Can Ryan Howard be the player he once was?
They cannot help but tap their brake pedals during a one-block stretch of Gulf Boulevard in Belleair Shore, Fla., a town with a private beach and population of 109. They point from their cars at the mansion Ryan Howard is erecting. They pull over on the busy main road that spans the Gulf Coast. They take pictures.
A dozen trucks converge at the 34,000-square-foot building during the day, but they are not enough to obscure the sprawling balconies. Construction started more than two years ago. Six behemoth air-conditioning units line the south wall. Venetian-style canals will snake through the home, which will boast a bowling alley. One room is dedicated to massages; another is for storing wine.
When the attention was too great - in the middle of March, when spring breakers and baseball fans invaded Clearwater Beach two miles up the road - the construction firm ordered a woman to stand on the sidewalk. She wrote, "DON'T BLOCK LANES," in black marker on a white sign, stuck it into an orange traffic cone, and glared at passersby for a few days. A vacant lot adjacent to the house became prime gawking territory. That, too, was eventually fenced.
The eight-bedroom, 10-bathroom house is a multimillion-dollar monument to one man's dedication, the ferocity with which he attacked baseballs, and the glory he helped deliver to a starving city.
"You could be a lawyer," Howard says. "You could be building that exact same house. There is not going to be as much emphasis or attention because you're not considered a public figure."
No, Ryan Howard does not ask for your scrutiny, but he knows what you see. The incessant strikeouts. The diminished power. The anguished gait. The Subway ad in one popular sports magazine for something called a "Flatizza" - Howard's favorite is the Spicy Italian topped with peppers, onions, and black olives - that appears nine pages after a 68-94 prediction for the 2014 Phillies labels Howard "overpaid."
You don't know him, Howard says. You understand nothing about his extensive recovery from a ruptured left Achilles tendon and the subsequent complications. You cannot fathom the pressure of fulfilling a massive contract while incapacitated. You form unattainable expectations for baseball's highest-paid position player in 2014.
You see the mansion and you assume this is the pinnacle.
"What makes me happy? Just life," Howard says. "My family. My wife. My son. Baseball is a game. It's what we do. We make money. But at the end of the day, there is so much more to life than baseball. It just doesn't make sense to be miserable or to have a negative outlook on life. Negativity breeds negativity. Positivity breeds positivity. If you have a positive attitude, positive things will happen."
Ever since Oct. 7, 2011, at 11:06 p.m., when a 102-win team collapsed with its franchise hitter, the fun times for Ryan Howard have been fleeting. He once was MVP of the National League, the man who smashed 58 homers, a 26-year-old slugger with boundless personality and potential. He attended a banquet after that monumental 2006 season, and his admirers dreamed. "Sixty-five, Ryan!" one yelled. It was silly, but not crazy.
The burden of those unparalleled expectations lingered until that devastating moment. It is one Howard relived with reluctance. At first, he avoided the video. Those images conjure the kind of emptiness Howard tries so hard to eradicate. "You picked a hell of a time to fall," he told his body. "Get up. Let's go." He thought the ball was in right field. He forced himself upward. "All of a sudden my foot went flat," he said, "and a tingle went up the back of it." He hobbled until the sensation overcame him. A few yards away, St. Louis celebrated. That was how Howard's five-year, $125 million extension started.
Howard does not want to talk about the Achilles injury. There is darkness there - "You try to stay positive" - and none of that is permitted in Howard's vernacular.
"It's about looking forward and not backward," Howard said. "That's what everyone else needs to do. Look forward, not backward. You can't change what happened."
This season is a crossroads for Howard, a symbol for the post-World Series hangover that engulfed the Phillies. He proclaimed himself healthy all spring. Howard, 34, must recapture productivity or risk becoming the most expensive platoon player ever.
"Well, I don't look at it like that," Howard says. "I don't look at it like that. What do you mean, 'If things don't go right?' Things don't go right in whose eyes? That's where it's debatable. Someone else may say, 'Howard needs to hit 40 home runs for him to be right.' If it's easy, come and hit 40 home runs. You can't try to live up to everyone else's expectations. That's the problem; everyone has their expectations of you. You have to have expectations of yourself."
Howard memorized the numbers - 25 home runs and 99 RBIs - from his last two seasons combined. He missed the first half of 2012 because of the Achilles injury and the second half of 2013 with a torn ligament in his left knee.
"You put that together and that's a halfway decent year for a lot of guys," Howard says. "For me, I guess people look at that as subpar."
Howard averaged 44 homers per season from 2006 to 2011.
His .752 OPS over the last two seasons ranked 127th among 260 hitters with at least 600 plate appearances. The Phillies paid Howard $40 million during that span. These days, no one shouts out new expectations.
"Will Ryan Howard hit 58 home runs? I doubt it," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "If he hits 30 home runs, I'll take it. And that's exactly what I'm looking for from him."
This spring, for the first time ever, Charlie Manuel watched Howard from afar. The Phillies were on TV on March 22 when Howard blasted a Stolmy Pimentel pitch deep to right at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. "That's a really good swing," the former manager said.
Howard struck out 24 times in 67 Grapefruit League plate appearances. He swung at 50 percent of the pitches he saw in 2013, according to FanGraphs, the highest rate of his career. The problems, Manuel said, started well before the Achilles injury. Bad habits formed when pitchers adjusted.
"I saw him stay in there and have some good at-bats this spring," Manuel said by phone. "But he really has to find it and get consistent with it."
In 2012, Howard swung at a higher percentage of pitches out of the strike zone (37 percent) than ever. Last season he lowered it to 33.8 percent, still the second-worst rate of his career. And it was not just a breaking-ball problem; pitchers threw him 51 percent fastballs from 2012 to '13, the most since 2008.
"I saw a guy who really lost his feel at the plate," Manuel said. "He lost where he was at. He lost how he felt."
"I know it's still in there," Howard says.
The odds are not in his favor. Consider the three hitters most similar to Howard through age 33, according to Baseball-Reference: Richie Sexson hit 306 homers in 12 seasons, but his career ended at 33. Cecil Fielder was done at age 34, and he bashed 319 home runs in 13 years. Mo Vaughn, who retired with 328 homers, was out of baseball six months after he turned 35.
Manuel believes Howard can salvage the rest of his career with devotion.
"You have to really work," Manuel said. "You have to be really prepared. His mind-set has to be exactly where it was when he first came to the big leagues. He was very determined. He was full of confidence. He knew what he could do. He has to get that back. He has to get that feel back. He has to love to play the game; he has to enjoy it."
The contractors will require more than the 30 months allotted by Belleair Shore's building codes to finish Howard's mansion. It could be completed by next spring. "I understand people want to go take a look at it," Howard says. Still, he craves privacy.
"We're public figures," Howard says. "We're role models whether we want to be or not. People look up to us. I get it. I totally understand it. There has to be a line. There has to be respect. This person is trying to enjoy their time at home and feel safe."
Howard has the money. He has the ring. He has the trophies, the sponsorships and the charities. He has a 13-year-old son, Darian, who Howard said "doesn't even care" about how many home runs Dad hits. He has a wife, Krystle, and they were married two winters ago in Hawaii. Soon, he will have the house.
Motivation, Howard assures, is simple.
"I'm still hungry," he says. "I still want to continue to get better. I still want to win more championships. I want to do the best that I can so that when I am finished playing, whatever my legacy is by that time, I can say, 'Hey, now I got it.' I don't think you can say that until you're done or just about finished playing."
Whenever that happens, Howard will retire to his hard-earned estate. The rubbernecks will point. They will announce, "That's where Ryan Howard lives." Go ahead, he dares you. Decide what they say next, because Howard cannot hear it.