By Joe Darrah
The last time Phillies fans got to see the real Ryan Howard play baseball they were probably too overcome by a state of hysterical inebriation that can grip even the strongest of the strong-willed during postseason games to be able to fully recollect the experience. Today, with the slugging first baseman coming off what will most likely go down as his worst “healthy” full season and it becomes more likely that he will remain in Philadelphia throughout the course of his expensive contract extension, it’s time to objectively reflect on the real Ryan Howard and allow ourselves to accept how this Anti-Ryan Howard came to be and how he should be evaluated before perception not only impacts reality but in fact serves as inaccurate memory.
Here’s a brief reminder of the last time the real Ryan Howard showed himself: It was pushing 11 p.m. Eastern time as he strode to home plate in front of a capacity crowd at Citizens Bank Park. The calamity of that moment was set to hit an almost unprecedented level regardless of result. His team, our Phillies, were down to their final out in a 1-0 deciding Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series to St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter and the eventual World Series champion Cardinals. It already had been a long series that had predictably opened with and carried throughout it a tense vibe that often bestows any sports most-dominant team —when all the pressure truly occurs in one locker room.
For a series-clinching game that would be completed in just under two and a half hours, that bottom of the ninth had likewise already been agonizingly brief to that point. Carpenter needed just three pitches to retire Chase Utley and Hunter Pence to that point, barely enough time for the on-deck Howard to lumber up and loosen in let alone to allow for some 44,000 fans to process the significance of what they were about to see — the elimination of the organization’s best team in its 132-year in a flashing instant under a stream of ballpark and media lights as well as the screaming end to the health of a player who at that point was well on his way to being not just the most prolific slugger in the history of the club but one of the most prolific in the history of the game.
There he was, the “Big Piece” as we used to know him, writhing in agony along the first base line, rolling over on a ruptured Achilee’s tendon. Having just rolled over a Carpenter curveball into the deep shift behind second base that to that point had become the only true bane to his baseball existence, Howard’s at bat, the only one of the inning that would last long enough for the former Cy Young Award winner to mix in balls and strikes, still serves as the perfect (and unfortunately aggravating) microcosm of what he meant to that Phillies team and the organization as a whole. Now approaching four calendar years later, despite him collecting nearly 100 RBI over a full 2014 campaign, we have not yet seen the real Ryan Howard emerge again. We never will.
Don’t for one second think that the real Ryan Howard is the .223-hitting first baseman you saw last season. Or the guy that played in only 71 and 80 games, respectively, in 2012 and 2013. Or the guy that has had any plate appearance since that career-altering at bat Oct. 7, 2011.
No, the real Ryan Howard is the player who raised the 2006 NL MVP award and the 2009 NLCS MVP award during a span in which he led the league in homers twice and RBI three times. The real Ryan Howard is the guy who followed up his 2006 Rookie of the Year season with six consecutive seasons in which he ranked in the top 10 voting for the NL’s most valuable player — up to and including his last healthy season, during which he collected more than 100 RBI, more than 30 home runs, more than 140 hits and more than 80 runs. The real Ryan Howard is the guy who in that 2011 Divisional Series hit a go-ahead three-run dinger in the series opener, a shot that not only helped erase what had been a 3-0 hole but rejuvenated a team that had played five innings of offensively listless, pressure-infused ball. The real Ryan Howard is also guy who should not have been 30 years old at the time of his most significant contract, that five-year deal worth $125 million that so many people fallaciously claim to be the albatross to the organizations current tight-wallet ways. The real Ryan Howard is the clutch player who for his career has more home runs when his team is trailing than when it’s ahead and nearly 950 RBI during games that are tied or within one run at the time of his plate appearances. But don’t just take my word for it: Check out the thoughts of a Mets fan who has notoriously blogged about Howard’s prowess as a clutch player.
Had the club kept the real Ryan Howard in the Big Leagues from the time he was called up as a 24-year-old in 2004 (after launching 46 home runs and knocking in 131 RBI in AAA) instead of letting money owed to the aging Jim Thome dictate (as well as the right to delay free agency) his delayed promotion to an everyday MLB player until his age-26 season (2006), he might have been retained at a longer length for fewer dollars. And he may not be the guy who draws most of your Philadelphia-sports-related-ire for the millions that he started earning much too late in his career. He could simply be the guy who you remember for what he’s really done.
Remember that if we’re fortunate enough to see any glimpses of the real Ryan Howard this year as he continues to improve his health folowing that unfortunate at bat.