Tuesday, April 25, 2006

An ice cream vendor came about with a souvenir at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday, April 23, following a mammoth 496-foot Ryan Howard homerun, and one could see from the reactions of Howard, his teammates, and more importantly the fans, that this is the Ryan Howard we will grow old with. The other 364 feet of the 860 total homerun footage on Sunday was typical Ryan Howard -- a laser-beam to the opposite field that plated two runs. Not surprisingly, Howard owns the record for the longest homerun hit at Citizens Bank Park since its inception in April of 2004, and he may also hold the record for clutch hits in a Phillies uniform -- they are few and far between with others, but plentiful with the 2005 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner -- the fourth Phillie to receive such an honor, joining Scott Rolen, Dick Allen, and Jack Sanford, and doing so with a .288 batting average, 22 HR, and 63 RBI.

Called up on July 2, 2005 to fill in for what seemed to be the irreparable back of Jim Thome, Howard needed only eight days to settle in. On July 10, Howard hit an eighth inning two-run homerun to tie the game at 4 apiece at home against the Washington Nationals. Nine days later, Howard hit a two-run, walk-off homerun in the bottom of the tenth inning to give the Phillies a 5-4 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Richie Ashburn
"His Whiteness" -- Richie Ashburn

Not about to let the Philly phaithful forget about His Clutchness (a knock-off of Richie Ashburn's nickname, "His Whiteness"), Howard broke a 5-5 tie in Los Angeles on August 10 with a grand slam. Three days later, he hit a ninth-inning tie-breaking RBI single, leading the Phillies to a 5-2 victory over the Padres in San Diego. And then he entered postseason mode. As the Phillies were flailing relentlessly at their first playoff berth since 1993, Howard hit 11 homeruns and drove in 27 runs in the month of September (and the two October games, as well). His performance was highlighted on September 21, when, in the tenth inning in Atlanta, Howard hit a game-winning grand slam to break a 6-6 tie.

With his 2005 campaign behind him, and his Rookie of the Year award shelved, Howard has not relented, as he hit another walk-off against the Washington Nationals on April 20, 2006 at Citizens Bank Park.

Despite all of the memories the Southwest Missouri State University graduate has given us in the last ten months, Howard still brings uncertainties to the Phillies. Only one of his 29 career homeruns have come off of a left-handed pitcher (surprise -- it was a grand slam). Even worse is his paltry .174 batting average against southpaws as compared to .330 against right-handers. To boot, he strikes out nine times as much against lefties as he walks. However, it's not as if strikeouts are a foreign concept to Howard if the pitching hand is switched from left to right: 126 of his 413 at-bats as a Phillie resulted in strike three.

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard

The twenty-six year-old first baseman filled in impeccably for Jim Thome in the latter half of 2005, and Howard will continue to march in his footsteps until his production does, in fact, supersede that of Thome's. Phillies general manager Pat Gillick was lauded for executing a trade with the Chicago White Sox that, for the Phillies, killed three birds with one stone: cleared up first base for Howard and subsequently unloaded Thome and his cap-burdening salary; secured the centerfield position with an everyday player in Aaron Rowand; and restocked the farm system with some much-needed left-handed pitching in Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood. However, the praise from Phillies phans and the media turned to scorn right out of the gate in April, when the regular season started. Jim Thome hit two homeruns and drove in three in his first two games in a White Sox uniform, then hit homeruns in four consecutive games from April 9-13. Morever, Thome set a record by scoring at least one run in 17 consecutive games from April 2-22.

"Incontrovertible truth that the trade was a huge mistake," one Phillies fan remarked, having seen Thome's fast start to the 2006 season, and Howard's slow start. Despite the fact that he was hitting well over .300, Howard's only homerun and subsequent RBI in the Phillies' first eleven games came in an opening day blowout defeat to the St. Louis Cardinals -- slow by a power hitter's standards. The comparisons between the two first basemen are incessant almost as much as the "bad trade" remarks. Thome has nine homeruns to Howard's five, and twenty RBI to Howard's ten. Thome is a designated hitter, and therefore will have more energy later in the season than Howard, who plays first base. Thome bats third in the Chicago lineup, protected by Paul Konerko, who is hitting .347; Howard bats sixth in the Philadelphia lineup, protected by David Bell, who is hitting .218.

Charlie Manuel
Charlie Manuel

As much as it doesn't seem like it, Howard is still a burgeoning sophomore, with an upside that brings with it almost as many questions. Will Howard even have the opportunity to flourish batting sixth in the lineup, protected by a hitter barely over the Mendoza line? Due to that, will he ever see a fastball in the strike zone? Will manager Charlie Manuel let Howard take his lumps as he learns to hit left-handed pitching in the Major Leagues? What if Howard doesn't pan out the way he was supposed to, like so many of the other products of the Phillies farm system?

As the old adage goes, only time will tell. The Phillies organization needs to -- and has to -- show patience with Howard if he struggles this season as the reigning National League Rookie of the Year. The Phillies certainly haven't put all of their eggs in one basket, but they are undoubtedly banking on Howard's success in the future; his success or failure will determine how Gillick forms his 2007-2008 teams. Here's hoping the 6'4" 260-pound left-hander's potential comes to fruition.