PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard appeared fit and trim as he stepped onto an elevator Friday at Citizens Bank Park.
He celebrated his 34th birthday Nov. 19, and in a little more than four months, he will be one of five Phillies hitters to be 34 or older on Opening Day. The quintet of Marlon Byrd (36), Jimmy Rollins (35), Chase Utley (35), Carlos Ruiz (35) and Howard has caused angst among a fan base that has watched the Phillies fall from National League powerhouse to a team with the third-worst record in the league in just two years.
Howard isn't as concerned.
"Yeah, I just turned 34, but do I act 34?" he said, smiling.
Only seven teams in baseball history have had at least four players 34 or older qualify for the batting title in the same season. Only two have had five, which illustrates how difficult it is to have players that age produce and remain healthy the entire season.
"I'll be honest," Howard said. "I get so tired hearing about the age thing. Age is a number. Yeah, I've had injuries the past two years. But Bryce Harper had injuries last year. He's 21. Injuries don't discriminate. Injuries happen to everybody. This is what happens in this game. If you're playing on a regular basis, you're putting your body through it. It's all about how you take care of your body. If you still have the skill level of playing every day and producing every day, then age doesn't play a factor. I can be 38 and if I'm hitting 40, 50 home runs a year, are we having this conversation about age?"
David Ortiz observed his 38th birthday a day before Howard turned 34. Four years ago Ortiz hit .238 with 28 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .794 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Many wondered if he had passed his prime. But Ortiz has hit 114 home runs with 361 RBIs and a .952 OPS in four seasons since, remaining a force in the Red Sox lineup and one of the most feared hitters in baseball.
Left leg injuries (Achilles in 2012, meniscus in 2013) have limited Howard to 151 games the past two seasons, in which he hit a combined .244 with 25 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .752 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. (He hit .173 with a .575 OPS against left-handers in that span.) In 2011, the last time he played an entire season, he hit .253 with 33 home runs, 116 RBIs and an .835 OPS.
Howard's contention: Why can't I bounce back like Ortiz?
"Everybody in this league has experienced success on every level that they've played," he said. "You have success and then you have a little bit of turmoil. It's how you find a way to get back to that success, like Marlon Byrd, like David Ortiz. Age doesn't play a factor."
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. must believe that. He has invested $67.5 million next season and $227 million overall in Howard, Utley, Rollins, Ruiz and Byrd. Howard has $85 million remaining on his deal, so his presence in the middle of the lineup next season and beyond is critical.
There is some evidence of that. The Phillies were 77-63 (.550) when Howard started games the past two seasons. They were 77-107 (.418) when he did not.
"There's no pain in my leg at all -- finally," Howard said. "All the swelling and inflammation is out of it. Now it's finally getting stronger."
Howard looked to be in good shape Friday. Although he said he has not weighed himself recently, the Phillies said late in the season he had lost considerable weight. He weighed 235-237 pounds at his lightest in 2009.
"People are talking about weight," Howard said. "I understand that. But I hadn't been able to do cardio in the offseason since 2010. It's tough when you've got one leg and you can't go out and do the conditioning you really want to do. I know where I want to be this year. I know what I want to accomplish this year. The goal is to go out there and play. I'm going to try to do the best I can to get in the best shape I can to play 200-something games. I'm not trying to play 162 games. I want to play 162 games, plus Spring Training games and every game in the playoffs. That's where my mind is. Play every single day."
Playing is one thing. Playing and putting up numbers that befit a cleanup hitter like Howard is something else.
"Can I be a 30-100 guy?" he said. "Yeah, I definitely think so. I believe in my ability. I hear what people say. It's cool. You guys are all entitled to your opinions. But let's say I come back and I do what I do. Then what? If I come back and put up numbers like '07, '08, '09, then what? Are we having these conversations? I've never been one to make excuses. I've always tried to get things done, but when you're hurt, at times you're a different player. For me, finally being able to be healthy and play ... you saw it with Chase. His legs were under him last season. It's playing pain free and not having to compensate. I was trying to compensate so I didn't feel pain, but still give whatever it is that I had. I'm just going to try to come out pain free and do damage."