HELL NO, he won't go. Ryan Howard, who would have been manager Davey Johnson's no-brainer pick to bat cleanup for Team USA in the second World Baseball Classic next March, has sent regrets.

The 2008 Lords of the Rings, the Phillies, made news on two fronts last week. They released the identity of the 2009 ballgirls. And Howard turned thumbs down on being an integral part of a loaded USA squad that failed to reach the medal round in a dismal 2006 inaugural-year performance. It was an embarrassment for commissioner Bud Selig's Battle of the Baseball Nations, to put it mildly.

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While a roster that was supposed to waltz to the gold medal straggled back to the spring-training camps, the last teams standing were a motivated Team Japan playing with samurai wa and the ragtag Cubans, who left the big-league stars from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico with huevos on their faces.

The tournament has developed surprising traction, despite the inconvenience it forces on the 6-week ritual of spring training and the very real risk of injury to pitchers not quite ready to be sharp and stretched out for baseball's version of a World Cup.

With Albert Pujols playing once again for a DR lineup mighty on paper, Howard could have been a towering presence for a Team USA said to be determined to avenge the 2006 elimination by Mexico.

But, as Steve Carlton famously said one spring training when a wire-service reporter attempted to induce Lefty to end his long media silence, "Policy is policy."

Howard apparently has made not batting under .200 in April his No. 1 policy once his heavy financial lifting is finished in February. He will go to spring training with either a long-term contract - unlikely - or another lopsided win in arbitration. If Ryan signs a contract before an arbitration hearing is held sometime from Feb. 1 to 21, he will win. The deadline for player and club to exchange arbitration figures is Jan. 20. That in itself will put Howard and his economic entourage in a win-big or win-really-big count, the ultimate 2-0.

Howard Nation beat Team Tal for a record $10 million at his hearing last winter, winning a figure $3 million over the Phillies' offer. It was a mere raise of $9.1 million over his 2007 salary.

Then he went out and led the majors with 48 homers and 146 RBI, finishing second to Pujols in National League MVP balloting. Would the Phillies dare to offer less than $13 million, despite the hearing leverage of his 199 strikeouts and dismal defense at first base? Swallow hard, Monty, and give your slugging star the $15 million.

I almost spit my bran flakes into the newspaper when I read the reason Howard gave Davey Johnson for his passing on the chance to compete against the best players in an expanding and rapidly improving international game. Hey, wouldn't it be a trip to dig in against Venezuela's Johan Santana in the first inning and his new Mets teammate, Francisco Rodriguez - the dreaded K-Rod - in the ninth?

Nah, Davey Johnson - and I know him well enough to guess at a somewhat sardonic tone - says Howard informed him, "He feels like he needs to spend his time in the spring getting ready for the season so he gets off to a better start."

Hmm. When Team USA gathers for its first workouts March 2 at the Phillies' own Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., will Ryan Howard be hacking at the 50-foot serves of some BP pitcher with Charlie Manuel clucking and headbobbing next to the cage? Will he be running laps, stretching, taking grounders, pumping iron?

Well, I'm here to offer the big guy some novel and unsolicited advice on how he might jump-start that fast getaway he has made a higher priority than representing the USA. How's this work for you, Ryan?

Play baseball for 3 weeks with and against the best players in the world. Hey, maybe third-base coach Mike Schmidt will even offer some advice on how to take those banana-balling lefthanders the other way when they tease you with that off-speed slop.

OK, I know it's kind of impertinent to suggest that a star from such an overarching firmament should give up all that BP and other spring-training perks at the Bright House while most of the greatest players in the game are getting ready to strap it on for the honor of the thing. Hey, maybe Charlie can even get a couple of kids from nearby powerhouse Seminole High - that's Casey Kotchman's school - to come over some morning and teach you how to catch throw-overs to first with just one hand. Amazing how many runners might run into that long right arm of yours if it can go all the way out by itself to catch the baseball and swipe a tag.

Howard is not the only big-name refusenik, of course. Josh Hamilton just sent regrets. Brad Lidge won't be going. But you can exempt a guy coming off the closer equivalent of a perfect season if he doesn't like the idea of laying it all out in mid-March. Ditto Cole Hamels, who has an involved routine that just wouldn't fit into the World Baseball Classic format.

You, big guy? I was looking forward to seeing the middle of Davey Johnson's order built around you. Obviously, Ryan Howard has bigger fish to fry. *

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