Despite being limited to playing in half a season in each of the last two years, Ryan Howard brings a positive demeanor to the ballpark perhaps as often as his former manager, Charlie Manuel.
Whether it's his easy smile or his or ability to infuse a joke into even the toughest of questions - or yes, the $125 million contract - Howard exudes optimism. So it wasn't surprising that, upon joining the Phillies on the last leg of their final road trip of the season in Atlanta on Thursday that the former MVP was feeling good about the prospect of playing a full season in 2014.
Howard took batting practice with his teammates at Turner Field. He said he's running back up to his full speed, too.
But Howard still has a long road to travel before returning to being a reliable, viable, middle-of-the-order bat.
Howard missed the first half of 2012 while recovering from left Achilles' surgery. He missed the second half of 2013 while recovering from left knee surgery.
Does the time away from the field make him hungrier to prove himself all over again in 2014?
"Yeah, definitely," Howard said. "Definitely. Definitely. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve kept my ear to the ground and really have just tried to stay focused so I can come out and get this team and this organization back to where we belong, and that’s on top."
Here's more from Howard, who has spent the majority of the last two months rehabbing in Clearwater.
Q: Where were you when Charlie Manuel was fired?
Howard: "I was in Clearwater. I think I just saw it on the ticker, on ESPN. I owe Charlie a lot. He helped do a lot of good things for me in my career, even starting all the way back in Double-A and A-Ball. Charlie always believe din me and I always appreciated him for that. I never really though he got the credit I thought was due.
"I thought when we were winning all those divisions, that at least one of those years he should have got Manager of the Year. I forget the specific year, but there was one year we had a few different injuries that had taken place and we still managed to pull through with the guys that came up. I didn’t think he got the credit he deserved as far as that. I thought he should have won a Manager of the Year somewhere in there. But much thanks, much appreciation goes to Charlie. I wish him the best."
Q: Ryne Sandberg said you wanted to be here this weekend? Why?
Howard: "I just wanted to be here, end the season with the fellas. I know it’s been a hard year for us as an organization, for us as a team, for myself personally. I just wanted to be here with them, be able to ride it out and just kind of watch, cheer them on the rest of the way and hopefully end things on a good note and head into 2014 on a high."
Q: How difficult have the last two seasons been for you?
Howard: "It’s not what you sign up for. It’s the unfortunate side of the game where sometimes injuries happen, freak things happen. It was one of those things where you try to continue to play through it until I just got to the point where I couldn’t play through it anymore. For me, it’s just about getting 100 percent healthy, getting back to where I know I can be, how I know I can play and come out and put all my focus on that this offseason and come out ready for 2014."
Q: So you're confident then that you’re left leg will be 100 percent, that you can play 150 games next year?
Howard: "I would hope that we’re done after this, after the Achilles' and the knee. Hopefully that’s it. But we’re going to put all of the focus onto getting it right, as well as the rest of my body, any kind of compensation patterns, really just getting my body neutralized and building it up from there."
Q: How much further along is that leg since last July, when you came back from Achilles'?
Howard: "It’s different. When I first came back, the pain was in a different area. So it was more concentrated down here by my ankle, my push, to the point where I couldn’t feel my knee. Now the ankle and the foot was fine and I was feeling it more in the knee. Inflammation in the knee, all that stuff. Hopefully next year I won’t be feeling anything, anywhere. And you can ask me that question and I can say 100 percent."
Q: Did it affect you as a hitter?
Howard: "I would say (so). It’s my back foot, my pivot foot, my power foot. Not being able to get everything in it that I want. Not being really kind of able to sit back on it as much as I want in my stance. Pivoting on it. Moving on it. Stealing bases. I would say, yeah, it definitely played a factor."