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April 09, 2016

Isn't it time to appreciate Ryan Howard's career?

NEW YORK – Ten nights ago one of the best highlights of the Phillies 2016 season was on display – four days before the regular season began in Cincinnati.

A crowd of nearly 10,000 people at Reading’s FirstEnergy Stadium came together for a rousing chant in the final inning of an exhibition game between the Phillies and the top prospects in the organization.

What could the fans possibly want to see that they hadn’t seen already?

Three notable prospects, including budding Reading star J.P. Crawford, had homered. Eight major leaguers, including former Reading star sluggers Ryan Howard and Darin Ruf, hit home runs, too.

So what was missing?

“We want Chooch,” they chanted. “We want Chooch. We want Chooch.”

And so Pete Mackanin gave into their demands and sent the uber-popular, 37-year-old Ruiz, the former All-Star catcher, who has caught four no-hitters and is one of the two final members of the 2008 World Series champions still on the roster, to the plate.

Ruiz hit a sacrifice fly. Reading erupted again.

It was a fun moment on a night that was mostly about celebrating the club’s future. The game was the first of the Futures Series, after all. But it was refreshing to see the people of a place dubbed Baseballtown recognizing one of their own and celebrating a prominent player’s career with the organization.

Expect more of the same in a little more than 24 hours.

After finishing up their season-opening road trip through Cincinnati and New York today at Citi Field, the Phillies will board a bus bound for Citizens Bank Park, where they open their home schedule on Monday at 3:05 p.m. against the San Diego Padres. During the annual pregame ritual, Carlos Ruiz’s name will be announced by Dan Baker and he will receive one of the more rousing ovations tomorrow. Ditto Ryan Howard.

But here’s an idea: why not celebrate both players all season?

Let me get this out of the way first: you spend $100 (or, likely, a lot more) on a couple of tickets and parking and food, you go ahead and do whatever you want. I’m not anti-boo. I’m from here, too. I get it.

When you’re angry, when you’re unhappy with a player’s performance or lack of hustle, go ahead and let them hear about it. Some players even say it’s motivating, it keeps them honest.

But there’s a time and a place for these things, too. You, the Philadelphia sports fan, have always celebrated Carlos Ruiz, perhaps the most likable member of the 2008 championship team because of his unlikely path to the big leagues (and real success when he arrived, too), his lovable personality, his presence as a pillar to the bottom half of the lineup, and as a popular battery mate to a Who’s Who of the best Phillies pitchers of the last decade.

It’s time to celebrate Ryan Howard’s career, too.

Yes, Howard has underperformed since the Phillies last appeared in the postseason. Yes, Howard is on a very short list of the most overpaid players in baseball (when you couple dollars and performance, there are very few that rival the Phillies first baseman).

The people who awarded Howard with that contract are either no longer working in that capacity with the team or are no longer working with the team, period. (OK, the ownership group that writes out the checks is around. So, go boo the owner’s box … even though they also did plenty to continue to populate a ready-to-win roster with other ready-to-win talent, too).

Really, do whatever you want to do.

But, here’s the reality: Ryan Howard won’t be returning to Citizens Bank Park after this year, at least until it’s time for his Wall of Fame ceremony or the 10th-year anniversary of the 2008 team.

Howard wants to continue playing after this year, the final guaranteed year of his $125 million contract with the Phillies. But it’s uncertain anyone will want him to be on their roster, and if they do, it’ll likely be an American League team that won’t be making a trip to South Philly in 2017.

So while you had the opportunity to welcome Shane Victorino back to town a year ago when Boston arrived in Philadelphia on Opening Day, and when Jimmy Rollins returned in Dodger blue last August, and when, later this year, Chase Utley comes to town this August, the odds are you won’t have the same chance with Howard.

So, celebrate him this year when you come to the ballpark, whether it’s this week or next month, or whenever you decide to get to a game this year. He's not the player he once was; we get it. But when he was at his peak, he was the guy dubbed "The Big Piece," because of how important he was to a lineup that helped the Phillies win five straight division titles, two NL pennants, and a World Series trophy

Maybe Mike Schmidt, the greatest player in team history, can lead the charge.

Schmidt hit his share of home runs in South Philly, too. He also endured boos during the bad times, the post-1983 era at Veterans Stadium. It comes with the territory as the team’s highest paid player.

Schmidt talked about Howard this spring.

“Ryan Howard is a great kid … he takes a lot of abuse,” Schmidt said in a Q&A in March. “Ryan is a good guy. He says ‘hi’ to me all the time. … He’s a good guy and he comes to the ballpark and he comes ready to play every day. And he’ll play every day. With the exception of one injury, he’s been a very durable kid. And he’s been able to keep a smile on his face through all of this adversity he’s gone through in the last couple of years. I admire that. He might not know it, but I really do.”

So stand up and clap for what he did in 2005 (Rookie of the Year) and 2006 (NL MVP), and in 2008 (three World Series home runs) and 2009 (“Get me to the plate, boys”) and 2010 (team leader in hits in NLCS). And, of course, the many other long home runs (remember that one off Mike Mussina?) and go-ahead hits.

Sure, if you’d rather wait to celebrate Howard when he returns for the night his plaque goes up there in Ashbury Alley with Pat Burrell, Jim Thome, Charlie Manuel, Steve Carlton, and Mike Schmidt and the rest of the Wall of Famers, go right ahead.

But why not show off your appreciation and go against the stereotype that every national media type has been stamping on you since… oh, I’m not going to say the name of that jolly white bearded man.

Sure, the Phillies are going to lose a lot of games this year and Howard will not hit 40-plus home runs. Or 30-plus home runs. Maybe he won’t even hit 20.

But the very bad times are behind the Phillies. There are new people making the decisions in the front office and there are more than a handful of exciting prospects that could arrive in Philly before September. There aren’t many good reasons to be jaded anymore if you’re actually taking the initiative to buy a ticket. There is reason for hope.

So, celebrate Ryan Howard, beginning on Monday (when it's expected) and continuing whenever you come to the ballpark (when it won't be). It’d be a good look for Philadelphia.