HERE ARE THE birth dates of four significant National League baseball players:

11-19-1979 . . . 12-17-1978 . . .

1-16-1980 . . . 1-15-1980.

The first belongs to Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. He turned 28 on Nov. 19. He is depicted in some baseball circles as being "an old 28." The closer you get to the money, the older Howard seems to get. Howard and the Phillies are $3 million apart in numbers for his 2008 salary. They careen toward a possible Feb. 20 hearing in front of an MLB arbitration panel in Tampa.

The second belongs to Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. He celebrated his 29th birthday on Dec. 17, which makes him 2 days short of 11 months older than his fellow All-Star teammate. When the Phillies avoided arbitration and signed Chase to a 7-year, $85 million deal last January, he was 28. I don't remember anybody saying, "Wow, that's an awfully long contract for a guy who plays with his hair on fire and who will be 34 in the last year of the deal.'' The perception of Utley is that he is a young man in ability and approach who has a tough, lean body that will withstand the high standard he has imposed on it.

The third date belongs to Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols. Like Utley, Pujols is perceived as an early adaptor to stardom with many prime years remaining in a Hall of Fame career. Nobody seems to discern a possible red flag raised by one of the powerhouse first baseman's four nicknames: This one - I doubt if Albert answers to it - is "Phat Albert.'' Ho, ho, ho . . . Nobody suggests that Pujols is approaching a time in his career when the hill all athletes must climb and descend is moving closer. Pujols, who will earn $16 million in the fifth year of the 7-year contract that will earn him $100 million overall, is just 58 days younger than Ryan Howard.

The fourth date is the property of Colorado Rockies hitting machine Matt Holliday. I throw Matt the Bat into the mix because he not only is a hitter with the prodigious skills of Howard, Utley and Pujols, but because he is perceived as a youngster. A youngster just coming into his own who, like Howard, was in his first arbitration year. Truth is, Matt was a rookie in 2004, a year when Howard was trapped in the minors by the Jim Thome dilemma. Holliday is a day older than Pujols and just 57 days younger than Howard. To avoid arbitration, the Rockies recently signed their MVP runner-up to a deal that will pay him $9.5 million this year and $13.5 million for 2009.

The old-before-his-expiration date crowd appears less put off by the whips and scorns of time than by the totally unfounded perception that as Howard gets into his mid-30s, he'll look like a Macy's Thanksgiving parade float. The eternally snakebitten Phillies will wind up with a pinstriped lava flow with the agility of the Mars Rover. Note: Both his dad and older brother are enormous men in fine trim. Follow the genes.

But look, they say, he's already breaking down like a Third World rental auto.

Uh, no . . . Here's the reality:

In the 2006-07 seasons, Howard played in 303 games. That's an average of 151 1/2 and covers the 15 games he missed last May with a left quadriceps injury. Actually, the injury sequence began on April 19, when he sat out because of a left knee ligament. Had he been shut down immediately, the ensuing quad strain might have been avoided.

What about rawhide-tough Chase Utley? The second baseman played in 292 games the last two seasons, an average of 146 that covers the month of games he missed last summer because of a fractured right hand. Fractures caused by pitched balls and leg injuries caused by vulnerable limbs being torqued by unyielding bases ride shotgun in baseball and are never more than an errant pitch or awkward stride away.

Ask Albert Pujols. He played a total of 301 games in the past two seasons, two fewer than Howard. Both he and Ryan played a lot of games in 2007 when they were less than 100 percent. But Pujols missed just four games, despite a series of nagging injuries.

Holliday is the only member of our twentyeightsomethings to play more games than Howard the past two seasons, totaling 313, an average of 156 1/2.

During his final full minor league season in 2004 when Howard was waiting for the Phillies to grope their way out of the Thome muddle, he was discreetly shopped. But the Phillies were never offered the level of player they felt a slugger of his potential should have commanded. Nor should they have been surprised considering their concerns over Howard's perceived deficiencies. They brought up his negatives constantly, from inability to hit lefthanders, high strikeout ratio and defensive and baserunning shortcomings.

When the turbulent season was over, Howard had pounded 37 homers in just over a half-season at Reading, nine more at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and two with the Phils in September. Toss in two homers he hit in the Arizona Fall League and that's an even 50. Naturally, Howard opened the 2005 season back in Triple A. The only thing that reprieved him was a season-ending Thome injury.

Turns out that to become the Phillies' next big thing, Ryan Howard had to spend his first full season reversing some big-time underappreciation. Too bad the Phillies could not have sold Next Big Thing tickets in

October 2006. *