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Utley, Howard relishing first All-Star trip

Utley, Howard side by side again in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- There they were at All-Star media day, sitting several feet from each other at press tables. This is simply how it is for Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, who also play side-by-side on the right side of the Phillies' infield.

For years to come, you'll probably never see one very far from the other. They've reached stardom at a young age as evidenced by their collective presence in Pittsburgh, and the dynamic duo seemed a bit humbled by it all, but also driven to make this more than a one-and-done encounter.

Could this be a start of a tradition of All-Star appearances for two of the most productive young hitters in baseball?

"Hopefully, it is," said Utley, the starting second baseman for the National League. "But the whole goal in baseball for me, and I know for Ryan as well, is to always improve, to always try and get better every day. And your whole goal is to get better. If that happens, then we might be here again."

To get here, Utley hit .312 in the first half with 71 runs, 109 hits, 25 doubles, 16 homers, 53 RBIs and nine stolen bases. Then there is Howard, a classic thumper, who has followed his National League Rookie of the Year season by clubbing 28 homers and driving in 71 runs in his first 316 at-bats in '06.

"Hey, I'd love to come here every year, don't get me wrong, that means I'm doing something," said Howard. "It would be great to start a tradition and to be able to come to as many of these as possible. It's been fun, this year has been fun for me. I've had things go my way, I'm blessed, I've just been having fun all year."

When you are young and strong, and just entering your prime, it's hard not to have fun. Veteran closer Tom "Flash" Gordon, the third All-Star representative of the Phillies, has been enjoying the experience of chaperoning the young guys to their first All-Star Game. This is Gordon's third trip to the Midsummer Classic.

"Last year, they had really good seasons and just to know that both of them continue to work really hard and to get better and to see their work ethic, these guys definitely work hard to prepare themselves every night and to be ready every night," said Gordon.

"And I think that's where guys continue to grow," he added. "I think those two guys will definitely be better, because they really work at the little things in the game and try and try to take care of themselves well enough to be prepared and have consistency. Once you start doing that, and find a way to be consistent every night, I think you'll be successful."

Howard felt an emotional tug once he got to Pittsburgh and the feeling started to sink in that he is spending the next couple of days on a stage with the best players in the world.

"Right now, the day has finally hit, just being here, I think the whole experience is kind of catching up to me, just realizing what I did to be able to get here. It's special for me," said Howard a few hours before he would participate in the CENTURY 21 Home Run Derby.

The 26-year-old Howard knows that the time wasn't all that long ago that he was in his back yard having personal home run derbies and dreaming of the possibilities that came to light on Monday.

"I was [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] or [Barry] Bonds in the backyard," Howard said. "Those were the two guys I kind of came up idolizing. Every kid who plays, when you see those guys playing in All-Star games and home run derbies, as a player, that's one thing you always dream about and always say to yourself ... you see them and you say, 'One day, I want to be there and just go from there, and try and do whatever you need to do to try and get there.'"

The fact that Howard has no idea what a sophomore jinx is would seem to indicate that being an All-Star for the first time won't do anything to diminish his near unquenchable thirst to keep getting better. How has he maintained such a high level so early in his career?

"Just going out and staying within myself, not trying to do too much or put too much pressure on myself," Howard said. "Just knowing what I can and can't do and going from there and not trying to do anymore."

For the 27-year-old Utley, the reward of being an All-Star was a reminder of how high he has already raised the bar, and how much he still wants to accomplish.

"The whole goal is, no matter how well you're doing, you can always do better," Utley said. "Never be too satisfied. That's been my main goal these last four or five years, and so far, it's worked out."

And perhaps one day, Utley and Howard will be like Gordon -- still feeling like a little kid while making the All-Star team at the age of 38.

"I'm really thrilled to be a part of this with these guys and being able to get the votes I was able to get [from the players], it's definitely a thrill for me," Gordon said.

It has been a tough season for the Phillies thus far, as they are 40-47 and 12 games back in the NL East. But for their three All-Stars, Monday was a day to forget about the stress of the regular season and appreciate where they were as players.

"It's exciting to have Ryan and to have Flash here as well," said Utley. "Both Ryan and I are pretty new to the situation, so we're just going to roll with it and see how it goes. [We'll] slowly take it in, but [we'll] ]make sure we have a good time."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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