RYAN HOWARD wanted to know if you wanted to trade places with him, and your first reaction was a resounding hell yes, because when you look at Ryan Howard, you see the pea-sized diamonds piercing his ear, and the silver chain hanging from his neck, and the mansion with $80,000 worth of doorknobs rising above the rim of Tampa Bay. You see the flashbulbs and the headlines and the highlight reels and the 30,000 people sitting in a circle watching your every move. And, well, let's stop right there for a second.
That last part: Those people, including you, right now, looking at Ryan Howard, looking at his life the way nobody has ever looked at yours, and not feeling a shred of shame about doing so. What if there were 30,000 Ryan Howards studying you? What if there were 30,000 Ryan Howards watching your work day, judging your production, writing stories about your diamonds and your chains and your doorknobs, wondering whether you are worth the salary that your employer is paying you, wondering if somebody might be able to do your job better? What if you lived in a city full of Ryan Howards, and everywhere you went, you felt their stares as you passed? What if you started to think about what those Ryan Howards were thinking. Hey, isn't that the guy who used to be the best at what he did? How would that feel?
Do you want that?
"Want to trade places?" Howard asked. "Want to see what it's like?"
This was yesterday in the wake of a 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks. He had been benched. He had been belittled. He had been rumored to be on the verge of release. And then he had been restored, pointing to the sky as he circled the bases after a two-run home run, diving for a ground ball and throwing out the lead-runner from his left knee, drawing a two-out walk that would lead to a pivotal, if unorthodox, run. For at least 24 hours, Howard was a hero again.
But here's the thing about heroes: They're only heroes in other people's eyes. Heroes do not exist in mirrors. There, they are humans, the same ones they have stared at since the start of their lives. The rational ones understand that this is the gig for which they applied. But that does not mean they do not feel.
"It's all about putting things in perspective," Howard said. "There's a lot of outside stuff, a lot of outside people who have their own opinions and stuff like that. They can't walk in my shoes, so they don't know what it's like. I don't pretend to walk in yours to know what your life is like. This is what happens, this is where we are. We get paid a lot of money to play here. We're in a magnifying glass.
"It's tough, you've got all this stuff that's going around, but you turn the other cheek, try to stay positive. The haters, the naysayers, all that stuff - I still have love for them, because I'm a positive guy."
It is the game we have created, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The more we care about our idols, the bigger they become, and the bigger they become, the more we care. But the idolization of humans has always been a tricky business, because all humans follow the same trajectory, and that trajectory always ends in dust. That is where these Phillies are headed, and the rewards that Howard earned during their rise now make him the focal point during their fall. The body fails before the pride, and much of what we have witnessed over the last 2 years has been the conflict between the two. It has the potential to get ugly, to become the kind of situation in which nostalgia turns to sadness. Thus far, Howard has done an admirable job of preventing such a transition. Yesterday, he deflected a question about his relationship with Ryne Sandberg, saying he wanted to keep the focus on what the Phillies accomplished on the field. The manager has talked about the need for adjustment.
"Maybe the adjustment is keeping it simple," Howard said.
That means ignoring what you can't control, a category that includes the judgments of others. It means focusing on the positive aspects of your existence, and blocking out the negative. It means reminding yourself of a constant truth whenever the embarrassment or heartbreak or financial strife feels like more than you can bear: that for every person who might turn down the offer, another would feel blessed to walk in your shoes.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy