Ryan Howard last night accepted the Outstanding Professional Athlete Award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, knowing full well that the monster numbers from 2006 that secured the honor will take a backseat to the numbers he will command at the bargaining table.
That much was assured when Howard awoke Sunday, the day after attending Chase Utley's California wedding, and learned his Phillies teammate had signed a seven-year, $85 million contract extension through 2013.
"I was happy for him," Howard told a news conference audience before the writers' 103d annual dinner last night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill. "That was a pretty good wedding gift."
If Utley's good fortune or that of free agent Alfonso Soriano (who signed for eight years and $136 million with the Cubs) whetted Howard's appetite for a long-term deal, the National League MVP refused to let on.
Speculation? "I kind of leave that up to you guys," said the 27-year-old Howard, who set a franchise record with 58 home runs to go with 149 RBIs. "There's nothing that I can do about salaries or who's on the team. I don't make the decisions in the front office. What I can do is control what I do on the field. Until it happens, nothing's happened, so I don't worry about it."
The Phillies have said that Howard's contract talks will not begin until their remaining arbitration-eligible players, pitchers Brett Myers and Geoff Geary, are signed.
When negotiations do begin with the first baseman, the Phillies have the leverage and could even stipulate a salary if the two sides do not agree. Howard is one season away from arbitration eligibility and will not be in line for free agency until 2011.
Even if the Phillies unilaterally renew his deal, Howard insists it will not knock the smile from his face. "I'm playing major-league baseball," he said, beaming. "I'm happy every day."
He has noticed, however, that there is no such thing as a small development in the increasing limelight. Howard saw that when his recent change of agents caused a buzz. "It was just some differences, but it was handled," he said. "It's resolved. You just move on and go from there."
As for honors such as last night's, Howard liberally applied grace, humor and humility. "You guys are the greatest," he told the sportswriters, laughing. Besides, said the onetime mass communications major at Southwest Missouri State, "I'm partly one of you guys."