CLEARWATER, Fla. -- What we learned at Spring Training on Thursday was this: Avoid calling the Philadelphia Phillies "old" in the presence of Ryan Howard. "Aged" wouldn't be advisable in front of the first baseman, either. "Nearing Social Security eligibility," is not regarded, in this context, as a viable alternative.
"All I keep hearing is people talking about older and older and older," Howard said on Thursday.
The Phillies are hearing the "old" stuff, but they don't have to like or accept it. After five straight National League East titles, two NL pennants and one World Series championship, the Phillies became a third-place team in 2012.
There were plenty of handy excuses to be found, primarily injuries to crucial personnel. The Phillies' performance diminished dramatically, from a Major League-best 102 victories in 2011, to 81 last year.
In some quarters the one-size-fits-all explanation is that the Phillies are increasingly prone to injuries and episodes of ineffectiveness because they are just plain getting old. Howard, who had a truly entertaining session with the media Thursday, is not buying into anything resembling that line of thought.
"First, I want to address this 'old' thing, because that's all I keep hearing is people talking about older and older and older," Howard said. "There was a guy in this league, Jamie Moyer, and I'm sure people would tell him about older, but he would go out every year and show people that he could play and he could get it done.
"You can't buy into that 'old' thing. It's all about how young you feel, how well you take care of yourself. And everybody in this clubhouse goes out and works their butt off. Everybody goes out in the offseason and trains. If people want to call us old, that's fine, but going out there this year, we're going to show people we're not old.
"As far as the Nationals and the other teams in the division, it's going to be a great division, it's going to be a fun division to watch. They had a great year last year, but once again, we had a lot of injuries. Call us old if you want to, that's fine. Sweep us under the rug. Just don't be surprised, man, don't be surprised.
"You can look at the clock, all you want, but we're just focused on playing baseball. Hopefully at the end of the season, we can reign supreme and we can bring that clock thing up again, and then tell me what time it is."
In that same vein, the phrase about the alleged closing of the Phillies' "window of opportunity" is not a popular concept with Howard.
"Yeah, I understand there is a window of opportunity," Howard said with a small smile. "But if you focus on the window closing then you're never letting that cool breeze come in. We've got to go out there and take advantage of this nice breeze while we can."
One can see this club's window closing, or remaining open. Maybe the Phils are due for a bout of good health. Howard, coming back from left Achilles surgery, played 71 games last year. He spent a lot of time on Thursday emphasizing how much better his left leg is now, and how optimistic he is about his ability to carry a heavy workload this season.
Second baseman Chase Utley, missing time with knee problems again, played 83 games in 2012. Ace of aces Roy Halladay, bothered by back and shoulder problems, made just 25 starts and was often far from peak form when he did pitch.
When the Phillies got their lineup mainstays back, they were significantly improved, going 36-24 over the last 60 games. Having Howard and Utley back for something resembling a full, healthy season would obviously provide a major boost for this club.
"I think just having them around is good for us," manager Charlie Manuel said. "They are a big part of our team, as far as their talent, and their leadership roles, just the fact of who they are on our team."
For the record, the projected Philadelphia infield will have an average Opening Day age of 34.25 years, with Howard the youngest at 33. The eventual starting catcher, Carlos Ruiz, will be 34. Among the core starting pitchers, Halladay will turn 36 in May, while Cliff Lee will be 35 in August.
By contemporary standards these are not ages that automatically disqualify anybody for a season of success. In any case, Howard's feistiness on the topic of age, and his certainty that his club is far from over the hill, is a good sign.
"When he feels that way, I like it, really," Manuel said. "I think they've still got good years left in them. I don't think the door is closing on those guys. I think if they're healthy, they can perform the way they did in the past."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.