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The Long Ascent of Ryan Howard

3 October 06
by Austin Kelley

Howard spent some time in Scranton/Wilkes Barre

In 1996, I watched a promising young outfielder play single-A ball for the Durham Bulls. A native of Curaçao, Andruw Jones had just turned nineteen years old and was the talk of the Tobacco Belt. He hit .313 with 17 homeruns and 43 RBI in only 66 games with the Bulls. Jones had preternatural instincts in the field, a strong arm, and a taste for the theatrical. He liked to catch the ball at waist level, as if he were tempting the ground to take it away. Hopeful fans compared him to Willie Mays.

But in Durham we didn’t see Jones long. Just when we figured out how to spell “Andruw,” he was gone. He played thirty-eight games with the class-AA Greenville Braves (.368, 12, 37), then 12 games with the AAA Richmond Braves (.378, 5, 12). Then Jones landed in the big leagues. In the spring I had seen him shagging fly balls in Durham’s tiny ballpark. By fall he was belting the ball out of Yankees Stadium in the World Series. He started all six games for the defending champion Atlanta Braves. I hate the Braves, but I pulled for Jones because he seemed like our local hero. He hit two homers in his first two World Series at-bats. He batted .400, and drove in 6 runs.

There are a lot of ways to make a great ballplayer. My favorite young slugger these days, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, shares some of Andruw Jones’s qualities. They both have pudgy cheeks and droopy eyes. They both wear baggy uniforms in the tradition of the Babe, and they can both hit homeruns. But if Jones’s progress through the minors was meteoric, Howard’s rise has been the opposite. Consider this: Howard is two months older than Albert Pujols. Pujols won the National League Rookie of the Year award four years before Howard won it.

In this way, Howard is a rare star in today’s majors. Pujols was 21 when he debuted in the bigs. Vladimir Guerrero was 20. Howard was just shy of 25, and it wasn’t until this year, at 26, that he became an everyday player. And some player! He led the league in homeruns with 58 and in RBI with 149. In OPS (a statistic that measures your ability to get on base and hit for power), he was second only to Pujols.

For Phillies fans, this long gestation period, followed by this explosive ability, is a cause for celebration and, like all things in Philly sports, for venom. “Why did the organization sit on this kid for so many years?” fans ask. “Why did they pay free agent Jim Thome so much money to play first base when they had a phenom waiting in the wings?” “Why can’t the Phillies make the playoffs for Christ sakes?”

I sympathize with this frustration, and have no answers to these questions. But I still find something uplifting in the Ryan Howard story. There are a lot of ways in which he allows us to resort to baseball sentimentalism. He is huge – 6’4”, maybe 250 pounds – but he has an eager boyish smile and a quiet, open demeanor. He grew up in a nice, middle-class family in St. Louis, played trombone in his high school band, and walked onto the baseball team in college. Howard makes time for reporters and fans, and when he’s not praising his teammates, he seems genuinely surprised and touched by his own success. Unpretentious, he drives a GMC Denali with 106,000 miles on it.

Howard’s squeaky clean image has prompted journalists to shower him in clichéd praise (Jon Miller, the voice of the Giants, called him “a breath of fresh air in the game.”) And fans have seized on him as the first great slugger of the “post-steroids era.” Roger Maris’s son even said that the Maris family would celebrate Howard as the “true” single-season record-holder if he ever hits 62 homers (Maris hit 61 in 1961, and only controversial sluggers McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds have hit more).

I don’t care too much if Howard is “Mr. Clean,” but I do care that he seems human — perhaps a somewhat oversized human — but human nonetheless. This impression stems, in part, from his long trudge through the minors. Not many of us are prodigies. When we encounter teenage superstars, it is exciting, but there is something alien about them. They seem like they belong to a different species entirely. When Andruw Jones came to Durham, we knew he’d be gone in a flash. His precocious talent was a barrier between us and him.

Howard, by contrast, progressed slowly from a good player to a great one. He spent some time playing for the Batavia Muckdogs in upstate New York and the Lakewood Blueclaws near the Jersey shore. Then, he did stints in Clearwater, Scranton, and Reading. I’m sure there were times when thought he would never make it to the big leagues. I imagine he put in his time at IHOP. I bet he knows his scrapple.

I know my scrapple too. I spent my early twenties drifting in and out of graduate school, not sure I’d make it. I’m just like Ryan Howard, except I can’t hit to the opposite field.

I was at Citizen Bank Park the night Howard hit his 58th homer of the year. It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen at a Phillies game. When Howard came to bat, we all waved the free Phillies tea towels we were given at the door and shouted, “M.V.P. M.V.P.” Howard scooped a breaking ball off the ground, and it easily cleared the wall in left center field. A collective joy poured through the stadium. We had all made it… at last.