Say the name Ryan Howard to Phillies fans and the responses you hear back will be varied and passionate.
“Dude, he’s awesome. He hits monster home runs, gets a TON of RBIs, and is completely RAD!” (The kids still say rad these days, right?)
“He’s an aging, one-dimensional player who can’t run, can’t play defense, and whose one skill, power, is fading quickly.”
“That contract… oh my word… that contract… is the worst EVER.”
“Ryan Howard eats small children and likes to set fires in heavily wooded areas.”
Howard has his staunch defenders, those who believe the five-year, $125 million contract he signed during the 2009 season was, and still is, a fair contract. They believe he is still worth that kind of money.
I know. Myself, and others, have been doing battle with these people for the last two years now.
Meanwhile, his critics point to the deficiencies in his game and that bloated contract, one which he will never come close to earning.
But I promised a positive post about Ryan Howard. So what you have just read is the last negative thing that will be said about him for the duration of this piece.
I think, anyway.
Howard is off to a red-hot start this spring. So far, he’s 8 for 15 with four extra-base hits and five RBIs, including his first home run yesterday against the best reliever in baseball, Craig Kimbrel. He is also 4 for 6 against lefties, an issue that has been a huge bugaboo for him his entire career (except for his ridiculous 2006 MVP season).
Still, the spring is a small sample size. One good week in Clearwater against pitchers who will likely be bagging groceries a month from now is an even smaller sample size. It certainly does not portend a season of Howard hitting .280 with 40 home runs or anything.
But it is a terrific sign that Howard is healthy and seeing the ball well. And that’s a good thing.
In addition to finally feeling healthy and spending an entire offseason doing his normal routine, a new mindset could also help him this year.
“I’m just going out there swinging,” Howard said on Thursday. “I think when I was going well before, that was the same thing. I think in recent years I was over-analyzing it, trying to do too much with it. Now I’m trying to take it back to basics.”
Here’s the thing about Ryan Howard. Despite his deficiencies and weaknesses, he’s a guy everyone roots for and wants to do well.
Howard is one of the few veterans who has made the long bus trips so far this season. For a guy making $25 million a year, there sure doesn’t seem to be any prima dona attitude about spending four to five hours on a bus to play in a meaningless exhibition game.
And to his credit, Howard is a guy who is aware of his size and has actively tried to keep himself from ballooning into Steve Balboni-esque proportions.
It speaks a lot that, after winning the World Series in 2008, Ryan Howard showed up to spring training in 2009 20 pounds lighter. In fact, that was likely one of the reasons Ruben Amaro decided to award Howard with his mega-extension just one month into the ’09 season.
Howard, for better or worse, has never not worked hard at becoming a better baseball player.
Has it always worked? Of course not. Howard is not the same player he was in his prime and is not a player who should be making $25 million a year.
The contract is bad and shouldn’t have been done. That’s obvious.
But it’s important not to get so wrapped up in Howard’s contract and his performance the last two years (when he was clearly dealing with an injury that hurt his ability to play baseball effectively) that one loses sight of his effort and selflessness.
And, the potential for Howard to reclaim at least some of his former self.
Can Howard hit lefties? No. Has his power diminished? Yes. Is he a bad defensive player? Yes. Will he be winning another MVP anytime soon? Highly unlikely.
But Ryan Howard is a good citizen, a team guy, a hard worker, a guy who is going to, as the athletes like to say nowadays, “grind” every day to try and get better, even though he’s making $25 million a year.
And while those “leadership” qualities don’t necessarily translate into more wins on the field, they do make fans want to believe that these early spring numbers might foreshadow a comeback year for the slugging first baseman.
Listen, it’s totally fair to hate Ryan Howard’s contract.
But it’s also ridiculous to hate Ryan Howard.