ABOVE PHOTO: Ryan Howard (Photo: Photo Works / shutterstock)
By Chris Murray
For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
Since 2004, I’ve had the pleasure of covering sports in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.
Through that experience, I’ve gotten to talk to many of the city’s greats including former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, Phillies MVP shortstop (and World Series champ) Jimmy Rollins, and even newly minted NBA Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson.
But one of the people I’ve enjoyed covering the most was Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. Howard played his last game with the Phillies last Sunday.
I regret missing the chance to wish him a fond farewell due to other commitments, but I will say that covering Howard and the Phillies during the team’s run to five straight NL East titles, two National League pennants and the run to the 2008 World Series title was probably one of the best experiences of my journalism career.
On the field, Howard’s ability to hit homers and drive in runs was larger than life. In a game against the New York Yankees during his MVP year in 2006, he drove all seven runs—including two home runs and a triple—in a 9-7 loss to the Yankees.
I remember being in the Yankees locker room where legendary Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was so awed by Howard’s performance that he jokingly told reporters : “We battled back. … We beat Howard.”
The way Howard would carry the Phillies during those championship years almost felt as if he was a one-man wrecking crew, especially during the month of September when it was time for the Phillies needed him to close out the division. He always seemed to hit the key home run hit needed to win a crucial game.
Sure, he wasn’t alone in his efforts. Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley, (now with the Dodgers) outfielder Shane Victorino (who won another World Series ring with the Boston Red Sox) and Cole Hamels (now pitching for the Texas Rangers) were also crucial parts of those teams.
But if you take away the “Big Piece,” I don’t think the Phillies would have been as successful.
What was memorable about Howard in 2008 was that he still led the league in home runs and RBIs and batted over .300 with runners despite a low batting average and leading the league in strikeouts. Former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel used to refer to Howard as a “carrier.”
Off the field, Howard never hesitated to talk to the media whether the Phillies won or lost. He was rarely, if ever, standoffish or surly. Even when he was the in midst of hitting slumps or a bad game, Howard still came back and talked to the media.
He was a class act.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Howard’s success with the Phillies was that he and Rollins brought Blacks fans young and old back to the ballpark.
By becoming the face of the franchise, Howard helped to heal a longstanding rift that existed between the team and the city’s Black fans over how the Phillies had treated Jackie Robinson and Phillies icon Dick Allen.
When I interviewed Allen for the Philadelphia Tribune in 2006 during Howard’s Most Valuable Player run, he talked a little bit about that.
“A lot of the adversity has been cleared from the Jackie Robinson days to the Dick Allen days where those things have subsided and (Howard) can concentrate just doing what he’s doing now,” he said. “It’s almost a healing kind of thing, it happened back then unjustly. But it’s setting a tone where it will make it easier for your grandson or my grandson.
“It got around the world,” Allen continued. “‘Oh no, we don’t want to be with the Phillies! Look what they did to over there to this person! Some of them didn’t want to be here.’ That’s the biggest change and the most important change to make players even want to come here. Howard and fellows like that can change all that.”
Allen was right. Two years later, the Phillies were on top of the baseball world, thanks to Howard.
Since 2012, it’s been tough to watch Howard go through being injured and growing old. There were times when he got some undeserved scorn from Phillies fans considering all he’s done for the franchise. I hope he can revive his career with a team that can appreciate what he brings to the table.
I’ll end with a personal Howard memory.
In 2009, I won the Sam Lacy Award from the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City for my coverage of the Phillies 2008 World Series run.
In addition to other luminaries like outfielder Curtis Granderson (currently playing for the New York Mets) and Cliff Lee (who pitched for the Phillies), Howard was being honored.
I got the chance to meet Howard and his family. They were all so easy to talk to and he didn’t even mind people asking for pictures with him or autographs.
It’s often rare that we can put “great athlete” and “nice guy” in the same sentence.
We could definitely do that when talking about Ryan Howard.
Good luck “Big Piece”…and thanks for the memories…