CLEARWATER, Fla. - The intersections of rookies and veterans, All-Stars and former stars, multi-millionaires and guys waiting for their meal money, is probably never more interesting in a baseball season than in the first few weeks of spring training.
Major league clubhouses in February bring all kinds together, seemingly for the same purpose. Some just have better job security.
On a recent morning at the Carpenter Complex, a kid who celebrated his 17th birthday on the day of Game 1 of the 2008 World Series was approached by a former MVP. Jesse Biddle, the top prospect who grew up a Phillies fan, had just faced Ryan Howard, a three-time major league All-Star, and the hitter had some words of advice for the pitcher.
"It was mostly about mechanics . . . seeing differences in some of my pitches," Biddle said. "It's definitely really helpful . . . It means a lot."
For Howard, entering his 11th season with the Phillies, it wasn't a big deal. He enjoys talking baseball and knows the better players like Biddle become, the better the Phillies will be now and in the future, too.
All eyes are on Howard this spring after missing large chunks of each of the last two seasons with leg injuries. But after a week of full-squad workouts, Howard appears to be both healthy and in the right frame of mind to make the most of his spring in preparation for the season ahead.
"It's getting back to the old mindset," Howard said while seated at his locker stall yesterday morning. "I want to go out and have fun, have fun with my teammates. In this spring training, it's more of a steppingstone for where I want to be when the season gets started. Once I get that, we'll be good."
Howard got his bat in motion a few hours later.
Howard hit a solo home run off lefthander Cesar Jimenez as his team coasted to a 7-2 victory in an intrasquad game at Bright House Field, on the eve of the Grapefruit League opener. He battled back from an 0-2 count, watching two balls land out of the strike zone, before launching a souvenir to the berm area just to the right of the batter's eye in dead center.
"I was just trying to track it in, let the balls get deep," Howard said.
Biddle and Howard also faced off again. Biddle started Howard off with a curveball for a strike, but Howard took the second curveball he saw and fisted it into rightfield for a run-scoring single.
Both of Howard's hits came off lefthanders. Howard has hit .173 with nine home runs and 84 strikeouts in 179 at-bats against lefthanding pitching in the last two seasons, which has led many to wonder if manager Ryne Sandberg will sit Howard in favor of Darin Ruf this season.
"He's talked to me about that himself," Sandberg said. "He's approached me about seeing lefthanded pitching. If he makes the lefthanders throw strikes, in my opinion he can hit balls in the strike zone. He had some good at-bats. He took a pitch for a ball, came back with a strike and got a pitch to hit."
Two at-bats worth of success against two minor league arms aren't going to stop the questions from being aimed at Howard. Neither will a healthy and productive spring.
Howard hit .400 (12-for-30) against lefties last spring, with almost as many home runs (3) and strikeouts (5). Overall, Howard hit .322 with seven home runs and a .972 OPS in 28 games in the spring in 2013.
But Grapefruit League stats are close to meaningless, since the monthlong worth of numbers are erased as hitters start from scratch when the real games begin in April.
Howard doesn't care about spring success. He barely wanted to talk about his home run at all yesterday, joking that he was superstitious.
And the home runs and strikeouts are secondary numbers anyway. The stat that will be paramount in the Phillies' attempt to be competitive in 2014 is the number of games Howard plays from April through September.
Howard played in less than 81 games in each of the last two seasons.
Howard played in nearly every game last spring. And whether it was the workload or the recovery from the Achilles' injury or a combination of both, Howard's left knee began to be an issue late last March, and it ended up costing him the second half of the season.
Howard and Sandberg likely will try to strike a balance this spring with enough games to get his bat ready but not too many to run him into the ground, either.
"I've never looked at spring training as the amount of at-bats you have to get, I think it's more about the quality of the at-bats you're getting out there and you're trying to get," Howard said. "You're trying to progress. You want to start to peak as you're going through spring training and starting to get into the season."
Whether it's in the weight room, early-morning batting practice or being on the receiving end of Larry Bowa-blasted ground balls, Howard is putting in the work. It will continue for another month, until the Phillies pack up their things and head to Arlinton, Texas, for the start of the season.
As February nears an end and March approaches, Howard is healthy and ready for what lies ahead.
"I feel good," Howard said. "Last week was a hard week - definitely different than spring trainings of the past. But you can definitely see what they're trying to do. Now it gets to where the games kind of become the easy part. You do all the work, put in all the work and your offseason training, and now the games begin and you can have fun."