ALWAYS, Ryan Howard saw past the accusations of steroid use and grand juries and the patina of self-serving isolationism that dogged Barry Bonds.
Howard saw a hero, a supremely confident athlete, the best hitter of a generation.
And so, without reservation, as Howard prepared for this season, Howard sought Bonds' input and made a phone call to California.
Bonds answered. Howard asked Bonds whether he'd be interested in some hands-on work with the player who inherited Bonds' mantle as the baseball's most powerful lefthanded hitter.
Soon, Bonds was in Tampa, Fla., where, for a week in late January, he worked with Howard.
Oh, yes: Howard, a chronically poor starter, had been patient and powerful. Before yesterday's home opener, when he talked about his tutor sessions, he was hitting .357 with three homers and 10 RBI in the team's first six games. The Phillies were 5-1.
Afterward, when he again implemented Bonds' advice, he had added an RBI single through the hole vacated at shortstop created by the infield shift he and Bonds have endured, then pulled a double to rightfield against lefty reliever Jesse English. And the Phils were 6-1.
"As far as what he's taught me, I've taken it and I've tried to put it into my game," Howard said. "But it's still [me] going out there and doing it."
Bonds revealed his work with Howard - baseball's best-kept secret - Sunday in San Francisco at an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Giants' ballpark and their 2000 NL West crown. Bonds, 45, has been out of baseball since 2007.
Howard doesn't care about any of that. He never has.
"As far as all the [controversy] or whatnot, I didn't focus on any of that," Howard said. "Him being one of my idols when I was growing up, I just liked how he carried himself when he played. He played with a swagger. Confidence. To me, when I saw him, it wasn't like, arrogant or anything. He had a flair for the game."
Bonds had reason to be confident. A seven-time MVP, three times before being linked with steroids, Bonds finished his career with the single-season and career home run records. He also led the National League in walks 12 times, and holds that career mark, too. He struck out more than 100 times only once, remarkable for a power hitter.
Howard annually approaches the 200-strikeout level. Bonds has talked with Howard before about his hitting approach; in fact, Phils hitting coach Milt Thompson asked Bonds to chat with Howard during batting practice before a Giants-Phillies game in 2007.
Before January, Bonds and Howard had a cordial relationship. Now, they're pals.
Plate discipline and pitchers' tendencies, the crux of Bonds' genius, were a couple of the topics they addressed during their workouts at a Tampa-area college field and over dinners afterward.
"He knew he was pretty much just going to get one pitch," Howard said. "The way he approached the game and knew pitchers and knew what pitchers were going to try to do to him."
Howard said that Bonds figured, "When you throw that pitch, if you miss, I'm going to get it. If not, cool, I'll take my walk."
Howard said he more completely adopted that philosophy. He also has more fully implemented Bonds' trademark stance at the plate, his erect torso, his feet inches closer to the dish - all instructions he's heard before from Thompson and manager Charlie Manuel.
"What [Bonds] told me was, find that spot where you're comfortable. I know Charlie's told me to move a little bit closer," Howard said. "Some games I've been closer, some games I've been further away. It's finding a comfort zone in between."
Finding the comfort zone incorporates not tucking your front shoulder in, and not going to the other extreme, either. That keeps both eyes forward and keeps the body balanced, and it allows the hitter to deliver the bat with speed to impart power to all fields.
"We talked about upper body, just keeping it straight. Sometimes you get too closed off and you can't see," Howard said. "Sometimes, you get too open and you pull off. Being able to hit pitches each way; [opposite field], up the middle and being able to pull the ball, from the exact same position.
"The one thing about him was just being in the ready position early and seeing the ball."
As Howard said, it all was basics, really - but basics coming from a master resonate more completely. Manuel, who helped develop Howard and former Indians slugger Jim Thome as minor leaguers, doesn't mind a hand from Bonds.
"It's only a good thing," Manuel said. "You can see Ryan's closer to the plate."
Counseling a giant like Howard, the 2006 NL MVP with two home run titles, is different from coaxing the best from more marginal players. Could Bonds relate to less massively talented, and less massive, hitters? Could he do it for peanuts, compared with the millions he made as a player, for 8 months a year?
That's the tack Mark McGwire has taken, returning from steroid shame to rejoin the Cardinals as a hitting coach this season.
"I think [Bonds] has a lot of knowledge as far as the game's concerned. I think he'd be able to be a great hitting coach somewhere," Howard said. "That would be nice to see him get back in baseball in that capacity."
Of course, while teams consider Bonds toxic, Bonds hasn't officially retired. Howard thinks Bonds' bat still packs a major league wallop.
"Let him get back in shape - definitely," Bonds could help a team, Howard said.
So far, Bonds has helped only Howard. Howard said Bonds told him that the best help eventually will be self-help.
"That's what it's all about. Basically, playing this game, you try to grow and learn to become your own coach. It's about learning about yourself, what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you can and can't do," Howard said.
For a week in January, with the help of one of baseball's giants, Howard took steps toward learning just that. The process might not be over.
"It was an honor to be able to work with him," Howard said. "I hope to continue to be able to work with him as long as he's willing to work with me." *