryan Howard disagrees. And Aristotle might have too, had he, like Howard, led the National League in intentional walks through his first three full seasons.

"Baseball's the only game where you can completely take a person out of the outcome of the game," said Howard, who has spent many plate appearances standing in the batter's box watching the opposing pitcher play catch. "It's frustrating in the sense that if you're competitive, you want to try to help your team win as much as you can."

Which, essentially, Howard is doing by accepting those free passes. Take Game 4 of the NL division series, for example. With a runner at third and Howard at the plate with two out in the third inning, Milwaukee catcher Jason Kendall signaled for an intentional walk.

"I told Kendall I want to play too," Howard said.

But the walk forced Brewers pitcher Jeff Suppan to throw a strike to the next hitter and he left it too far out over the plate. Pat Burrell hit it out, effectively ending Milwaukee's season and sending Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies on to the NL Championship Series against the Dodgers, beginning Thursday here.

Despite those possible consequences, there's a reason why teams won't pitch to Howard.

Over the last four years he has led the majors with 177 homers and 499 runs batted in, making the walks a sign of respect as well as a source of frustration.

"You know the situation. Everybody's out there trying to win," said Howard, who tied a major league record two years ago with five walks in one game. "It's an honor. But at the same time, if you've got a competitive nature, you want to go out there and try to hit."

If Howard is still trying to accept patience as a virtue, though, there are other traits that he learned at an early age, such as hard work, responsibility, justice and sacrifice. Things his parents taught him through deeds as much as words.

Howard grew up in suburban St. Louis, where he and twin Corey were the youngest of four children born to Cheryl and Ron Howard, childhood sweethearts from Birmingham, Ala.

When he was 14, Ron Howard braved fire hoses and police dogs to take part in a march for civil rights, only to be one of the first demonstrators arrested. Days later, another prisoner, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote a letter from that Birmingham jail.

It was a life-changing experience for Howard and King.

But while his father marched with King, Ryan Howard marched with his high school band, playing the trombone as well as baseball, football and basketball.

So it fell to his parents to make sure the lessons of the civil rights era were not lost on their children.

"They definitely let us know about the struggles, the trial and tribulations they went through," Howard said. "That's what made them who they are today."

Ron, a manager at IBM, and Cheryl, who worked for Southwestern Bell, also taught their four children that simply being good wasn't good enough.

Getting a B in school wasn't sufficient as long as getting an A was attainable. Going three for four on the baseball field wasn't sufficient as long as going four for four was possible.

Success wasn't tied to achievement. It was measured by commitment, by desire.

"It was always striving to be better," said Howard, 28. "Taking whatever it is that you've done and trying to stretch it out knowing you can try to make it better."

He's still doing that, playing in every game for the Phillies this season and working hard to improve his most glaring deficiency, his fielding.

"He's growing and he's maturing as a first baseman," offered pitcher Jaime Moyer, who said he has never had a teammate quite like Howard in his two decades in the majors.

"It's kind of scary to think that he's only going to get better," Moyer said.

And don't let Howard's imposing 6-foot-4, 256-pound frame fool you. Off the field, he's a pussycat.

"He comes to the ballpark with a smile on his face," Moyer said. "He comes to play. He works hard at his job. And he's a good teammate. He really is."

Said pitcher Joe Blanton: "He's a good guy. Real laid back. Just goes out and plays the game every day. Any time you have a guy like that, it's always good to have him on your side."

All this reflects well on Ron Howard, who may not have been able to teach his son patience but succeeded in teaching him everything else. If you're a reporter wanting to talk to him about his parenting skills, though, don't bother.

"He normally just stays under the radar. Being a dad," Howard said of his father, who will be at Thursday's game.

The success of his children speaks volumes. Ryan's older brother Chris, a lawyer, is an associate athletic director at the University of Kansas. His sister Roni is a social worker and Corey has an IT degree.

In fact Ryan, who is two semesters shy of a mass media and communications degree at Missouri State, is the only sibling without a college diploma.

Of course he's also the only one with a rookie of the year award, an MVP trophy and a $10-million contract.

Yet none of that will keep Howard out of school, he promises. If not for himself, then for his father and his 7-year-old son Darian.

"I got to see my father graduate when I was young, which kind of stuck in my head," he said. "Hopefully for my son, he'll be able to see me graduate and that will instill in him how important education is."

Patience, too. After all, how many people are willing to devote a decade toward their college graduation when they already have a well-paying job.

"It's still a learning process," Howard said. "I'm still trying to take in and learn as much as I can. Hopefully I can sit here and say my best years are ahead of me. That would be nice."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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