There were two reasons why the Phillies committed $125,000,000 to Ryan Howard at the age of 30. One was that he’d just produced 45 home runs and 141 RBIs for a pennant-winning team. The other, the most important one, the one that made it all reasonable despite all the zeroes and commas, was that no matter what would happen from there, he could be trusted as a franchise ally.
Once so enriched, Howard might have continued along on his Hall of Fame candidacy. Or he could have settled in as a mid-30s player still able to win an occasional All-Star vote. Or he could have gotten old. But whatever would happen, the Phillies were doing the proper thing for a home-grown, championship-producing, fan-favorite franchise legend.
Then, Howard tore his Achilles.
Then, he ripped his knee.Then, he became so unable to hit left-handed pitching that it was becoming cruel for a manager to continue to expose him to the professional torment.
Given nature, much of that was expected. Howard was not going to lead the National League in RBIs into perpetuity. But he deserved the cash, and the Phillies deserved the inner peace of giving him what he’d earned. And that’s why it’s Howard’s turn to return some of that responsibility and to be that ally that was in the original budget. Trouble is, one day into spring training, he has already missed his first chance.
Aware that Pete Mackanin has said he would use Darin Ruf at first base until Howard showed again that he could not embarrass himself against left-handers, the one-time Big Piece settled into Clearwater the other day and began to make faces.
“Do I think it is fair?” he said, of Mackanin’s plan, at a spring training news conference. “Me? Personally? Probably not. But it is what it is. The situation is the situation. You just go out there and play.” He would add, “Check the track record.”
He had 100 at-bats against left-handed pitchers last season and generated 13 hits, striking out 40 times, muscling three home runs. Ruf had 97 at-bats against lefties, hit .371, provided eight home runs and whiffed 18 times. So that’s the track record. And because it is, the only unfair situation is that Howard is trying to complicate Mackanin’s job, which is to allow the Phillies to grow while, maybe, sneaking into the second half of the season just close enough to wild-card consideration that it dissuades the fans from trampling one another as they race out of Citizens Bank Park.
Howard is 36. He has been in more operating rooms than big games in recent years. And left-handed pitchers have to suppress laughter whenever they look at him from a distance of 60 feet, six inches.
That means Mackanin is not wrong. Could the manager have been a little more tactful? Definitely. When he was asked about Howard before bolting for Florida, he could have mentioned that the first baseman led the Phillies with 23 home runs and 77 RBIs last season, and that the organization will never doubt his ability to hit for power. If he wanted to mumble “against right-handers” under his breath, well, that would have been OK, too. Somehow, though, Howard had come to feel less than respected.
“With everything that I’ve done here in Philadelphia, I just felt I was being portrayed as something worse,” he told reporters. “To be honest with you guys, I felt like I was being portrayed as the bad guy. That’s why I didn’t talk to you all of last year. I didn’t have a problem at all with my teammates.”
The outburst was odd, for one major reason. He talked. Maybe he talked less frequently later in that 99-loss, two-manager season. If so, it was because he was playing less, and so the baseball writers were showing him the respect of not bugging him for comments.
Ryan Howard can boycott the media, embrace it, do a little of both. But he is going to collect the final $35 million that he’s owed from the Phillies’ good-faith 2010 armored-car dump, either in a lump sum soon, or in $25 million this season followed by a $10 million buyout. And because the Phils never badgered him about his dramatic drop-off of production, but rather asked him only to remain a popular franchise figure and an occasional power threat, it’s his turn to show that the nine-figure contract was for more than just that remaining ability to squeeze-out 27 homers.
The Phillies are young and vibrant. When assembled recently for photos and intros at Citizens Bank Park, the next group of stars, to a man, seemed happy and optimistic and thankful for a chance to grow into a championship group, the way Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz once had the opportunity to do.
Howard can assist in that process. He can be that ally the Phillies had expected. He can accept Mackanin’s platoon, at least out loud. He can remove some pressure from the young players by being the media’s go-to senior in-house expert. He can spend more time in the cage and less time in front of his locker deep in thought. He can even prove that he does have plenty left, and he might. If so, he can be more than a mentor to younger players. He can be a force in the batting order. That is unlikely. But if he can go from 27 homers to 30 …
“I know what I need to go out and do,” he said. “Pete is the manager. And he has to do what he has to do for the team. I can only go out there and do what I can, and that is taking advantage of the opportunity that I get to go out there and play.”
At the end of a grand career, that’s a start.
At the end of a $125,000,000 agreement, that’s a must.
To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery