When The Office, the final episode of which will air on NBC Thursday night, premiered in late March 2005, only hardcore baseball and Phillies fans recognized the name of B.J. Novak's temporary employee character, Ryan Howard.
At that time, the real Ryan Howard was a stud first-base prospect who had been promoted to the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons in the latter part of the 2004 season before making his major league debut as a September call-up. Legend has it that in looking for names for their fictional small-market corporate drones, the creators of the show settled on one of the best players in the town where the show was set (though not filmed), in this case Howard.
Unlike the show, which has lasted for nine seasons, Howard wouldn't stay in Scranton for long. Though he was blocked by Jim Thome in the major leagues when the series debuted, he would re-emerge in May in Philadelphia. Seizing the opportunity created by Thome's back and elbow injuries, Howard won that year's National League Rookie of the Year award and prompted the Phillies to trade Thome to the White Sox that fall.
In The Office's nine years on the air, the real Ryan Howard has hit .270/.361/.547 with 306 home runs and 943 RBIs, made three All-Star teams, won one Silver Slugger, the 2006 NL MVP (for a season in which he hit .313/.425/.659 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs) and finished in the top five of the MVP voting three other times.
In many ways, Howard's career has reflected that of the sitcom that borrowed his name. Thome, a potential Hall of Famer, was the equivalent of the universally lauded original British version of the show -- which came before the American one and launched the comedy career of failed synth-pop singer Ricky Gervais in 2001. However, like Howard, The Office quickly found its own identity, earning critical praise as one of the best shows on American television and winning the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2006 -- the same year as Howard's MVP win -- after which it was nominated for the award five more times (though it never won again).
Similarly, just as Howard's career was derailed by a torn Achilles on the final play of the Phillies' 2011 season, The Office was derailed by star Steve Carell's departure at the end of its seventh season in an episode that aired on April 28, 2011. Both have limped on since, but neither has been able to recapture the magic of its prime seasons (Howard has hit just .228/.291/.427 in 110 games since his injury). It's fitting, then, that the real Howard made a multi-part cameo on the show in early April in an episode entitled "Promos" to pitch a fantasy film about himself to Jim Halpert's new Philadelphia-based sports marketing firm:
[hulu id=sj0pa2x0keffun1bzzpp4q width=512] The version of Howard that earned the "Big Piece" nickname may now exist only as a fantasy, but the Phillies still owe their Ryan Howard another $100 million through the end of 2017. As weak as the final two seasons of The Office may have been, NBC got off easy.