October 03, 2016
Right to the very end, it was hard to untangle the emotions surrounding Ryan Howard and his complicated career as a Phillie. He was the most productive first baseman in team history – no question – but he was also the most frustrating player of the past decade.
When Howard walked off the field yesterday at Citizens Bank Park for the final time in red pinstripes, he was engulfed in cheers that reflected his 382 homers, his engaging presence, and, of course, the 2008 championship he helped to achieve.
He was a terrific player in his prime, and just as much a winner off the field, with his luminous smile and his fan-friendly demeanor. In retrospect, he should be the most popular player of the Phillies’ best era. He was a slugger with a heart of gold. What’s better than that?
Unfortunately, Howard’s legacy is not a sports movie; it’s a muddle of huge moments and crushing disappointments, of mammoth home runs and helpless whiffs, of superhuman feats of strength followed by one unforgettable display of extreme human frailty.
Howard will be remembered first for the early part of his career – a 58-homer season in 2006, the huge hits he contributed in ’07 and ’08, and a parade that attracted two million fans and skyrocketed the morale of our city in a time of economic crisis. Those 2008 Phillies are a memory that will be treasured here forever.
Unfortunately, they are not the only memories that will prevail over time. There were the 13 strikeouts in the 2009 World Series against an inferior Yankees team that won the championship, the bat resting on Howard’s shoulder for the last pitch of 2010, and then there was 2011.
Howard was the last hope in that 102-win season, one big swing away from rescuing the Phillies from a 1-0 loss in the deciding fifth game of the division series against St. Louis. This time, he did swing, but a harmless ground ball suddenly turned lethal, with the slugger howling in pain on the ground after ripping his Achilles' tendon.
The record will show that Ryan Howard was never close to the same player after that horrific injury – averaging 44 homers in the six seasons before it, and 19 in the five seasons after it. At times, he was also not the same happy presence he had been in his prime years.
Even now, in his final season, he has stubbornly clung to the delusion that there are more glories ahead for him, having fretted repeatedly about his reduced playing time and vowing to continue his career somewhere else. While logical minds cringe at his .196 batting average, he sees his 25 home runs as a symbol of injustice.
Howard was eloquent and sincere when he bade goodbye to Philadelphia yesterday with words emanating straight from his big heart. His voice cracked at the memory of the day the Phillies drafted him in the fifth round back in 2001, “a laid-back cat from St. Louis.” In most minds, that speech was home run No. 383.
Even before his pitch-perfect send-off, it was already a sure thing that Howard would always be revered in Philadelphia. He gave us the one thing that brings eternal adoration – a championship. After all these years, the Flyers of 1973-75 are still receiving statues and testimonial dinners. The cheering never stops after a parade.
But it’s always going to be a lot more complicated for Ryan Howard than it was for Bobby Clarke or Bernie Parent. Howard will not be defined solely by all of those home runs or all of those smiles. His legacy will include some of the most painful moments of the past decade, too.
The final irony is that Ryan Howard, the ultimate all-or-nothing player, has finished his Phillies career somewhere in between.
The Phillies have had a terrible season. If there was any doubt about just how bad it was, all you needed to do was watch the final series at Citizens Bank Park, where the Mets celebrated a wild-card playoff berth in front of their own fans – in our ballpark. Five years ago, a nauseating scene like that would have seemed impossible.
Thanks to the hideous tenure of Ruben Amaro Jr. as GM, the Phils are right back where they were when they built their beautiful new ballpark in 2003, with many of the seats empty or filled with the fans of their opponents.
Against that grim backdrop, consider this comment by new GM Matt Klentak during the final week of a 71-91 season: “If someone had told me last October that this was where the franchise would be this September, I would have signed up for that 100 times out of 100.”
Is he serious? Attendance plummeted to the lowest (1.9 million) in Citizens Bank Park’s 12-year history – lower, in fact, than the final year at Veterans Stadium (2.2 million). The run differential (-186) was the worst since 1961. And the roster may be shedding Howard, but where are the sure-thing prospects to replace him?
Unlike Klentak, who is best at congratulating himself for doing nothing, manager Pete Mackanin is a realist. He has been saying for weeks that the roster needs two new veteran hitters, that the back end of the bullpen is also in dire need of new arms and that none of the young starters has claimed a permanent spot in the rotation.
More and more, it appears that the Phillies misled their fans when they finally kicked upstairs overly sentimental ex-president Dave Montgomery and replaced him with Andy MacPhail 15 months ago. Not only has MacPhail been invisible this season, but so has billionaire owner John Middleton. Where are the new leaders of this organization?
The Phillies just bored their fans for the fourth straight year with a losing product, and they produced not a single breakout star from the small army of prospects acquired in the purge of veterans over the past two seasons.
Matt Klentak is thrilled by this season?
Who is he trying to con, us or himself?
All it took to foil the Sixers’ meticulous rebuilding plan was the fifth metatarsal bone in Ben Simmons’ right foot. With one quick roll of his ankle, the top pick in the draft – and the future face of the organization – was sent to the sidelines for at least three months.
Let’s face it. There’s nothing yet in the newfangled world of analytics to account for rotten luck. The Sixers have question marks everywhere in this soon-arriving season, but there’s no doubt about one thing. They can’t catch a break.
Joel Embiid is entering his third season and has yet to play an NBA game because of his own foot problems. Nerlens Noel tore his ACL two years ago, Jahlil Okafor couldn’t finish his rookie season because of a knee injury that required surgery. And now Simmons. These are players in their early 20s. They aren’t supposed to get hurt like this.
In fact, the Sixers were so conscious of the threat of injury that they held out Okafor, Embiid and Gerald Henderson from a scrimmage last Thursday for what they called “load management.” They were being ridiculously cautious. And still, it didn’t prevent the injury to Simmons the next day.
So what happens now, you ask? Well, Simmons waits for the bone to heal, then he begins a tedious rehab, then he tests the tender foot in practice, and eventually – around the holidays, maybe – he makes his debut as a Sixer. That’s the best-case scenario.
This was going to be such a different season for our basketball team, with so many new faces and so much new hope. Yes, there are still lots of young players worth watching, but the best one will not be there when the season starts. Ben Simmons is the latest star to face the curse of the Sixers.
Life is not fair, you say? Neither is sports.
And finally …
• The biggest sports story getting no media coverage is the freefall of TV ratings for the NFL. Entering this weekend, national games were down 13 percent in 2016, with a decline of 10 percent across the board. That means one in 10 viewers from last season has stopped watching. What happened? My best guess is that fringe fans who were insulted by the anthem protests have decided to tune out. Thank you, Colin Kaepernick.
• Is there really any doubt that Howie Roseman is the executive of the year in the NFL? The latest notch in the Eagle GM’s belt was the benching of cornerback Byron Maxwell last week in Miami. Not only did Roseman get the Dolphins to take all of Maxwell’s insane salary, but the swap of draft picks also enabled the GM to jump up again and snatch Carson Wentz. OK, I’ll say it. Roseman is a genius.
• Meanwhile, Wentz spent the bye week collecting awards from the NFL, and the rookie Eagles quarterback also bagged his first eight-point buck on a hunting trip in his native North Dakota.
I’m no fan of guns or hunting, but I can’t deny that the kid is on an epic roll. Any minute now, he’ll probably be named the NFL hunter of the week.
• Speaking of Wentz, there’s actually a debate in taverns around the city over whether Sixers center Joel Embiid can become more popular here than the amazing young quarterback. Uh, no. Embiid has a lively personality, yes, but he can’t stay healthy and he has not yet demonstrated that he can succeed in the NBA. Besides, even if he is great like Wentz, all ties in Philadelphia go to the Eagles.
• The funniest story of the week was former Phillie Curt Schilling disclosing his intentions to run for President in 2024. After bilking the state of Rhode Island out of $75 million and ruining his ESPN career with a series of offensive tweets, he is directing his energies toward running our country. Hey, at least this answers the question of who would actually be a worse candidate than Donald Trump.