Phillies Ryan Howard Deserves Fan Appreciation

Mar 21, 2016; Lakeland, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) signs autographs prior to the game against the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2016; Lakeland, FL, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) signs autographs prior to the game against the Detroit Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Philadelphia Phillies veteran 1st baseman stepped into the batter’s box on Monday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, it was likely his final Opening Day in red pinstripes.

Ryan Howard and catcher Carlos Ruiz stand as the last remaining players from the magical 2008 World Series-winning Phillies team, and as we look back on the end of an era for the Phillies first baseman, perhaps it is time for fans to more fully appreciate everything that The Big Piece has brought to the city of Philadelphia.

Now 36-years old and entering the twilight of his career, Howard has been the subject of much criticism in recent years. It would be naive to say that Howard’s last four seasons in red pinstripes have been very exciting to watch.

Howard has been a shell of himself since tearing his ACL and making the final out in the 2011 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Since that game, Howard has played in just 433 out of a possible 648 games, never hitting above .266 and never hitting more than 23 home runs. His signing of a five-year, $125 contract extension with the club in 2010 has only added to the bitterness and animosity some Phillies fans have felt towards the once feared slugger.

But true fans will recognize the Big Piece for consistently putting the team on his back down the stretch of the season for much of his career. It could be argued that no player in Philadelphia sports history has been more underappreciated than Howard. That’s saying something for a player who was a Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and playoff NLCS MVP. A look at the stats and awards he has won tells most of, but not all of the story.

The Phillies 5th round selection in the 2001 MLB Amateur Draft out of Missouri State University, Howard was another one of former general manager Ed Wade’s draft picks who later formed the core of the most successful Phillies’ teams of all time.

Just enjoy it . . . for however long it is you get to play, take time to be able to reflect at times what I’ve been able to do, what I’ve been able to accomplish.” ~ Howard

From 2001 to 2004, Howard tore up the minor leagues, and after setting a AA Reading Phillies home run record with 37 long balls, he was finally was called up to the bigs in September of 2004. Playing in 19 games, he bashed his first home run in a September 11th game against the New York Mets.

When Jim Thome was forced to sit out much of the 2005 season due to injury, Howard burst onto the scene as a ready replacement, and would be named National League Rookie of the Year. Howard played in 88 games, batting .288 with 23 home runs, 63 RBIs, a .567 slugging percentage and a .923 OPS.

His rookie season was impressive enough for the Phillies to send Thome, a beloved star player whom they had signed to a six-year, $94 million contract in November of 2002, to the Chicago White Sox, turning the 1st base reins over to Howard.

The Big Piece followed up that sensational rookie campaign with one of the greatest seasons ever by a Phillies player in 2006. Over 159 games, Howard blasted 58 home runs, drove in 148 runs, hit for a .313 average, and posted a ridiculous 1.084 OPS. He added to his hardware collection by taking home the NL MVP.

His run of success over the 2006 to 2011 seasons was nothing short of remarkable. Besides the aforementioned Rookie of the Year and MVP Awards, during that time period Howard made three NL All-Star teams, won the Home Run Derby, finished in the top ten of the NL MVP voting six times, and took home a Silver Slugger Award.

In the playoffs, Howard didn’t shy away from the spotlight. In the 2008 World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, he launched three home runs on his way to leading the Phillies to their first World Championship in 28 years, just the 2nd in franchise history. A year later, he received the 2009 NLCS MVP Award after hitting two home runs and driving in eight runs against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Yet in typical Philadelphia fashion, we have quickly forgotten what Howard meant to our team and to our city. And it hasn’t just been the fans either. Former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was critical of Howard in recent years, and even at one point said publicly that the team would be better off without the first baseman.

Since taking over last June, even manager Pete Mackanin has been vocal in expressing the need for Howard to play his way into the starting lineup every day by hitting left-handed pitchers.

Howard begins his 13th season as the longest tenured athlete in Philadelphia now, and should go down as one of the best in Philadelphia history. Through it all, he has been the consummate professional.

In reality, we couldn’t have expected Howard to keep up the ridiculous stat lines he consistently produced year after year in the late 2000’s. Unfortunately, as we get ready to say goodbye to one of the last two members of the 2008 World Series team, things have become almost awkward for Howard in recent years.

In his introductory press conference in Clearwater this spring, he talked of his opposition to being in a platoon situation, and even admitted that the 2015 season was one of the most difficult years of his career because of the way he was portrayed by the Philadelphia media.

As the Phillies kicked off another season last week in Cincinnati, Howard’s 16th overall year with the organization counting his minor league time, the veteran seemed to have accepted his role and what his career has become at this point. Talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb, Howard appeared to face the reality of playing his last season in red pinstripes.

“There’s always that realization,” Howard said. “There is no hiding that. But you just try to enjoy it. Just enjoy it . . . for however long it is you get to play, take time to be able to reflect at times what I’ve been able to do, what I’ve been able to accomplish. Right now, I’m just staying in the here and now.

Howard went on to say that he is not letting things distract him any longer. “Last year, I let a lot of things kind of surprise me. And now, it’s like, it is what it is. You just continue to stay positive. The situation is what the situation is. You can get down about it, you can get upset about it or whatnot. Or you can try to make the best of the situation, when the opportunity comes.”

Perhaps the sad part is the Howard legitimately believes he is that ‘Big Piece’ still, that Ryan Howard of old. He is not. Can he still contribute and be an impact player for a team? Absolutely. But if it’s not this year, it won’t be in Philadelphia ever again. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be appreciative of Howard’s accomplishments and the magical moments he brought to the ballpark everyday.

When Dan Baker announced Howard’s name in the starting lineup pn Monday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, he reserved warm, deserved, genuine cheers from the fans. In fact, he deserves to be cheered at every game this season.

In all likelihood, Howard will move onto the American League, possibly by the trade deadline later this summer, and be a designated hitter for the final two or three years of his career after 2016. But there will be a time shortly thereafter when his plaque is enshrined on the Phillies Wall of Fame. Maybe then he’ll more fully receive the recognition and appreciation he deserves from all of the fans.

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