MLB

Ryan Howard was beloved, hated, and my favorite athlete of all-time

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It was must-watch television every game. Tuning in to watch number six-step to the plate, bent at the knees as the bat vertically stood in the hand of his outstretched right arm. Then the bat rested on his left shoulder as he awaited the pitch, locked in and on-pace for one of the best home run seasons in modern baseball. When the moment came, he unleashed a powerful, graceful swing and would strike a home run pose that was copied by every young Phillies fan. 2006 was special, and so was Ryan Howard.

I did not go to minor league games often when I was a kid. Blue Rocks were a favorite of mine when I did go, but I never made my way over to see future Phillies big-leaguers. In 2005, that changed as I was invited to make a trip to Scranton to watch the then Red Barons in a doubleheader. At the time I loved sports, but most of that love was attached to the Philadelphia Eagles and football. That summer in 2005 changed everything for me as a fan.

On the first game of the doubleheader, I went down to the first row on the first base line and, with a ball and sharpie, waited to get autographs from players. I received two autographs that day, but that ball and those players’ names were quickly forgotten. Towards the end of warm-ups, and as the game was about to get started, one last player came over to sign. At this point, more people started to make their way down the line and being a shy kid, I lost my spot as I was shoved out of the way. I missed that player’s autograph by one spot. That player was Ryan Howard.

Other than that I don’t remember much of Howard in the first game. Then in game two, he hit a line drive single and it was one of the hardest hit balls I had ever seen. I immediately became Howard’s number one fan and baseball suddenly became an addiction.

The day I got home I did not wait for a second to tell my dad about Ryan Howard. I had no idea how good he would be, but I knew that he was instantly my favorite player.  Soon after that Ryan Howard would make his way to the major leagues permanently and make his mark on baseball.

That season Howard blasted his way onto the scene winning rookie of the year with 22 home runs and it was not surprising at all. If it wasn’t for the Phillies signing Jim Thome in 2003, Howard would’ve most likely been with the Phillies sooner. But Thome was one of the biggest free-agent signings for the Phillies at the time and was still one of the best power-hitters in baseball. It took a season-ending injury for Howard to become the everyday first baseman. Not only did he take the job that season, but he played so well that it forced the Phillies to trade Thome to make room for Howard in the everyday lineup.

Let me repeat that again: Howard played so well in the 2005 season that it forced that Phillies to trade a Hall of Fame player that had hit 47 and 42 home runs in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

That is not a move to be taken lightly. The Phillies were just starting to break away from the mediocre teams it had for almost a decade. Not only that, but the Phils had just moved into Citizens Bank Park and brought on manager Charlie Manuel. The team and the organization were ready to win and Thome was supposed to be at the forefront. The front office gambled on the young first baseman, and it paid off.

The 2006 season arrived and Howard’s first full season in the majors was highly anticipated, and Howard delivered. In 2006 Howard won the NL MVP, Silver Slugger Award, received an All-Star spot, Home Run Derby Champ, Hank Aaron Award winner, led the majors with 149 RBI and home runs with 58. It took over a decade for Howard’s 58 home runs to be topped and that came in 2017 when Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 home runs. Howard’s 2006 season is still considered to be one of the best home run seasons in modern baseball.

Of course, 58 wasn’t the most home runs hit in a single season, but it was one that came with no controversy. Of the modern power-hitting seasons, Howard’s 2006 campaign was not marred by performance-enhancing drugs or the speculation of juiced baseballs. It is one of the purest home run seasons of all-time.

After that season, Howard became one of the faces of Major League Baseball. It was a conversation you could not avoid after the 2006 season. ‘Who would you rather have, Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols?’ That question would continue the following years, even into 2010 and 2011.

Howard went on to break many home run records as he was the quickest player to reach 100 and also 200 home runs. And of course, during his incredible run, helped the Phillies become one of the most feared lineups in baseball. With Howard and the incredible lineup around him, the Phillies were one of the best teams in baseball and eventually went on to win a World Series in 2008. The Phillies first in 28 years.

That championship season and the Phillies’ success made them the most popular team in Philadelphia. Yes, the Phillies overtook the Eagles as the most beloved team in Philadelphia and Howard was the team’s best player. But that all came crashing down a few years later.

At the start of the 2010 season, the Phillies signed Howard to one of baseball’s biggest contracts; it was a 5-year, $125 million extension. When he signed that deal, the only player with a higher contract was Alex Rodriguez. Howard deserved the contract. The Phillies were right to give it to him.

In the following year after the deal, fans started to grow impatient with Howard. Howard wasn’t playing near the level he was just a few years earlier. Instead, his average dropped down to .253 and only had 33 home runs in 2011. Then on October 7th, the 102-win Phillies shockingly fell in the National League Division Series to the eventual World Series champs, the St. Louis Cardinals. On the final at-bat of the series, Ryan Howard tore his Achilles trying to make his way to first.

The Phillies and Ryan Howard would never be the same.

In 2012, the Phils finished with an 81-81 record. There was growing frustration with the team’s sudden decline and the easiest target to blame was the $125-million player. The once-beloved home run king now became one of Philadelphia’s most hated players. Howard was continually booed during every at-bat at Citizens Bank Park as he continued to struggle at the dish for the remainder of his career. Then in 2016, fan frustration led to one of the ugliest scenes in recent history for the Phillies.

2016 was Howard’s final season in Philadelphia.

Over time as Howard’s career has ended, appreciation for the slugger has started to grow. As we continue to be further removed from the disappointing 2012-2016 seasons, we instead look back and celebrate one of the best eras in Phillies history. On the 10th anniversary celebration of the 2008 Phillies World Series team, Phillies fans stood and applauded Howard as he was introduced. It was a small but important moment as the relationship between Howard and fans took a step towards an appreciation for what Howard did, not the player he was toward the end of his career.

Sunday, July 14 is Ryan Howard’s retirement ceremony at Citizens Bank Park. It’s one final time fans get to show gratitude for what Howard has meant for Philadelphia, on and off the field. Howard’s time in Philadelphia wasn’t always well received and he wasn’t always the most beloved player in this city. However, as we get one final chance to thank Howard, we should remember him as being one of the all-time great Philadelphia Phillies.

For me, Howard is the reason I fell in love with baseball and is my favorite athlete of all-time. Congrats on a wonderful career, Big Piece.


You can follow Jon Jansen on Twitter (@jjansen34) and e-mail him at jpjansen12@gmail.com.

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