ryan howard

What if Jim Thome's injury didn't solve Phillies' first base drama?

What if Jim Thome's injury didn't solve Phillies' first base drama?

In 137 years of play, the Phillies have racked up more than a few what-ifs. What if Chico Ruiz doesn't steal home in 1964? What if Danny Ozark replaces Greg Luzinski for defense on Black Friday 1977? What if the Phillies protect George Bell in the Rule 5 draft? What if they don't trade Ferguson Jenkins? Or Ryne Sandberg?

What if Michael Martinez doesn't catch that ball in deep center field that 2011 night in Atlanta and the St. Louis Cardinals don't make the postseason? What if Chase Utley's knees don't go bad and Ryan Howard doesn't blow out his Achilles tendon? There are many, many more.

Over the next few days, we'll explore a few of the moments and events that may have flown under the radar but still make you ask: what if? Join us in our trip to an alternate Phillies universe ...

There was a brief time — very brief, as it turned out — that the Phillies faced a daunting conundrum involving two popular and extremely productive sluggers.

Today's trip to an alternate Phillies universe revisits Ryan Howard's rise and Jim Thome's departure.

When all was said and done, it worked out rather seamlessly. The Phillies traded Thome to the Chicago White Sox and that cleared the way for Howard to take over the first base position. Thome continued to ride a power-hitting track to Cooperstown and Howard won a National League MVP award and became the Big Piece on a club that won five division titles, two NL pennants and a World Series.

Everybody ended up happy, happy, happy.

But what if Thome hadn't injured his back in 2005?

The Phillies targeted Thome as a free agent and signed him to a six-year, $85 million deal before the 2003 season because they wanted him to light up a lineup and a fan base as they geared to move into a new stadium and he did just that, putting up huge numbers in his first two seasons with the cub.

The wise sage Lenny Dykstra once said, "Backs are tricky, dude, because they're connected to everything." Thome learned what Dykstra meant when his back started giving him big problems early in the 2005 season. His production slipped and the pain became too much to handle. He did not play after June 30.

You know the rest of the story. Howard, who had been bombing home runs for the better part of three seasons in the minors, came up and took off. He hit 22 homers and drove in 63 runs in 88 games, a little more than a half-season. He was named NL Rookie of the Year in November.

Meanwhile, down in Florida, Thome was rehabbing his back, getting stronger and angling for a big return in 2006.

But Thome knew that return couldn't be in Philadelphia. Ever gracious and classy, he tipped his cap to Howard and said he saw many of the same traits in the young slugger that others had seen in him years earlier. Thome quietly told the organization that the best thing for everyone was to trade him — preferably to his home state White Sox, who were in need of a designated hitter — and new general manager Pat Gillick got the deal done. Sure, the Phillies had to offset $24 million of Thome's salary, but it was a simple solution to what could have been a vexing issue.

In an alternate universe, Thome stays healthy in 2005 and continues to put up big numbers and Howard stays in Triple A and does not win the Rookie of the Year.

What happens then?

An experiment to use Howard in left field had failed miserably. There was no designated hitter in the NL. (That's probably going to happen in the coming years. Had there been a DH in the NL when Thome was a Phillie, the problem would have been solved and the Phils would have had a power plant in the middle of their lineup with the two left-handed sluggers.) The only solution was a trade. Howard had already requested one. Had Thome been healthy and productive through 2005, the Phils likely would not have considered dealing him. He had three years left on his contract and he was putting fannies in the seats.

Had Thome stayed healthy, the Phils likely would have had to trade Howard and who knows what they would have gotten in return. Yes, he was putting up big numbers in the minors, but there were questions in those days about whether he'd hit big-league pitching. Those questions would have lingered — and affected his trade value — had he stayed in the minors for most of 2005.

Howard's big half-season in 2005 made a trade of either him or Thome imperative. A couple of years earlier, the Phils could afford to be patient and let the situation play out because Howard needed development time. In fact, Ed Wade, the team's general manager through 2005, made just one call to gauge trade interest in Howard when Howard was in the minors. The general manager on the other end of the phone scoffed and compared Howard to Sam Horn, a minor-league slugging legend from the '80s and '90s who had just marginal big-league success. But now, something had to be done.

Wade never came close to trading Howard. And that scorching half-season and Rookie of the Year award in 2005 cemented the young slugger's place in the organization.

In an alternate universe, it could have been so very different. Howard could have moved on and done damage in another city, for another club. It would have been painful for Phillies fans to watch, even with good guy Jim Thome sticking around and doing big things. Ultimately, the pain in Thome's back started a chain of events that took care of everything — at least until Howard suffered his own career-changing injury.

"When I leave the game of baseball someday, I want people to recognize that I always put my teams first," Thome said the night he was traded to the White Sox. "That's what I love about the game — being part of the team. I see in Ryan Howard what someone saw in me when I broke into the big leagues. And now it's time for both of us to seize the opportunity ahead of us. It's a win-win situation."

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Why Ryan Howard was the most crucial figure in Phillies' run

Why Ryan Howard was the most crucial figure in Phillies' run

This installment concludes our look at the individual cases for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as the most important player of the Phillies' most successful run in franchise history.

There's a certain level of appreciation and perspective that can only be gained through time and we see it now whenever Ryan Howard comes back to Citizens Bank Park.

The Big Piece was certainly shown love during his peak, but the third act of his career was so long and coincided with the Phillies' descent, so it affected how he was received.

What he had accomplished before then, though, was historic. It's easy to lose sight of that when you're so close to the situation witnessing it regularly.

Howard played 13 seasons in the majors, including 2004 when he played just 19 games. He won Rookie of the Year in '05 and then became a full-time player.

Retrospectively, you can break the rest of his career down into three phases. 

From 2006-09 came Howard's Hall of Fame-level peak. He hit .278/.379/.589 over those four years and averaged 50 homers and 143 RBI. 50 and 143! Averages we haven't seen since from anyone.

Most will say that Howard declined only after he tore his Achilles in the 2011 playoffs, but in truth, he was coming down a bit even before then. Howard hit .265/.350/.497 across 2010 and 2011. His OPS dropped by 120 points from the previous four. Howard was OK in the 2010 playoffs but had nary a home run or RBI. In that fateful 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals, he did drive in six runs but reached base only three times in 21 plate appearances.

For a long time, the freshest Howard memories for Phillies fans were the traumatic end to 2011 and the huge drop-off thereafter. The Phillies still have not had a winning season since 2011. And from 2012-16, Howard was a shell of himself, hitting just .226 with a .292 on-base percentage and not nearly enough power to make up for it.

This explains why there were boos at the end. But even then, you knew the boos would turn back into cheers once distance made the heart grow fonder. Howard accomplished too much. Unlike Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and nearly every other key member of that 2008 Phillies championship team, Howard finished his major-league career here. Phillies fans were exposed to more of "the end" for Howard than they were the others.

Over the last several days here, we've grappled with the question of who was most important to the Phillies' five-year run of dominance from 2007-11, a run that somehow ended with only one title. A couple of my teammates have argued in favor of Utley and Rollins. For me, it's Howard. It's gotta be Howard.

Do the Phillies back up Rollins' pre-2007 "team to beat" comment without Howard going for 47 and 136 that year? 

Do they finish with the same record and get the same playoff draws without Howard leading the majors with 48 and 146 in 2008 while playing all 162 games?

In '09, Howard was better than he was in '08, again led the majors with 141 RBI and played 160 more games.

In the five years from 2007-11, Howard averaged 152 games. Rollins averaged 137 and Utley 133. That, too, should count toward this debate.

There is also the clutch factor of when Howard did his best work. In his prime, he was a beast each year from mid-August and all through September. From 2005-11, Howard hit .307/.426/.654 with 61 home runs and 172 RBI in 190 September games. He led the majors in homers, RBI and OPS.

The big picture answer to this question is that all three players needed each other. They complemented each other so well, in skillset and in personality. The Phillies of 2007-11 wouldn't have been nearly as successful if you remove one of them — or any of Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth or Cole Hamels, for that matter.

Howard would not have produced as many runs without Rollins, Victorino and Utley getting on base ahead of him. Utley had a .386 OBP over that five-year span. Victorino spent most of that run hitting between .280 and .295, and all three of Rollins, Victorino and Utley had elite base-stealing seasons throughout that set Howard up with so many RISP opportunities.

But you still have to drive 'em in.

• It's been 10 seasons since any major-league player drove in 140 runs. Howard did it three times in four years at one point. 

• Howard had four straight seasons of 45-plus home runs — something no other player did then or since. No other major-leaguer in the last 14 years has done it two seasons in a row.

Rollins and Utley definitely had the edges in defense and baserunning. It is much more difficult to properly quantify those phases of the game and WAR drastically overvalues defensive impact in some ways. Stats exist such as Defensive Runs Saved, but can we really know exactly how many defensive runs a player saved his team over the course of a season? Can we really know how many runs a player added by taking the extra base on a single 20 times? A number can be assigned to it, but the weighting of defense and baserunning in WAR has always been a source of controversy in the baseball world.

What we do know is that Howard had a five-year run of power that is unprecedented over the last decade and a half. During all of that stretch, the looming threat of Howard in the cleanup spot weighed on the opposing pitcher and affected at-bats ahead of him. Even in the most wicked of The Big Piece's slumps, the game could immediately change with one of the blasts that often left his bat too quickly to track until it reached the skies.

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A deep investigation into all the Philly sports references in The Office

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

A deep investigation into all the Philly sports references in The Office

I have invested a great deal of time in binge-watching NBC’s The Office on more than one occasion, with the most recent instance taking place during this period of quarantine.

One of the best aspects of the show, is its location — its proximity to the city we know and love. 

According to Dwight K. Schrute, Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch is only a 30-minute trip to Philadelphia if you drive 240 miles per hour — which to be very clear, we don’t recommend. 

So it’s really no surprise that the characters have often discussed things that we hold near and dear to our hearts in this city: cheesesteaks and Philly sports. 

In fact, we have compiled a list of 20 mentions, references, and reminders of Philly sports across 19 of the show’s 201 total episodes. 

S1E1: Pilot


 


Meet Ryan Howard.
I’ll leave it at that. 

S1E5: Basketball

The lack of Sixers t-shirts during the matchup between The Office versus The Warehouse was quite disappointing, but this absolutely incredible find made up for it: a mask eerily similar to Joel Embiid’s mask in the 2018 playoffs and a Mike Scott.

 

Foreshadowing two greats, perhaps?

S2E3: Office Olympics

If you look closely, you’ll notice a Mike Lieberthal bobblehead on Dwight’s desk. A nod to the Phillies, right? Sure. But the reference goes deeper than just the red and white pinstripes. 

Mike Lieberthal’s full name is Michael Scott Lieberthal. Mind blown? 

 

S3E23: The Job

When interviewing for a job at the corporate office, CFO David Wallace jokes around with Jim about his candidacy for the position because he’s a Sixers fan. Clap your hands, indeed, Halpert.

S3E18: The Negotiation

Jim’s then-girlfriend complains about his priorities, saying, “You would rather sit on your couch and watch a Phillies game than go out to a movie with your awesome girlfriend.”

What is the issue here, exactly?

S4E9: Local Ad

Jim shows Pam Dwight’s profile in the game Second Life when she notices that Jim gave his character a job as a sports writer in Philadelphia. 



Careful what you wish for, Beesly.
 
S4E15: Night Out

Ryan Howard pretends to be The Big Piece at a club.
 
Again, just going to leave it at that.

S4E16: Did I Stutter?

Ryan calls Jim into the conference room to ask the question we Eagles fans hate: Why?

Well, he really asks “How?” but you get the point. 

S5E18: Blood Drive

Kevin Malone recaps his worst breakup, saying, “We were reading the paper and I said, ‘Oh my God, I think the Eagles could clinch the NFC East.’ And she said that we’re done.” 

The Eagles, of course, had some fun with that: 

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S6E6: Mafia

This one was a sneaky one. Jimbo has made it pretty clear that he’s a Philly sports guy, but his love spreads as far as the Arena Football League, too. If you look closely at his desk when Kevin “moves in” during the Halpert honeymoon, you can see a football with what looks like the AFL logo on its side. Philadelphia Soul fan, huh?


 
S7E8: Viewing Party

Jim changes the channel during the company’s Glee viewing party.

S9E1: New Guys

In an effort to become friends with one of the new guys, Pete, Jim asks if he’s a fan of the Phillies. After a couple of *coughs* stupid answers, Pete says he’s a Red Sox fan.

 

S9E2: Roy’s Wedding

During the car ride back from Roy’s wedding, Pam tells Jim about a past plan to surprise him with Sixers tickets for his 30th birthday. Jim, already knowing about the gift, laughs with his wife about her mistake of buying courtside seats to an away game in Phoenix. 

An away game nowadays? With their record on the road? Dodged a bullet there.

S9E3: Andy's Ancestry 

At the end of this episode, Jim tells Pam that he’s accepted an offer at Athlead, a sports marketing agency in Philadelphia.

S9E10: Lice

Kevin, Darryl, and Jim talk about the Sixers during their lunch break. 

Later in that episode, Jim has a meeting with Sixers legend, Julius Erving. 

A little 1-on-1 with Dr. J? Sure, no biggie.

 

S9E14: Vandalism

At the 11:10 minute mark, the Philadelphia Flyers show up on the bottom of this presentation board on the bottom right corner at Athlead, the first reference we could find regarding the Flyers in any capacity. 

Additionally, there are quite a few Eagles names on here, inlcuding Nick Foles,  Jason Kelce and Kurt Coleman and even Andrew McCutchen, though it would be prior to him joining the Phillies of course. 

S9E18: Promos

Ryan Howard (yes, THE Ryan Howard) has a meeting at Athlead with Jim and Darryl. During their conversation, he shares his screenplay for “The Big Piece.”

The other Ryan Howard even sent him a special video message during his retirement ceremony at Citizens Bank Park in one of the greatest crossovers we have ever seen.

 

S9E20: Paper Airplane

Jim gets a call from a colleague over at Athlead and asks if they’ve heard back from Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels yet. 

S9E21: Livin’ the Dream

The last mention I noticed came from the final season’s 21st episode. Jim is once again trying to connect with Pete, saying “Go Phillies, right?” before realizing Pete stinks and doesn’t watch the beautiful game of baseball.

There you have it, all of the mentions we could find in this show regarding Philly sports, except the Flyers, which we are still unsure if Halpert is a fan of or not. 

And before anyone gets spicy and feels the need to tell me how bored I must have been for doing this, just remember, you’re the one reading this.

BONUS

We also unearthed this deleted scene that references The one and only Answer at 1:48 in this clip below.

 

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