06/25/2007 1:44 PM ET
Ryan Howard is gaining popularity
Ryan Howard, already the NL's Rookie of the Year in 2005 and MVP in 2006, is beginning to realize his stardom off the field, too.
Ryan Howard is batting .257 with 16 home runs and 51 RBIs this season. (Mark Duncan/AP)
"He's under such a microscope with people wondering if he can repeat, if he can hit more home runs," Jared Fogle, a recent co-star on a Subway commercial, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "And he's this likable person with this personality that leaps off the screen at you. He's a real natural."
Little by little, marketers are beginning to understand Howard's star potential.
"He's not fully on the national scene yet," said Tony Pace, the chief marketing officer for Subway's marketing arm. "We felt we got Ryan Howard really early. This was our hidden gem. But not for long. If this guy plays like he has, with his personality, this is only the start. He's going to take off."
Casey Close of Creative Artists Agency is Howard's agent. The agency represents both athletes and actors, including the Yankees' Derek Jeter.
"He's an emerging star," said Close. "He has the personality. He has that charisma. People love power. People love power hitters. He's an intelligent, likable star that can get him to the next level, the level where he enters pop culture. And it's our job to maximize his opportunities."
Howard, however, is mostly concerned with keeping the Phillies fans happy by helping the club win ballgames. Everything else is secondary.
"There are a lot of expectations," he said. "The expectations are always going to be there. Once you go out and try to fulfill everyone else's expectations, you get lost in yourself. That's why ... you stay focused on your own goals and hope by the end of the year everyone is happy."
But Howard is also aware of the ability he's developed as a player to change people's lives off the field.
"You can change a kid's day by signing an autograph or just saying, 'Hey,'" he said. "That's what my parents did for me and my brothers and sister. They paved the way for us, set the tone. I've been blessed with the gift to play baseball. You try to touch people in different ways. ... It's all in how you try to market yourself. You try to be a positive role model."
Braun settles in at third: Ryan Braun was not with the Brewers on Opening Day not because of his bat, but because of a need to improve his fielding. There has never been any question that Braun could hit on the Major League level.
"Every player has different areas to develop," Brewers skipper Ned Yost told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "What Braun doesn't need to develop is his hitting."
"The big thing for me was to get live ground balls in game," Braun said. "At Triple-A, I was able to do that. This is only my second full year playing third base, so the more I'm over there the more comfortable I am."
With Milwaukee mired in a 10-20 slump, the club summoned Braun from Triple-A to add some pop to the lineup. He hasn't disappointed since joining the team, hitting .321 with five home runs and 18 RBIs in 27 games.
Braun has a compact swing and has reminded some longtime followers of the Brewers for Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. Braun, however, feels he has a lot more room for improvement.
"I feel like my plate discipline isn't where I want it to be," he said. "But I continue to make adjustments, continue to make strides. Every day that I'm here I feel more comfortable."
Matsuzaka meets, beats his idol: According to legend, Boston pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka idolized pitcher Greg Maddux growing up in Japan. On Saturday, with the Red Sox facing San Diego, Matsuzaka asked for a received an autographed ball from Maddux.
"It's nice," Maddux told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "You never think about people in Japan watching your games, to be honest. It's weird how that happens. I remember watching Nolan Ryan as a kid, and I got to pitch against him. Beautiful game, huh?"
The two pitchers squared off against each other Friday night and put on a pitching demonstration. Maddux threw to the corners to keep the Boston hitters at bay while Matsuzaka threw the ball past hitters. The younger Japanese pitcher won out in the end, throwing a 94-mph fastball on his 126th and final pitch of the game past Marcus Giles to preserve a 2-1 lead.
Maddon: Harris deserves consideration: There are several deserving players from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays who could earn a spot on the American League All-Star team, including pitchers Al Reyes and James Shields, outfielder Carl Crawford and infielder B.J. Upton.
One player who should also be given consideration is shortstop Brendan Harris. Manager Joe Maddon said Harris is deserving of All-Star consideration.
"I would just like people to talk about it," Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times. "Of course the competition at his position is pretty severe. But what he's done has been exceptional."
Acquired from Cincinnati this offseason, Harris has become one of the top shortstops in the American League this season. He ranks in the top eight among AL shortstops in home runs, average, OPS and RBIs. Only Carlos Guillen of Detroit and Miguel Tejada of Baltimore also rank in the top eight in those four categories.
"You look at (Harris') overall play and there's a case to be made there, " Maddon said. "Of course the name isn't glamorous, but he's been pretty darn good."
Sabathia, teammates visit vets: Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia was among several members of the Indians that visited wounded American soldiers over the weekend, and doing so was a rather humbling experience for the 26-year-old pitcher.
"I consider myself to be a young guy, but most of these guys were younger than me," Sabathia told the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "They were 18 to 25. It was humbling."
It hit home even more when Sabathia, one of a contingency that included manager Eric Wedge, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake and Paul Byrd at one hospital while Joe Borowski, Jason Michaels, Travis Hafner, Josh Barfield, Trot Nixon, Aaron Fultz, Kelly Shoppach, Jake Westbrook, Cliff Lee and third base coach Joel Skinner visited troops at another, realized how recently the soldiers had suffered their wounds.
"Most of the guys we talked to had been wounded last week," said Sabathia. "A lot of guys had been shot by snipers. I'm thinking about what I did last weekend. These guys are getting hit by IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We get to play a game for a living. I'm mad when I give up two or three runs. It makes you appreciate what those guys go through."
For the past three years, Sabathia has been a contributor to the "Strikeout for the Troops" program, donating $100 per strikeout. The program uses money to help soldiers' families visit them in military hospitals or help them to pay bills.
Ankiel readies for callup: You may remember the name Rick Ankiel. A one-time highly touted pitcher what won 11 games his rookie season and was pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals as recently as 2004, Ankiel soon after retired from pitching and has since then been trying to make it as a Major League pitcher.
Having worked his way through the lower Minor League affiliates, Ankiel has spent the 2007 season as the starting center fielder for the St. Louis Triple-A team in Memphis, and has done so with a fairly high degree of success.
"I just get excited about being successful," Ankiel told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "I try not to get too excited about where I'm at now because you never know what's going to happen."
Coming into Monday's action, Ankiel had blasted 20 home runs, added 11 doubles, a pair of triples, had 17 multi-hit games and was batting .277. In any other situation, that might be enough to get a promotion. But for Ankiel, who has no options remaining, patience is a virtue as the brass in St. Louis tries to get him as many at-bats as possible.
"We discussed it, but we felt that Rick needs as many at-bats as he can get and to experience a lot of situations," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "We had talked about giving him 400-500 at-bats, then bringing him up in the fall. But if he continues to progress as he is, we may bring him up sooner."
After getting away from pitching after the 2004 season, Ankiel knows that people are watching closely as he tries to go from pitcher to hitter. If he can make it happen -- or when, perhaps -- he believes it will be much less stressful for him.
"This would be better by far," he said. "That was a grind. The story was always going to be there. This is something new. There's a lot of notoriety that goes along with it. It's something I can build on. People seem to think it's a pretty cool thing. I'm enjoying it. I'm definitely looking forward to what's ahead now."
Memphis hitting coach Rick Eckstein sees unlimited potential with Ankiel, 27.
"You're talking about a guy who potentially can hit for a high average and certainly can hit for power," said Eckstein. "I don't think you can put a cap on his ceiling. That's what most intrigues me. Other guys in this league have gone to the big leagues and you know what their ceiling is. With him, I don't know you can say that."
Some of the other coaches at Memphis sees big things in Ankiel's future, too. "I don't want to put any limitations on him," said manager Chris Maloney. "He's going to be a very good big-league player. He's going to be a run producer. He should if he keeps improving."
Gonzalez plans to keep baseball growing in Tampa: Luis Gonzalez is one of many Major Leaguers past and present to hail from the Tampa Bay area. But Gonzalez worries that the area is not as fertile in producing Major League talent as it has been in the past.
"Going from Al Lopez to Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa, [Wade] Boggs, [Dave] Magadan. All these guys," Gonzalez told the Los Angeles Times. "And then to add your name to the list of guys, that was always my dream as a little kid. And now you just hope that baseball hasn't kind of faded out."
Gonzalez hopes to address the problem with charitable work in his hometown.
"With today's society, there's so much more stuff kids get involved in. When I grew up in the streets here it was more stickball and playing baseball 24/7," he said. "I have still ties in Tampa. ... I'd just liked to continue in keeping my roots around here because this is where I grew up."
Willits doesn't mind comparison to Eckstein: As an undersized player who bats leadoff and hustles all of the time, Reggie Willits has been compared to former Angels leadoff man David Eckstein. It's a comparison that thrills Willits.
"That's a pretty big compliment. I definitely don't think I am where he's at yet," Willits told the Los Angeles TimeLos Angeles Times
s. "He's proven it over several years, and he's done a great job."
Willits has become a fan favorite, with the crowd frequently breaking out in chants of Reg-gie, Reg-gie in his honor.
"I'm not really sure why they do it," Willits said in the soft drawl of his native Oklahoma. "It's humbling to hear something like that. For them to recognize you like that, to care enough about you, that means a lot."
Manager Mike Scioscia understands why Willits draws the reactions he does from the home crowd.
"Fans are certainly drawn to players for different reasons, and I think it's obvious why they're drawn to Reggie Willits, as they're drawn to David Eckstein or Adam Kennedy," Scioscia said. "I think there's a blue-collar element. He's very well perceived.
"It's understandable why he'd be well received, just because of the effort he gives. He never gives up on a play, he never gives up on a ballgame. That's something fans can sense."
-- Red Line Editorial