- The best Philadelphia slugger since Mike Schmidt reflects on his time in the City of Brotherly Love and why he plans to keep playing.
There he was, the man-child Ryan Howard, playing catch with his likely successor, Tommy Joseph. Two XXL fellas, first basemen with first-name surnames, who earn their keep by hitting line drives off distant walls. But at this moment—late afternoon, late season, late career for the former—they were throwing pre-game changeups and curveballs and sinkers, one to the other and back again, goofing on those who work only one day in five.
You would have never known that their employer—the Phillies—was 20 miles out of the National League wild-card race. You would have never known that Howard, after more than 1,500 games for the only organization for which he has ever played, was nearing what will almost surely be his final game as a Phillie, and, very possibly, his final game period. Howard acknowledges the first part; not the second.
“I just think there’s more I can do in this game,” Howard, 36, said the other day. He had no interest (and what a relief) in trying to predict what his emotions would be as the Mets come to Philadelphia for the final regular-season series of the year, Friday through Sunday, with a postseason berth hanging in the balance for the visitors. “I’ll experience it and what happens happens.”
In the American League, David Ortiz, the Red Sox' longtime fixture, is retiring at the end of this season. He’s second to Ted Williams on Boston’s all-time home run list and he’ll wind up on the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Howard is second to Mike Schmidt on Philadelphia’s all-time home run list and he’ll wind up in the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame in Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.
After his first seven years in the majors, Howard was halfway to Cooperstown. But the game throws curves, and life does, too. Surgery (left Achilles tendon, left meniscus); an intra-family lawsuit over money-management fees; the development of the Ryan Shift; the departure of his glory-days friends, including Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, and, in a separate category, his longtime manager, Charlie Manuel.
Still, what a career—a dream, really. He was the NL Rookie of the year in 2005 and the MVP the next year. He was on three All-Star teams. He knows what it’s like to win a World Series (2008) and to lose one ('09). Now he is the last man standing from those clubs. Why not close the book on the whole thing and call it a day—do like Schmidt and Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter, a trio of one-team men? Because Howard has been scuffling, and this is not the way he wants to go out.
His frustration over his rough season—a .194 average, 24 home runs, a .257 on-base percentage—is not evident. He was sitting in the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park, seemingly a picture of contentment, even though he was not, again, in the starting lineup. His wife, Krystle Campbell, a former Eagles’ cheerleader, was at their condo in downtown Philadelphia, near leafy, regal Rittenhouse Square. On many days, Krystle—a Philly girl who went to Penncrest High, in the heart of Eagles Country—drives her hubby to work. It’s a straight shot down Broad Street, but it's long enough to allow Howard to get in some choice backseat driving. Still, they are largely on the same page. “He feels he has more good baseball in him,” Krystle said recently. “Wherever he winds up next year, we’ll be there with him.” She is expecting their second child. “I’m totally supportive of whatever he wants to do,” she says.
Howard also has a son who lives in Kansas City, almost 16 now, a first baseman on his high school team, close to getting his driver’s license. He has every confidence that his son will be an excellent driver. Why wouldn't he be? He’s his father’s son.
Howard recognizes that the Phillies had given him at least adequate opportunity to show potential employers the state of his game. It hasn’t been pretty. Howard’s range at first base is—let’s be charitable to one of the nicest men in baseball—limited. His base running is, shall we say, lumbering. He strikes out one time in every 3.5 at-bats. But Howard, a lefthanded hitter, has hit 24 home runs this year, many of them timely. Is there a team that will hire him to be an occasional designated hitter and pinch-hitter who faces righties? Survey says: Most Improbable. The game’s age-old problem: how to say goodbye. If only we could see ourselves as others see us.
In the meantime, Howard has been a model of easy-going grace. It’s in his bones. He’s treating Joseph, a promising rookie (aren’t they all?), the same way that the great Jim Thome, another slugging first baseman, treated Howard when he was coming up. Howard was signed by the Phillies in 2001, after his junior year at Missouri State, in an era when every first baseman in the country, amateur and professional, wanted to be Thome.
“Tome, man—he was so good to me,” Howard said the other day. The nickname rhymes with comb. “His advice was, `Don’t get too up. Don't get too down.’”
It could have been awkward. Howard, after all, wanted to be the everyday first baseman and cleanup hitter, but Thome had a stranglehold on the throne. But on July 1, 2005, Thome went on the DL, and Howard stepped in. Until this year, he’s been there pretty much ever since, in fat times and lean ones, too. Then came this season, with Howard struggling and the club reinventing itself, when Joseph stepped in. Circle of life, MLB-style.
“What he’s told me is to be myself,” Joseph said. “I’m on the same team as Ryan Howard. It’s hard to believe. When I was in high school, every first baseman wanted to be Ryan Howard if you batted left and Albert Pujols if you batted right.” (Joseph bats right.) “I watched him all the time. The way he came to the batter’s box. That swagger. His swing was so smooth. I watch tape of his home runs all the time.”
“In high school?” a reporter asked.
“No,” said Joseph, an Arizona native. “Here.” The video room of the Phillies' clubhouse.
There was a long stretch of games in which, whenever Howard started, he was Philadelphia’s first baseman and No. 4 hitter: 665 games, covering the glory years, 2007 through '11, when the Phillies, in their new park, won the NL East (and then some) each year. It was one less thing for Manuel to worry about; the manager had his first baseman. More importantly, in a cozy park, the old-school skipper had his cleanup hitter. Manuel called Howard “The Big Piece.”
For now—for one more weekend here—Howard remains the last surviving piece from the Phillies team that won just the second World Series title in franchise history in 2008. Cholly’s at large, and so is Rollins, Howard’s close buddy who taught him how to handle the fans, the demands of wealth and fame, how to roll with it. Jayson Werth is in Washington and Utley is in Los Angeles and Cole Hamels is in Texas. They are all scattered.
“The first time I saw Werth in a Nationals uniform, it was like, 'Dude, this is weird,’" Howard said. "Then Jimmy, as a Dodger. But after a while you get used to it.” Can he see himself in the uniform of some foreign-land AL team? “Yeah, yeah I can,” he said. Is he willing to do an off-season road show and let GMs check him out? “Well, that's the agent’s job. We haven't talked about that, but if that’s what it takes, yeah, sure.”
There will be an emotional stake to these final three games, and a financial one, too. Pete Mackanin, the Phillies current manager, announced weeks ago that Howard, despite his Mendoza Line batting average, would start all three games. Yes, of course: The Phillies are trying to sell some tickets, but they also want their fans to have a chance to say goodbye to Howard, and for Howard to have a chance to say goodbye to them.
In Philadelphia, there has been an enormous amount of attention, much if it negative, devoted to Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract extension, which kicked in after the 2011 season, the last year the Phillies reached the postseason and the last time Howard topped 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. It’s kind of ridiculous. He was an elite slugger with no signs of slowing down, a durable body. The fact is it ... just didn’t work out. Life intervened in unpredictable ways. Baseball teams are hard business to run. You can’t run one like a family-owned hardware store where there’s always a place for the wayward nephew. But neither can you run a team as Jack Welch did in his years at GE, where his mantra was to fire the least productive 10% of his employees ever year. Loyalty has to be, in some measure, part of the equation. But most baseball teams, and definitely the Phillies, are much closer to the hardware-store model. Howard was a lifer with the organization. Such a player gets paid not only for what he might do in the future but also for what he has done in the past.
At the ballpark the other night, an usher was leading a visitor to a third-deck landmark where Howard had crushed a home run some years ago. On their way to the seat, the usher said, “Without Howard, there’s no way we win that World Series.” Exactly.
Howard himself—big kid though he is, still in the moment—is not unsentimental. He remembers the first time Ken Griffey Jr. reached first when Howard was manning it. The great slugger, then with the Reds, said, “What’s up, Big Man?”
“That was a very aha moment,” Howard said. “It was, 'I’m in the big leagues.'"
Chipper Jones, when he was nearing his end with the Braves, still had many good at-bats, but he once said there were nights he crawled from the driveway to the front door, his body was in such pain. Howard is not like that. He looks loose and limber for such a big man and he can riff about the differences between Pilates and yoga. (“Thing about yoga for me is, I’ll cheat. Pilates, you gotta do it right.”) But some of his swings, and some of the pitches at which he chooses to swing, make it obvious that he is not at all the player he was.
He has memories, great and rich ones, but he’s not wallowing in them. His friendship with Rollins, who succeeded Howard as NL MVP in 2007 but hasn't played since being released by the White Sox in June. His (largely positive) relationship with the fans. The intensity of the Philadelphia fan, wherever he or she is encountered. The cool autumn school day in 2008 when the park was stuffed with World Series celebrants, on the field and in the stands, and Chase Utley took the microphone and said, “World f------ champions!” “I was sitting behind him and I just popped,” Howard said. That is, cracked up laughing. Good times—no, the moment of a baseball lifetime, really.
Ten summers ago, on June 6, 2006, with the Phillies playing the Yankees at home, Howard hit a Mike Mussina fastball that finished in the first row of the ballpark’s third deck. Had it landed back at sea level, it might have been a 450-foot blast, or longer. Instead, it finished at Seat 8. Joseph has watched the home run repeatedly. The seat used to be marked by an H, but it has disappeared over the years. There was a kid sitting in the seat the other day, Mike Fisch, a junior at Temple who came with a buddy and bought $7 seats off scalpers; they had the section pretty much to themselves. He remembered the homer. He was a kid then. The Phillies were good and getting better. Their cleanup hitter was, too.
Howard was asked if he ever had gone up to Section 304, Row 1, Seat 8.
“I did,” he said. “One time.”
Looking at home plate from there, what did you think?
“I thought, 'Man, that’s far.’”