Phillies

Phillies

There was a time when the Phillies weren’t sure what to do with Ryan Howard.
 
He was selected in the fifth round of the 2001 draft out of Missouri State University and just the fact he’d slipped that far (to No. 140 overall) tells you a lot of folks who make their living making baseball decisions weren’t sure what to make of him. Heck, there were even folks in the Phillies' scouting department who questioned the wisdom of spending a fifth-round pick on Howard back then.
 
Even after Howard had produced a few eye-opening seasons in the minors, there were doubters. Lots of them. He hit .297 with 37 homers and 102 RBIs in 102 games at Double A Reading in 2004 then went to Triple A that same season and hit .270 with nine homers and 29 RBIs in 29 games. Still, the doubts persisted.
 
In those days, the Phillies had Jim Thome on a long-term deal at first base. There was talk of moving Howard to left field — an exercise that was a spectacular failure when everyone gave it a try one day in spring training 2005 — and, of course, there was talk of trading him. I remember speaking with a major-league general manager during that time frame, back when Howard was tearing up Double A, and asking him if his team had any interest in dealing for Howard. The team had a need for a bat and had scouted the Phillies' system extensively. The GM pondered the question, took a deep breath and exhaled hard.
 
“Probably not,” the GM said. “Our guys don’t think he’s going to hit major-league pitching consistently.”

 

A lot of teams had similar concerns, and frankly, the Phillies were one of them. They continued to weigh the merits of keeping Howard with the possibility of trading him.
 
Then one day, as the story has been handed down by people inside the Phillies' organization, David Montgomery took a ride up to Reading. He watched a couple of games and saw Howard hit a couple of bombs. When Montgomery, then the club president, returned to Philadelphia he did so with an edict: We’re not trading Ryan Howard. We’ll find a way to make it all work.
 
Howard ascended to the majors when Thome got hurt in 2005. He slugged his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award in just a half-season, and later that fall the Phillies found a way to make it all work. They ate $22 million on Thome’s contract and traded him to the Chicago White Sox. The Ryan Howard era officially took root in 2006 when the young slugger clouted a club record 58 homers and drove in 149 runs to win the NL MVP award.
 
A decade later, the Ryan Howard era has come to an end. Injuries, age and the natural decline of an athlete have caught up with Howard. The Phillies will not pick up his contract option for 2017. He will play his final game in red pinstripes Sunday afternoon — and wouldn’t it be cool if he launched one, just like he did Saturday afternoon when he clouted No. 382 of his career?
 
Though he rose to the occasion and shared some of his thoughts after Saturday’s game (see story), Howard hasn’t been much for reflecting on his time in Philadelphia over the last few weeks. I believe he’d previously been reluctant to reflect because he views this time as a transition and not an end — he wants to continue to play, somewhere, next season — and maybe also because he might have been showing just a little stubbornness after feeling a little unwanted by everyone from the front office to the media to some corners of the fan base in recent seasons. That’s why it’s kind of nice that he has swung the bat so well here in the second half of the season. (He has six doubles, 13 homers and 32 RBIs in 47 games since July 3.) He has awakened some of the old echoes and made folks remember how good he was and how special those championship years were. That has stirred lots of good feelings in Howard and in others and every move he has made on this farewell weekend has resulted in the cheers that he deserves, that he’s earned.
 
You can bet there was some kid in the stands Saturday afternoon who watched that home run and will one day tell his grandkid that he was there the day Ryan Howard homered on his second-to-last day as a Phillie. That’s one of the things about a great player — they live forever in the minds of the people who saw them being great. They’re called memories, and Ryan Howard gave us lots of them.
 
You like this kid Carson Wentz? Well, back in 2005 Ryan Howard was Carson Wentz, an exciting rookie who captured the town, got everyone dreaming of a championship, then delivered three years later. Sure, he had a lot of help. Those were great Phillies teams with great players, but Howard’s big bat was the muscle that brought that lineup together.
 
Howard seemed like Superman when he was launching balls into upper decks all over baseball, when he was telling teammates, “Just get me to the plate, boys,” in big postseason situations and delivering on his promises.
 
But in time, we learned that he was not Superman. He suffered a devastating ruptured Achilles tendon on the night a dynasty died in 2011, and it changed him as a player forever. He had a public falling out with his family a couple of years later that caused him pain, excruciating pain, that only those close to him know. He had to deal with the decline of his skills — which led to reduced playing time — and criticism he wasn’t living up to his huge paycheck.
 
It’s not easy being in the public eye when things go bad.
 
But Howard handled it all pretty gracefully.
 
His teammates from the glory years will remember him for the power he provided to the lineup and the championship moments they carved together.
 
But Howard is the last one remaining from those great years so the young teammates he leaves Sunday will remember him for different reasons. First and foremost, they will remember him for being a good guy. Just ask Tommy Joseph, the man who came up from the minors and took Howard’s job.
 
“You hear horror stories about guys coming up from the minors and the older guy being bitter,” Joseph said. “But Ryan was great. He was so generous sharing his knowledge and experience from Day 1. You can’t find a nicer guy.”
 
The folks who have benefitted from Howard’s generosity in the community surely feel the same way. Howard made a huge donation to an indoor baseball facility for Philadelphia’s youth. The building was dedicated in his honor over the summer. If one kid falls in love with the game because of that act of generosity … if one kid passes on that love for game … plays the game … teaches the game … becomes a better person because of it.
 
That’s a heck of legacy right there. More important, really, than a World Series championship.
 
Not that the World Series championship wasn’t important and special and fun.
 
And to think, there was a time when the Phillies weren’t sure what to do with Ryan Howard.
 
All these years later, it’s pretty clear what we all should do as he plays his final game with the club Sunday.
 
Stand up and cheer.